Pussy Riot, Putin’s Russia and the Orthodox Church

Was punk band Pussy Riot’s anti-Putin performance in a Moscow church ‘religious hatred hooliganism’ or an artistic form of political dissent? Olga Shvarova considers the case.

On 21 February 2012, the all-female punk group Pussy Riot performed a song in front of the altar at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. The song was inspired by a prayer to the Holy Virgin and asked for Putin’s removal from office with the aid of divine power. In March, three members of the band were arrested on charges of “hooliganism on the grounds of religious hatred”, detained without trial, and now face up to seven years in prison. The band members were presented with formal charges in July 2012, and their pre-trial detention was extended by six months. All three women were recognised as political prisoners by Amnesty International.

Public opinion in Russia was divided over this case. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill condemned the band for blasphemy, and polls show that 42% of Muscovites agreed with him. Many others considered the offence minor and the actions of authorities excessive and arbitrary. An open letter calling for the immediate release of three Pussy Riot members was signed by a diverse range of Russian elites including supporters of Putin and members of the political opposition. In August 2012 the three band members were sentenced to two years in jail.

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Comments (8)

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  1. The prosecution insists that the case is not political and demands 3 years of penal colony for Pussy Riot. The final hearing is scheduled next week, on 17th August.

  2. Today Pussy Riot band members, Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, and sentenced to 2 years of penal colony. The were pro-Pussy Riot demonstrations in Moscow, Kiev, Paris, Belgrade, Berlin, Sofia, London, Dublin and Barcelona. The band had vocal support from politicians and celebrities, including Madonna and Paul McCartney, who spoken in defense of the principles of free speech. The critics of the band were also demonstrating in Moscow. One of them was quoted on the BBC News website, saying: “Shouting and screaming and spreading hate in Church is unacceptable and is contrary with Christian ethics.”

  3. I am struggling to find a sense in this article that a church is anything different to the road outside. The prison sentence was of course too harsh but would the author agree that the action of Pussy Riot was nevertheless, at minimum, anti-social behaviour or hooliganism? It is easy for celebrities to champion the band now that they have received an exaggerated sentence but what is the correct state response? Or are we just happy with the age of freedom also being an age of religious desecration?

    • I would disagree that Pussy Riot’s intention was to desecrate the Russian Orthodox religion itself. Rather, it was a criticism of the Church being intertwined with the state, and commanding a power which, in the age of freedom, is unfounded. However, I agree that the actions of Pussy Riot could be classified as ‘anti-social behaviour’; in any case their sentence was too harsh, and at most warranted a fine.

    • I apologise for my naivety but when exactly did this “age of freedom” begin? Who exactly is free and to what extent? Seems like the majority are in the same position as ever, with cash replacing food and keep, unemployment and starvation replacing the whip.

  4. I am a lobbyist/campaigner for a number of NGOs and activist organisations; one of which being Amnesty International UK. Amnesty has, at least in my humble opinion made a disproportional campaign effort regarding this campaign. However many such campaigns are disproportional, and from a number of organisations; particularly since 9/11 with these campaigns being fought one government against another in a tit for tat manner. Human rights campaigns are being used by state actors with surreptitious agendas as propaganda. The US and UK are highlighting the wrongdoing of: Russia, China, Iran and South American countries with governments with a socialist bias; whilst openly violating human rights themselves. Russia, China and Iran violate human rights and campaign against western counties; playing the same role in reverse. I believe these interrelationships between counties are very complex and in many instances there are ‘friend-enemies’ even where there is actual conflict. I don’t believe the “Pussy Riot” issue or human rights campaign has any real intrinsic value; those involved are puppets in a far bigger game they do not understand or even know of.

  5. I agree with Malcolm that as far as the politics is concerned, the Pussy Riot case is just a tip of the iceberg and we may never find out about the real actors of that “big game”, or the real motives (although the Russian press did make an attempt). However, the case is significant by itself. It is probably the first time when the government openly supported the church and refused to consider the case as simple hooliganism, and the church reciprocated by banning anyone, its own members of the clergy included, who was showing any sympathy for the girls. In a way it shook the very principles of a secular state allowing the judge to base the charges on the references to the Ecumenical Councils and church practice, and to use deliberately “parochial” church language in order to explain the gravity of the crime. At the end of the day, the church won the game and among the most important results were the amendments to the Law on Education (which included mandatory teaching of religion and possibility for collective worship at state schools), and to the Criminal Code which introduced long prison sentences for blasphemy and desecration of the places of worship (although the last ones are still under consideration).

    • I cannot agree more with Malcom about the existence of a boomerang relationship between Russia and the West, which was demonstrated very clearly by Russia’s response to “Magnitsky list”. But I also think that the Pussy Riot campaign had very significant implications, not only in political sense but in creating the adverse atmosphere for freedom of expression in the country in general. The long-term effects of the case could be unfavourable to the freedom of expression in cases when the expressed opinion may be interpreted as blasphemy. I expressed my point of view in detail it in the team blog – it would be most interesting to have your comments on it: http://freespeechdebate.com/en/2012/09/russias-convergence-of-church-and-state/

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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