Why the Pussy Riot Case Still Matters

A few days after a Moscow appellate court upheld the conviction of three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot but released one of them with a suspended sentence, the women's lawyers are taking their claim to the European Court of Human Rights. The case, in which the singer/activists received two-year prison terms for a protest performance in an Orthodox cathedral, may have largely faded from the spotlight; but strong international support for the group continues. Last week, the women were nominated for Germany's "Fearless Word" Martin Luther prize and voted finalists for the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Yet there are some dissenting voices from usually not Kremlin-friendly quarters on the right. Pundit Charlotte Allen's tweet on the appeal jeered the trio as "ugly, untalented chicks." Other critics, such as The American Conservative's Rod Dreher and Pajamas Media's Rick Moran, charge that the Pussy Riot lovefest is yet another example of how Christianity-trashing is glorified as artistic freedom--while attacks on Islam are decried as hateful. Such double standards do exist. But in this instance, the claims of anti-Christian bigotry are off-base, and the punk feminists' detractors are playing into the stereotype of religious conservatives as would-be authoritarians.

The naysayers' arguments boil down to two points: (1) the women's actions, which the court found to be "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," were not a legitimate political protest but a slam at Orthodox Christianity and Christians; (2) the women are no champions of freedom but radical leftists, as well as freaks whose earlier exploits include public orgies.

On the second point: Yes, Pussy Riot members have said some silly things about the evils of capitalism and phallic power. But they are no anti-male or anti-capitalist fanatics; when ex-oil tycoon and political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky spoke out on the women's behalf during the trial, they did not denounce him as a male capitalist pig but responded with gratitude and admiration. Their activism has been entirely against the authoritarian Russian state.

As for the young women's alleged sordid past, two of them, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, once belonged to a political performance art group, Voina (War), specializing in outlandish and often vulgar pranks under the umbrella of protest. Shortly before the 2008 presidential election, Voina held what one might call a sex-in at the Moscow Biological Museum. Several couples, including Tolokonnikova (then 18) and her husband, stripped and engaged in probably simulated intercourse under a banner that read, "F*** for Bear Cub the Heir!"--referring to Vladimir Putin's heir apparent Dmitry Medvedev, whose last name derives from the Russian for "bear" and who previously oversaw programs to boost Russia's birthrate. While no museumgoers or staffers were exposed to the "orgy," a video and photos of which were later posted online, it would clearly qualify as public indecency even under the most liberal laws.

But when the power of the state is used to punish political dissent, the dissenters' breaches of propriety and decorum shouldn’t matter. Which brings us back to the first point: was Pussy Riot's act in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior a political protest or a religious insult?

The women, at least one of whom is a practicing Christian, have repeatedly said that their "punk prayer," with its plea to the Virgin Mary to "cast out Putin," did not attack any Christian beliefs but only the church's collusion with the regime. The lyrics of the song bear this out. (An accurate Islamic analogy would not be the "Innocence of Muslims" video, which attacks Islam itself, but dissident Muslims protesting against Iran's odious president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at a mosque run by a pro-Ahmadinejad imam.) And, contrary to some claims, the group did not desecrate the altar or disrupt a service.

Unquestionably, many Orthodox Christians--including Putin critics such as blogger and activist Alexei Navalny--found Pussy Riot's stunt tacky and offensive: their song included crude epithets, and they danced on the ambo, an elevation normally reserved for clerics. Yet Navalny strongly opposed their prosecution, as did plenty of other believers. Lydia Moniava, who runs a Christian charity for sick children, urged the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church to ask for clemency. Soviet-era dissident Natalia Gorbanevskaya, who was a Christian back when it was inconvenient and even dangerous, said that while she was "not thrilled" by the women's actions, they deserved no punishment other than being ejected from the cathedral.

Some even argue that the punk feminists represent the Russian Christian tradition of "holy fools," who used shocking conduct to speak truth to power: in this case, to expose the unholy marriage of church and state in Putin's Russia. This may be a stretch. Still, the "punk prayer's" swipe at Patriarch Kirill, who has hailed Russia's revival under Putin as "God's miracle"--"The Patriarch believes in Putin; try believing in God instead, scumbag!"--can be read as a call for true Christianity that serves God rather than Caesar.

Meanwhile, most of the cries for retribution have come from the Caesar camp--from people for whom Orthodoxy is mainly about being a true patriotic Russian and who, polls show, often call themselves Orthodox while admitting that they don't actually believe in God or attend church.

