The biggest news story out of Russia in 2012 was not Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in May. It was the trial of three young women from the guerrilla-girl punk band Pussy Riot, charged with “hate-motivated hooliganism” for a protest performance in a Moscow church. The women’s offense was a brief song-and-dance act at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February, opening with a prayer chant of “Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, drive out Putin.” On August 17, after a nonjury trial in which the judge blatantly favored the prosecution, Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich were found guilty and handed two-year prison sentences. In October, two of the women were transported to remote penal colonies.
The prosecution, which was condemned by figures ranging from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Icelandic singer Bjork to Polish former president and dissident Lech Walesa, became an international symbol of the Kremlin’s heavy-handed approach to dissent and artistic freedom. Yet at its core, the Pussy Riot case was also about the unholy union of organized religion and authoritarian state in modern-day Russia.
Pussy Riot’s protest song was about not just Putin but also the cozy ties between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church under the leadership of the pro-Putin Patriarch Kirill. The indictment against the punk rockers accused them not only of demeaning the beliefs of Orthodox Christians but of “belittl[ing] the spiritual foundations of the state.”
The case looked and felt like something out of the Dark Ages. The state-run Rossiya television channel repeatedly referred to the women as “blasphemers,” while a co-founder of the semi-official pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi warned that the decline of harsh blasphemy laws throughout Europe had set the continent on a path to destructive liberalism. During the trial, the judge deemed it relevant that the Pussy Rioters had violated rules established by an eighth-century church council. Outside the courtroom, the lawyer for one of the prosecution witnesses told a newspaper, with no trace of humor, that the group’s actions stemmed from Satan himself.
Are these developments harbingers of a new Russian theocracy? While some of the religious zealotry underlying the scandal was undoubtedly genuine, the prosecution was mostly a loud display of pretend medievalism—political theater performed by Jesus-loving Stalinists, KGB clerics, and Christian soldiers who dabble in soft porn. As Novaya Gazeta columnist Andrei Kolesnikov has pointed out, religion’s true role in contemporary Russia is perhaps best summed up by none other than Karl Marx, who in his 1852 pamphlet The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte described it as “the domination of the priests as an instrument of government.”
‘A Land Watched Over By God’
The irony should not be lost on anyone who remembers the extent to which Soviet evildoing was chalked up to godlessness by many in the West, especially Americans. “Communism’s attempt to make man stand alone without God” was a central theme of Ronald Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire” speech in 1983; three decades earlier, the addition of “under God” to the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance was at least partly motivated by a desire to differentiate God-fearing America from the atheistic USSR.
The Soviets certainly earned their godless reputation. In 1918 Soviet Russia became the world’s first atheist state, and its rulers launched a ruthless, sustained attack on religion. Thousands of priests, monks, and nuns were killed, and many more were imprisoned. Churches were sacked, converted to warehouses and social clubs, or razed. (The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, demolished in 1931, was the most famous casualty; the present building, the scene of Pussy Riot’s crime, is a 1990s reconstruction.) Later, physical violence gave way to an aggressive propaganda war against faith.
The persecution eased after Hitler’s 1941 invasion. Seeking to rally Christians to a “holy war,” Joseph Stalin scuttled the anti-religion campaign and allowed thousands of churches to reopen. Official attitudes fluctuated during the next four decades, but atheism always remained central to state ideology. In the 1970s and early ’80s, as Soviet communism limped toward the ash heap of history, believers generally had to stay in the closet or face unpleasant consequences. Being a churchgoer could cost you your job or get you kicked out of college. Those who stepped out of bounds—priests whose sermons were too bold, laypeople who published Christian samizdat—were harassed, terrorized, and sometimes thrown into labor camps or mental hospitals. Baptists and other “sectarians” faced especially vicious treatment.
All of this changed in the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms opened up Soviet society. Interest in religion surged, just in time for the millennial anniversary of Russia’s conversion to Christianity in 1988 (the occasion for the first-ever broadcast of church services on Soviet television). Two years later, communist-era restrictions on faith were formally abolished, and equality for all believers and nonbelievers became law.
Before long, however, the Russian Orthodox Church, historically the dominant religious organization in Russia, had had enough of religious freedom. Authorities were nervous about the flood of post-Soviet missionaries from abroad and the massive crowds that turned out for Rev. Billy Graham’s historic 1993 trip to Moscow. In the early 1990s, the church began to lobby for measures to curb proselytizing and other religious work by foreign nationals. Such moves stalled at first, due both to Western backlash and to conflicts between parliament and then-President Boris Yeltsin. But in 1997 Yeltsin reluctantly signed a new law that returned religion in Russia to a highly regulated status—privileged for some faiths, marginalized for others.
While ostensibly affirming religious freedom and the secular nature of the state, the law’s preamble recognized “the special role of Orthodoxy” and expressed “respect” for Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism as faiths with historical roots in Russia. Meanwhile, new religious groups seeking legal recognition now had to overcome numerous bureaucratic hurdles, including a 15-year probation period during which they were barred from virtually any activity other than private services and prayer meetings. Even existing religious organizations were subject to multiple restrictions. Today, less favored faiths endure routine discrimination and abuse: Last September, 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.
As the regulations went into effect, a new climate of official religiosity was taking hold in Russia. In 2001, when George W. Bush first met with Vladimir Putin, the two presidents bonded over Putin’s heartwarming tale about a cross he had supposedly received from his mother and worn his entire life, and which had miraculously survived a fire at his summer cottage. It is hard to say whether this anecdote attests more to Bush’s credulity or to Putin’s cynicism; the thought of an active-duty KGB officer wearing a cross is hilarious to anyone with rudimentary knowledge of Soviet society. But it also illustrates the extent to which God talk was becoming part of Russia’s official discourse, and not just for foreign consumption. When Putin restored the old Soviet anthem with brand-new lyrics in 2000, “the victory of communism’s deathless ideas” gave way to “a land watched over by God.”
By the end of the decade, Russia was a country where politicians regularly attended televised religious services; Orthodox priests blessed everything from spaceships to new prison buildings; Nashi, the “patriotic” youth movement mobilized to whip up loyalist fervor and browbeat the opposition, had an “Orthodox division” (whose chief, Boris Yakemenko, waxed nostalgic for medieval blasphemy laws during the Pussy Riot case); and some high-level officials spoke of the Orthodox faith as the “kernel” of Russian identity. In a televised debate during the 2012 presidential campaign, filmmaker and Putin crony Nikita Mikhalkov questioned whether one of Putin’s Potemkin rivals, businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, was fit to lead Russia since he was an avowed nonbeliever. Orthodoxy is the majority religion, Mikhalkov pointed out, and the Orthodox believe all authority comes from God.
‘Try Believing in God Instead, Scumbag’