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     Aug 23, 2012

Pussy Riot divides Russian society
By Mikhail A Molchanov

The Moscow court's August 17 decision to sentence three members of the Russian punk-rock group Pussy Riot to two years in prison for an anti-Putin "punk prayer" in Moscow's main cathedral caused little sensation in Russia.

In light of President Vladimir Putin's recent tongue-in-cheek appeal "not to judge them too harshly" and the Russian Orthodox Church refusal to forgive the women before their honest public repentance, the guilty verdict was not hard to predict. The punishment was carefully calibrated not to create the impression of undue severity, on the one hand, while sticking to the letter of law on the other.

According to Russian law, the punishment for a criminal act of


hooliganism aimed against a particular social group and conducted in a public place could range from a hefty fine up to seven years of forced labor in a penal colony. The higher plank of seven years was not even mentioned by the prosecution, which demanded three years' imprisonment.

At the same time, a more lenient interpretation of the women's act of hooliganism as an administrative, rather than criminal, violation - which would set them free upon payment of a fine - was made impossible by Russia's current social and political climate, as well as a deep-seated tradition of conservatism and loyalty to the Christian Orthodox tradition that the band seemingly mocked in its controversial performance.

As the father of one of the accused glumly noted, there were two Russias present in the courtroom, and they clearly hated each other's guts.

The Russia of liberal opponents of the regime's collusion with the church had few problems with the sacrilegious performance of a song referring to the supreme head of the Russian Orthodox Church as a "bitch" and to the Orthodox faithful as those who "crawl to bow" to both the priests and the state.

The traditionalist, nationalist Russia instead called for the Pussy Riot members to be jailed, thrown out of the country, physically punished and the like. This part of society, while not necessarily opposed to freedom of expression, clearly does not see it as a paramount value that must take precedence over the right to religious freedom or the state's obligation to protect a religious association from assault and indignity.

For Russian traditionalists, many of whom might well agree with a critical assessment of Putin's regime, the crime of blasphemy, desacralization of the sacred ground of the temple, cannot be easily forgiven or forgotten, and the secular state should fulfill its obligations to all - and not just secular - parts of the society, and to protect the right of undisturbed worship for the believers. The most militant segment of the traditionalists is radically opposed to any leniency: according to one representation, "these people are certain, if Pussy Riot were to be forgiven, the next step will be even harsher blasphemies: they'll start practicing sex on the altar". [1]

Which part of society is more representative of the Russian nation today? According to a survey of public opinion, 44% of thos polled considered the trial of Pussy Riot as just, impartial and objective, while only 17% disagreed with that statement. [2] It seems traditionalists are in the majority. However, one-third of the respondents had no definite answer to the question, which is representative of the state of minds in Russia today.

While 70% of all Russians call themselves Christian Orthodox, one in three of those doubts God's existence, and 60% call themselves "non-religious" people. Fewer than half of Russian Orthodox believers attend church services, and only 20% take part in the Holy Communion, according to a recent report by Levada-Tsentr, a Russian pollster. Thus Russian Orthodoxy today is much less of a religious phenomenon, and much more of an ethno-political orientation, which chimes well with Russian traditional values of conservatism, national patriotism, social order, and traditional reverence to the church as a moral authority in a fast-changing, volatile and often ruthless world.

For the larger part of the Russian people, regular church attendance is less important than showing respect to the traditional role that Orthodox Christianity played, and continues to play, in the consolidation of the nation. Self-identification as a Russian Orthodox believer restores national pride and gives a sense of communal belonging to the people disunited by the end of the USSR and dispossessed by the post-communist thievery of the state.

These people take desacralization of the sacred especially painfully, since the nation suffered such acts twice in a very recent history - first, during the Stalinist campaign of pogroms against the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1930s and second, during the state-sponsored campaign of vilifying of the whole Soviet era in the 1990s. While the Bolshevik vandals cleared the road to Josef Stalin's totalitarianism, vilification of the communist past in its totality served as a smokescreen for stealing of the nation's treasures and their subsequent redistribution to the new Russian oligarchs.

Against such a backdrop, desacralization of the last islands of refuge from profanity and cruelty of Russia's new capitalism - the private spaces for prayer that belong to the Church - may not be taken lightly by the Russian street. And this is something that Pussy Riot sympathizers in the West fail to appreciate: while in the happier, more affluent, post-religious societies the national unity is not under threat, and the struggle for individual human dignity has long been won, in Russia neither task has been accomplished.

Pussy Riot's sacrilegious performance was not just an affront to a particular group of parishioners; a good half of the population perceives it as spitting in the face to the whole nation still reeling from a series of catastrophes that started back in 1917. Fully 47% of those polled by the Levada Center in April believed that seven years' imprisonment for Pussy Riot members would be an appropriate punishment for the act, while only 10% found no criminal content in the women's actions.

Neither a particular loyalty to Putin's regime nor personal views on proper relationship between the church and the state motivates such a response. However, an outrage at personal indignity, inflicted, as so many times before, by someone with a sense of impunity and powerful protectors far and near could have been a factor in this demonstrable lack of sympathy to the libertarian activism that the Russian public showed on the occasion.

1. Sergei Markov, Why they cannot be forgiven, Vedomosti.ru, Aug 17, '12. The suggestion sounds less outlandish given the fact that one of the sentenced Pussy Riot members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, had actually participated in a group sex performance in public, at Moscow's zoological museum, while in the last days of her pregnancy.
2. Almost half of those polled confirm impartiality of the Pussy Riot trial, Pervyi Kanal.

Mikhail A Molchanov is a professor of political science at St Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. He has published several books and articles on Russia's politics and society, Russian-Ukrainian relations and international problems of Eurasia, and co-edited The Ashgate Research Companion to Political Leadership.

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