Pussy Riot's protests threaten more than just the Putin regime

The treatment of Pussy Riot says much about the close relationship between Church and Kremlin in Putin's Russia.

The arrest and prosecution of three members of the Russian female punk collective Pussy Riot looks to many foreign observers as a purely political event, and one that reveals the increasing authoritarianism and intolerance of the Putin government. 

Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda (Nadia) Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samutsevitch were arrested in March after footage of Pussy Riot protesing at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was posted on YouTube. On 21 February the group had invaded the cathedral's sanctuary (an area normally off-limits to worshippers) and sung a satirical "prayer" to rid Russia of Vladimir Putin, who was then seeking re-election. The performance lasted under a minute. The three women, all of whom are in their twenties and two of whom have young children, have been in prison ever since, forbidden even from seeing their partners. Their trial began yesterday, when once again they were denied bail. They face up to seven years in jail if convicted, and acquittals in Russia are rare.

Pussy Riot's cathedral stunt was one of several public protests the group staged against Putin in the run-up to this year's presidential election, and their treatment fits a pattern of official clampdowns on consent. In June, for example, Putin signed into law new and stronger penalties for public order offences that many saw as aimed at frustrating peaceful and legitimate political protest. There's little faith, either inside or outside Russia, in the independence of the judiciary. The arrest and unusually harsh treatment of the three women, many believe, must have been ordered from the very top and thus reflect the personal vindictiveness of the president who was, after all, the target of the protest.

But the case also throws a spotlight on the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and especially its head, Patriarch Kirill. According to Peter Verzilov, husband of one of the imprisoned women, it was only after the Patriarch saw the video that any move was made to identify and arrest the women involved.  Originally, the police had taken no action, but on seeing the footage the patriarch had personally contacted both Putin and the head of the Moscow police. 

Kirill has certainly been vocal in his condemnation of Pussy Riot, describing the group's action as "blasphemy" and telling a rally in April that the church was "under attack by persecutors". He objected strongly to "derision of the sacred" being "put forth as a lawful expression of human freedom which must be protected in a modern society." The church leadership has demanded that the three women be punished severely for their act of desecration.

Western reporting has downplayed the sacrilegious nature of the women's performance, seeing it primarily as a political stunt. Perhaps it was. But it was also genuinely shocking in a religious culture that still retains (unlike much Western Christianity) a sense of the numinous and of sacred space. Russian Orthodoxy is a religion rooted in experience rather than doctrine. Its founding myth concerns a delegation sent by Prince Vladimir of Kiev to Constantinople which returned awestruck by the beauties of the Byzantine church: "We knew not whether we were on earth or in heaven." Ever since, Russian Orthodox churches and services, with their icons, clouds of incense and intense, deep-voiced choruses, have represented an attempt to recreate heaven on earth.

Kirill's spokesman, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, has compared Pussy Riot's action and its effect on believers to the burning of the Koran and said that he was "deeply concerned about the future of any society in which extremely divisive actions are ignored." 

Not all the Russian Orthodox faithful agree. Many have protested against the harshness of the church's official position - one seemingly uninformed by Christian ideals of forgiveness and turning the other cheek - and called for the women's release. It's no doubt convenient for Putin to leave it to the church hierarchy to condemn the protests. By ensuring that the women are treated harshly he is not merely reinforcing the message that no dissent is to be tolerated but also burnishing his neo-Tsarist credentials as defender of Orthodoxy.

When he was elected in 2009, Kirill was initially seen as a more moderate figure than his predecessor Alexy II, a former KGB agent whose strident nationalism had, on occasion, embarrassed even Putin. But he has been both politically and personally close to the president. He is often seen at the president's side, sometimes sporting an expensive-looking watch, while for his part Putin (oddly, perhaps, for an ex-KGB man) has regularly been photographed taking part in religious ceremonies. In the run-up to this year's election Kirill even praised Putin as "a miracle from God",  sent to deliver Russia from the "horrible, systemic crisis" of the Yeltsin years.

I can't imagine any British prime minister getting such an endorsement from any Archbishop of Canterbury. But then the Russian Orthodox Church is not the Church of England. In Tsarist times, it was the sacred embodiment of the state, completely subordinated to the ruling dynasty. Even under a Communist regime that, at its height, bulldozed churches or turned them into Museums of Atheist Thought, the leadership of the Orthodox Church remained politically docile. A former dissident priest, Gleb Yakunin - who spent five years in a detention camp and was later elected to Parliament - was shocked by the extent of church-state collaboration when he gained access to the archives in the late 1990s.  The church, he concluded, had been "practically a subsidiary of the KGB".

Nevertheless, the end of communism marked the political rehabilitation of the Orthodox church and has seen it steadily grow in influence - a change symbolised by the rebuilding of Christ the Saviour which had been bulldozed by Stalin to make way for a swimming pool. This is partly why Pussy Riot's protest caused such a scandal: it was aimed not just at the authoritarianism of the Putin regime but at the privileges that the church has enjoyed for giving it unquestioning religious and moral legitimacy.

 

Nadia Tolokonnikova inside a defendants' cage in court. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times