Russia’s convergence of church and state

Olga Shvarova argues that Russian officials used the Orthodox Church as a political pawn to reinforce their own power during the Pussy Riot trial.

Although there are many fabricated court cases in Russia, the Pussy Riot trial stands out for the involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church, which lent its voice to support the state prosecution. Principles of religious morality were cited against Pussy Riot in court, and in one poll, as many as 42% of the population agreed that the band members’ behaviour was contrary to Orthodox ethics and must be punished. I wonder if this percentage would be quite so high if the church had not condemned the performance. Pussy Riot performed similar acts in different places, including a cathedral, and nobody stopped them. It was the addition of Putin’s name to the “punk prayer” and the performance’s subsequent viral spread online that brought about the band’s arrest. But more substantial reasons were necessary to justify the prosecution, highlighting the special relationship between the Church and the Kremlin.

The Russian Orthodox Church was permitted a carefully controlled existence when the Soviet Union was officially an atheistic state and hostile to religion. This tolerance was granted for the promise of vassal service. In recent years, the Church, formally independent, has in reality fulfilled the function of a state department. This role was evident when Vsevolod Chaplin, head of PR for the Church, made an official statement calling the transfer from Medvedev back to Putin as president in 2011 “an example of moral behaviour in politics”. Still, it would be erroneous to think that the Church is affecting or trying to affect the Kremlin through moral principles. It is the government that is using the Church and its moral stand to achieve its own ends, and the aim of the government is to retain power. The Church does not object to being used because in return it receives not only government grants but also political privileges.

The state established “moral standards” for Pussy Riot, and the Church obediently endorsed them. As a result, some Orthodox groups officially demanded strong punishment for the performance they considered blasphemous and disrespectful while many ordinary priests commented in their blogs and to their congregations on the Christian virtue of forgiveness. Despite asking the court for mercy on behalf of Pussy Riot and calling for clemency after the trial, the Church insists that the performance was damaging to Orthodox values and that authorities should suppress such acts in the future. As a result, any active citizen with a dissenting opinion and a loud voice now faces not only bogus trials but also prosecution in the name of morality.

It is quite wrong, I believe, to think that the Pussy Riot trial was merely an attack on political opposition. Free speech is the foremost civil freedom and one of the factors that distinguishes a liberal democratic state from a totalitarian one. The absence of free speech in Stalinist Russia was well known, manifested through state-conducted dissident trials. People in modern Russia know and disapprove of such practices, but the unquestioned and absolute domination of the state over its citizens remains a reality because the same people remain in power. The methods, the terminology, the style of recent trials in Moscow where the defence is ignored and the experts’ opinions selected according to the wishes of a clearly biased judge belong to the KGB (now the FSB), president Putin’s former employer, which has enjoyed unparalleled impunity and unparalleled power since its creation.

The Pussy Riot case was exemplary and educational. The Church and the Kremlin acted as a united political force in this trial but the Kremlin’s real concern was, I think, post-election political conflict. The Kremlin persevered with the trial despite being openly criticised. Why was a verdict more important for them than Russia’s international image, its credibility and its reputation? An obvious answer is that this government wants to stay in power. I think the Church’s support will make this easier, giving the Kremlin a chance to concentrate on their primary target group – a new urban generation.

Russia’s population is not homogenous. There is a divide between major cities and the rest of the country. Provincial Russia is in deep economic crisis. Life there is hard and people rely on traditional values and religion. This segment of Russian society considered Pussy Riot’s performance an assault on national identity, national pride and moral values. The Church increased the unwillingness of provincial Russia to even consider the value of free speech. I believe the Pussy Riot trial was used to reinforce the “strong hand” of the state among this group.

Urban Russia on the other hand is liberal, western-oriented and secular meaning the Church has significantly less influence. Pussy Riot’s trial was aimed at the new generation of urban Russians who represent a distinctly un-Soviet mentality and who are prepared to defend their free speech rights. These “state-independent” citizens have learned about dissent, and although their numbers and their social power are still limited, the establishment has reason to be fearful. The Pussy Riot trial was made cruelly absurd to show this new generation their impotence in front of the state’s oppressive mechanism, that even artists do not have the right to question the state’s actions. The lawlessness was demonstrative – it is impossible to fight back, to stand up for justice or to oppose the state. The message for dissenting Russians is loud and clear – under this government only the “state-controlled” opposition will be permitted.

The Pussy Riot trial is part of a consistent long-term policy of power consolidation, as were the rigged elections and anti-demonstration laws. In my opinion, Pussy Riot deserved neither the sentence they received nor the international attention they garnered. Their significance was chosen by authorities who used the situation to show Russians their collective powerlessness. The regime is making another advance in its encroachment on the right to free speech – and we will pay with our freedoms.

Olga Shvarova is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Materials at Oxford University and a freelance writer, translator and photographer in Russia.

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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.

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