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
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Manchester united: "A minority of absolute idiots are trying to break us apart"

At the vigil, one man's T-shirt read: "The only thing that's allowed to be separated by colour is the laundry."

A day after one of the worst atrocities in the history of the city, Manchester's people were keen to show the world the resilience of the Mancunian spirit.

Dom's, an Italian restaurant, is in walking distance from Manchester Arena, where 22 people lost their lives to a suicide bomber the night before. On Tuesday, the staff were giving out free coffee, tea and pizza to anyone who needed it. On a table outside, there was a condolences book, and teary passersby left RIP messages to those who perished. Under a bright blue sky, the community seemed more united than ever, the goodwill pouring out of everyone I met. But the general mood was sombre. 

"We need to make space for healing and for building up our community again, and just getting people to feel comfortable in their own city," the Dean of Manchester, Rogers Govendor, told me.

The terrorist has been named as Salman Ramadan Abedi, a 22-year-old Mancunian of Libyan descent. But with a population of 600,000, Manchester is a cosmopolitan hub, and proud of it. Throughout the day I encountered people of all skin shades and religions. On one of the roads off Albert Square, a couple of Orthodox Jewish boys set up a little stand, where people could grab a bottle of water and, if they so desired, hold hands and pray.

On the night of the tragedy, Muslim and Sikh cab drivers turned off the meter and made their way to Manchester Arena to offer free rides to anyone - many of them injured - who trying to escape the mayhem and reach safety. "It's what we do around here," my taxi driver said with a thick Arabic accent.

The dissonance between the increasingly frantic debate on social media and what was discussed on the streets was stark. I spoke, on and off the record, with about two dozen residents, eavesdropped on a number of conversations, and not once did I hear anyone speaking out against the cultural melting pot that Manchester is today. If anything, people were more eager than ever to highlight it. 

"Manchester has always been hugely multicultural, and people always pull together at times of trouble and need," said Andrew Hicklin. "They are not going to change our society and who we are as people. We live free lives."

It was also a day where political divisions were put aside. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn agreed to suspend their campaigns. For the next few days there will be no Labour vs Tory, no Brexiteer vs Remainer, at least not in this part of the country. This city has closed ranks and nothing will be allowed to come between that cohesion.

"I don't demonise anyone," said Dennis Bolster, who stopped by to sign the condolences book outside Dom's. "I just know a small minority of absolute idiots, driven by whatever they think they are driven by, are the people who are trying to break us apart."

Later in the day, as people were getting off work, thousands flocked to Albert Square to show their respects to the victims. Members of the Sikh community entered the square carrying "I love MCR" signs. The crowd promptly applauded. A middle-aged man wore a T-shirt which said: "The only thing that's allowed to be separated by colour is the laundry." A moment of silent was observed. It was eerie, at times overwhelmingly sad. But it was also moving and inspiring.

Local poet Tony Walsh brought brief respite from the pain when he recited "This is the Place", his ode to the city and its people. The first verse went:

This is the place In the north-west of England. It’s ace, it’s the best

And the songs that we sing from the stands, from our bands

Set the whole planet shaking.

Our inventions are legends. There’s nowt we can’t make, and so we make brilliant music

We make brilliant bands

We make goals that make souls leap from seats in the stands

On stage, everyday political foes became temporary allies. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, home secretary Amber Rudd, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and house speaker John Bercow all brushed shoulders. Their message was clear: "we are Manchester too."

The vigil lasted a little over half an hour. On other occasions, a crowd this size in the centre of Manchester would give authorities reason for concern. But not this time. Everyone was in their best behaviour. Only a few were drinking. 

As Mancunians made their way home, I went over to a family that had been standing not far from me during the vigil. The two children, a boy and a girl, both not older than 10, were clutching their parents' hands the whole time. I asked dad if he will give them a few extra hugs and kisses as he tucks them in tonight. "Oh, absolutely," he said. "Some parents whose children went to the concert last night won't ever get to do that again. It's heartbreaking."

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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