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Aside from the fact that many of its high-ranking servants of God are former servants of a totalitarian atheist state, Russian Orthodoxy today has another unusual quality: Many of its rank-and-file believers aren’t believers at all. Both church leaders and establishment politicians describe Russia as a highly religious, overwhelmingly Orthodox nation. Nearly three out of four Russians identify as Orthodox Christians, up from 30 percent in 1989 and just over half in 1994. Yet according to the Levada Center, Russia’s premier independent polling firm, only 40 percent of these self-proclaimed Orthodox say they definitely believe in God, while 30 percent definitely do not. Half never go to church; only one in 10 prays and fasts. Fewer than 5 percent know the Ten Commandments. All this recalls a popular 1990s Russian joke mocking faddish faux religion among the nouveau riche: A “New Russian” at a jewelry shop asks for a cross—the biggest, most expensive they’ve got. The salesgirl brings a massive, jewel-studded golden cross with the crucified Christ on it. “Great!” says the man. “But can you take down the gymnast?”
In other ways, too, Russia does not fit the image of a religious society. Sexual liberation, eagerly embraced after decades of forced communist-era prudery, is still in full swing. Premarital sex is the norm; almost one in three births are to single mothers, nearly triple the figure in the early 1980s; and at least 45 percent of pregnancies end in abortion, compared to 15 percent to 20 percent in Western Europe. Popular culture is sex-saturated to an extent that Westerners find jarring; respectable news sites routinely feature links—complete with R-rated thumbnail pictures—to raunchy gossip, risqué celebrity photos, and sex tips. Nashi, the Kremlin-financed youth group with an Orthodox division, has promoted racy novelty items such as bikini panties pledging loyalty to Putin and “erotic calendars” in which lingerie-clad beauties in provocative poses declare their passion for Dear Leader or battle corruption with innuendo-laced slogans like “you can have it without a bribe.”
The paradoxes of Russian-style religion were on stark display during the Pussy Riot backlash. TV pundit Maxim Shevchenko, who denounced the punk feminists and their supporters’ assault on the faithful in a blog post titled “War of the Whores,” is a staunch defender of Stalin, on whose watch the original Christ the Savior cathedral was destroyed. Multimillionaire pop singer Elena Vaenga, who posted on her website a much-ridiculed semiliterate rant demanding punishment for “the skanks” and declaring herself deeply insulted as a Christian, recently had an out-of-wedlock child a few months after leaving her common-law husband. Vaenga’s music is as un-Orthodox as her lifestyle: In the video for one of her songs, she strips down to satin panties and bra and gets into bed with a man while talking to another lover on the phone.
What kind of Christians are these? Ones for whom, writes Kommersant columnist Konstantin Eggert, Orthodox Christianity is “a new ideology to replace ‘the moral code of the builder of communism’—a quaint mix of ill-understood rituals, well-studied conspiracy theories, rote- memorized rules and state-backed patriotism.” Some Orthodox ideologues freely concede this communist lineage. Discussing the Pussy Riot verdict on a radio show, Roman Silantiev, an official in the church-sponsored activist organization the Russian People’s Assembly, predicted that the controversy would draw more “patriotic-minded people” to the church because Russia’s enemies were lined up on the other side. “Just as they used to say ‘anti-Soviet’ meaning ‘Russia-hater,’ they are now saying that anyone who hates the Russian Orthodox Church hates Russia,” Silantiev said. “These are the people who will make the church stronger.”
‘The Miracle of the Watch’
If the full-bore prosecution of the Pussy Riot trio was intended to rally the religious around government, or to drive a wedge between the secular and religious parts of the opposition, the move failed. In the end, the controversy may well hurt both the Russian Orthodox Church and the church-state alliance. While few Russians approved of the feminists’ stunt in the cathedral, opinions were sharply split on the prison sentence. In one poll, one-third felt it was too harsh, about as many saw it as appropriate; 15 percent found it too lenient, and 10 percent said there should have been no prosecution. Many were critical of the church’s response to the incident, which included calling for hate crime charges and penalties severe enough to deter future miscreants. On the eve of the trial, only one in five Russians agreed this stance was justified; twice as many said the church should not have tried to influence the court at all, and 30 percent felt it should have “shown Christian mercy” and asked for the women’s release. (After the sentencing, the church chimed in with a mealy-mouthed plea for clemency.)
Even more people were alienated by the outpouring of hate from self-styled defenders of the faith such as the talk-show callers who proposed lurid punishments for the women, from public scourging to impalement, and the Orthodox activist photographed punching a female Pussy Riot supporter in the face. No prominent churchmen condemned this behavior, saving their rebukes for believers who called for tolerance and forgiveness.
The aftermath of the trial saw more moves by the government to tighten the screws on undesirable religious expression; a bill that would institute criminal penalties, including prison terms of up to three years, for “insulting the feelings of believers” began to move through the Duma. Characteristically, the law protects only followers of the four institutionalized faiths mentioned in the 1997 legislation on religion: Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam. There was also a series of incidents in which hardcore “Orthodox activists” used frankly thuggish tactics to intimidate church critics and other undesirables—harassing people wearing pro-Pussy Riot T-shirts, disrupting a theater performance that supported the group, and even invading a museum of erotica to subtly threaten the owner. These developments will inevitably drive a deeper wedge not only between religious and secular Russians, but between Christians who believe in religious liberty and the faithful who are also believers in state power.
The Church’s image problems have been compounded by several unsavory recent controversies surrounding the Patriarch, including one featuring a luxury apartment, an extortionate lawsuit, and a rumored mistress. (Orthodox priests can marry, but bishops belong to the celibate monastic priesthood.) In late March, the news site Rosbalt.ru reported that a prominent retired surgeon was being forced to pay nearly $1 million for damage supposedly caused by dust from renovation work at his apartment to his upstairs neighbor’s furnishings. The owner of the apartment above was Patriarch Kirill, who has two official residences; the apartment’s occupant, and the plaintiff in the dust-damage lawsuit, was one Lydia Leonova, described as the prelate’s longtime friend and “second cousin.” Then in April came what wags called “the miracle of the watch.” After a television interview in which Kirill denied owning a $35,000 Breguet watch and asserted that a photo of him wearing one was a fake, bloggers discovered that the watch had vanished from the Patriarch’s wrist in a photo on the Moscow Patriarchate’s website—yet a reflection of the offending object could be seen in a mahogany table.
In August the VTSIOM, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, found that half of all Russians trusted clergymen, down from two-thirds in 2010. Growing negativity about the church is found not only among secular Russians but among the faithful, including some members of the clergy. In 2011 three priests from the Izhevsk diocese in northern Russia wrote to Patriarch Kirill criticizing the church’s cozy relationship with government leaders and wealthy patrons; the local archbishop responded by banning the priests from service.
The Pussy Riot fiasco is likely to accelerate this trend. On the day the women were sentenced, Muscovite Svetlana Goryacheva, writing on Facebook, explained her choice to leave the Russian Orthodox Church after 16 years as a churchgoer: “I am still a believing Christian, but I cannot stay in a church full of liars, money-grubbers and bigots.”