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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Let's talk about Daniel Hannan, Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler

The downside of Godwin's Law.

One of the enduring mysteries about Daniel Hannan is why he deletes so many of his tweets. The other is why, when he deletes so many, he leaves so many other absolutely clunkingly braindead observations on the internet for all to see. It's like he isn't ashamed of them. It's like he doesn't even know.

Anyway – one advantage of these lapses in Hannan's online hygiene is that it allows me to find out about particular highlights weeks after the event. So it was that Twitter user @eurosluggard tipped me off to this absolute gem from 31 January.

It's worth actually expanding every individual image there, just so we can really revel in the fact that Hannan chose to tweet so many lovely memes showing senior politicians as Nazis. (I'd embed the tweet, but I’m frightened the bugger would delete it.)

And, my personal favourite:

This is quite ludicrous enough in itself. That both the left, and online debate in general, are a bit quick to call people Nazis is not in dispute (Godwin coined his Law for a reason). That Daniel Hannan chose to highlight this by tweeting a picture showing the man who led his party for 11 years dressed as a Nazi is, nonetheless, objectively hilarious, and not in the way he presumably intended.

However – to really understand the full insanity of this tweet you have to scroll back a bit. Here's the tweet that kicked the whole thing off:

Which is some rather spectacular point-missing in action. Nobody, best I can tell, is talking about banning President Trump from the UK altogether (in stark contrast to his administration's policies, which genuinely would ban certain countries' citizens from the US). The argument was actually about whether he should get a full state visit with all the bells and whistles and posh dinners and the Queen.

Declining to lay out the red carpet for someone is not the same as preventing their visit altogether. This is the same sleight of hand that happens when the Brendan O’Neills of this world conflate "no platform-ing" with "the erosion of free speech". Nobody has so far offered me a $250,000 book deal, but sadly, I don't think this is because I am being deliberately censored.

Whether Hannan is being consciously duplicitous, or is merely a bit thick, is, as ever, an open question. At any rate, other Twitter users decided to point out that he was being a little bit cheeky.

 

And that's where we came in:

There's another sleight of hand here – another elision between two related, but distinct, concepts. Can you see it?

It's this: he's leapt from gerenic accusations of fascism to the specific one that Donald Trump is like Hitler. But Hitler wasn't the entirety of Nazism, which was in turn only one form of fascism. Something can be fascistic without necessarily looking anything like Naziism.

Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler. But some of his policies, and much of his rhetoric – the rallies, the demonisation of outsiders, the attacks on the media, the swing to protectionism, "Make America Great Again" – contain enough echoes of fascism to, at the very least, make "Is Donald Trump a facist?" a question worth discussing.

Consequently it’s being discussed, rather a lot, by the American media. Hannan’s tweet implies that it is only silly hysterical lefties that could possibly be concerned with such matters.

There's another elision at work in Hannan's tweet. Comparisons between Barack Obama and Adolf Hitler are quite obviously ridiculous. So are those involving Mitt Romney, and John McCain, and David Cameron: none of them was a fascist, or anything like.

Donald Trump, though, might be. By placing him in that company, Daniel Hannan is implying that he is just another centre-right politician, being unfairly demonised by the left. He isn't.

I don't believe for a moment he's done this deliberately: Daniel Hannan is many things, but a fascist he is not. But in his heartfelt belief that everything must be the fault of the left, he's ended up implying that all liberal criticism of Donald Trump as an extremist is illegitimate.

There is a real downside to the tendency for online political debate to leap to words like fascist, as expressed in Godwin's Law: it deprives us of the language to describe the rise to power of something that genuinely looks like right-wing extremism. But just because we often cry wolf, that doesn't mean there's never a wolf at the door.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.