Here are a few things that should offend Christians--in Russia or in America--far more than Pussy Riot's antics:

* Patriarch Kirill, like most of the senior hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, rose through church ranks in the Soviet era as an active collaborationist with the atheistic Soviet regime, which tolerated the Church and used it for its own agenda. Among other things, he traveled regularly abroad for conferences where he promoted the Soviet government's "struggle for peace" and denied the persecution of believers in the USSR. Any Soviet citizen who went on such jaunts almost invariably worked with the KGB; in fact, there is strong evidence that Kirill was the agent code-named "Mikhailov" in KGB files declassified after the fall of Communism. In the post-Soviet era, in 2008, then-Archbishop Kirill flew to Cuba to award dictator Fidel Castro the Order of St. Daniel of Moscow in gratitude for letting an Orthodox Church for Russian expatriates open in Havana; Castro hailed Kirill as "an ally in opposing American imperialism."

* Besides two official residences, Kirill owns a luxury apartment in Moscow--which came to light last March, thanks to an extortionate lawsuit filed on his behalf against a neighbor whose renovation work had allegedly caused plaster dust damage to the Patriarch's furnishings. In April, after the prelate publicly denied owning a $35,000 Breguet watch, a photo on the Moscow Patriarchate's website was doctored to remove the timepiece from his wrist--a trick caught by sharp-eyed bloggers who spotted a reflection in the table surface.

* A priest who helped expose Church-KGB links in a 1992 parliamentary report, Father Gleb Yakunin, was quickly defrocked for "inappropriate" political activity and eventually excommunicated. Ironically, Yakunin had been first defrocked in 1965--and imprisoned from 1979 to 1985--for denouncing religious persecution in the Soviet Union.

* Another Orthodox priest, Father Sergei Taratukhin, was defrocked in 2006 for speaking against Khodorkovsky's unjust imprisonment. And last year, three priests from the Izhevsk region in northern Russia were banned from service after they wrote an open letter to the Patriarch, criticizing the church's close relationship with government and big business and calling on church leaders to make amends for their past ties to the KGB. (The three now serve in a parish of the semi-autonomous foreign branch of the Church but remain targets of official harassment.)

* Meanwhile, the Church has yet to censure priests who openly praise mass-murdering Communist dictator Joseph Stalin or preach Jew-hatred (such as Alexander Shumsky of Moscow's St. Nicholas Church, who routinely does both in his articles and blogposts).

* In a striking display of favoritism for Orthodoxy as a quasi-official state religion, dozens of buildings seized from the Catholic and Lutheran churches in Kaliningrad (formerly the German city of Konigsberg) after World War II have not been returned to their proper denominations but handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church instead.

* Less favored faiths still endure frequent discrimination and abuse. Just last month, the evangelical Church of the Holy Trinity in Moscow was bulldozed into rubble after the city refused to renew its land-use permit; church belongings, including costly audio equipment, were carted away by the demolition team. A few days later, pastor Sergei Romanyuk was briefly arrested for conducting a prayer service--deemed an unsanctioned rally--at the site.

* In May 2007, the Russian Orthodox Church allowed Putin to speak from the ambo of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior at the signing of the Church's cooperation agreement with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. (Apparently, the presence of a KGB thug in a sacred space is far less objectionable than the presence of girl rockers.) Father Mikhail Ardov, an archpriest who now belongs to a schismatic church, has remarked that, from an Orthodox point of view, for any layman to "talk down" to church hierarchs from the ambo was simply "crazy."

* Last year, after the announcement that Medvedev would step aside to let Putin run for a third presidential term, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of Public Relations, praised this cozy arrangement as a "peaceful, dignified, honorable, friendly transfer of power” that other nations could envy. In January, Chaplin suggested that Russia should step up its military involvement abroad to thwart “orange experiments” (Kremlin-speak for alleged U.S.-manipulated subversion, after Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange revolution”).

* During the Pussy Riot trial, a group of the women's supporters gathered on the steps of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior holding letters that spelled out "Blessed be the merciful." They were beaten and driven away by cathedral security.

The list could go on. Not surprisingly, many Russian Christians, including members of the clergy, have been turning away from the established Orthodox Church--sometimes joining schismatic groups and sometimes taking their faith private. The Pussy Riot case, in which the Church professed non-interference even as it lambasted attempts to minimize the crime and called for severe punishment, has pushed away more believers.

Whatever their faults, the punk feminists' small riot in the cathedral has laid bare a situation that both secular liberals and Christian conservatives should find equally abhorrent: the corruption of religion by state power.

So keep the prizes coming. Don't stop with the fundraisers. As the women's appeal moves ahead, the Kremlin should know that the world is watching. When political prisoners are pitted against their oppressors, not to side with the prisoners is the worst indecency of all.