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Home | Case studies | Pussy Riot, Putin’s Russia and the Orthodox Church

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.

Pussy Riot
Seven members of the punk band Pussy Riot wearing their trademark balaclavas (Photo by Игорь Мухин under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike licence).

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.

Author opinion

Just as Igor Sutyagin was sent to a penal colony for 15 years for a crime he did not commit, these women have not committed the crimes they are accused of. The lyrics of their song expressed no religious hatred, or hatred towards any religious group. Their performance was an artistic form of political dissent and should not have been considered a criminal offence in a democratic society. Some Muscovites found Pussy Riot’s performance very upsetting and said it constituted antisocial behaviour, which can be punishable by fine and/or detention of up to 15 days. Unfortunately for the band members, the government also took offence. I suspect if the subject of their song was, say, the leader of the opposition, Pussy Riot would have been charged with a fine and sent home within 24 hours.

There is another aspect to Pussy Riot’s case worth mentioning here. The Russian Orthodox Church seemed to endorse the government’s infringement of free speech and severe punishment for the band’s performance, which in effect was a political statement, offensive not to the Church but to the head of state. There was a blasphemous phrase in the lyrics of the song concerning God, a vulgar swear word, but one that is commonly used in everyday speech. The Church’s attempt to invoke blasphemy in this case looks more like support for the head of state than a response to any actual offence to religion.

- Olga Shvarova
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Published on: August 9, 2012 | 9 Comments

Comments (9)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. olgashvarova says:

    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. olgashvarova says:

    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?

    • HNguyen says:

      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.

    • Sky Talker says:

      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. olgashvarova says:

    I do not think that Pussy Riot intended to desecrate the cathedral or offend the believers, the message of the song was political and no «hate speech» towards the Church, the religion or the believers was found in the lyrics by two independent linguistic experts, consulted during the trial. There are no laws in Russia that punish dancing while performing a prayer or bringing musical instruments in a church, or forbid using blasphemous swear words. I agree with the sentiment that the performance could be offensive to people who were in the cathedral at the time, as, I assume, it caused some disruption, so their action could be called an antisocial behaviour. In Russia such offences are considered administrative, not criminal, and punished by issuing a fine, which, in my opinion, would have been the correct state response.

  5. Malcolm Bush says:

    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.

  6. alevitsky says:

    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).

    • olgashvarova says:

      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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