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’

In the wake of the Pussy Riot debacle, a number of commentators noted that religion has become the Russian state’s new ideological prop, a “national idea” to fill the post-communist void. Not surprisingly, this religion-as-ideology often seems more political than spiritual—an aggressively statist creed perfectly aligned with Putin’s worldview. 

Thus the 2008 formal statement of “Russian Orthodox Church Doctrine on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights” amounted to a Christian-flavored manifesto for Putin-style “sovereign democracy.” Individual rights, the doctrine made clear, must never take priority over the interests of “Fatherland” (Otechestvo); human rights activism must not advance the agenda of “particular countries” seeking to export their way of life (a thinly veiled jab at supposedly U.S.-sponsored dissidents); and citizens’ exercise of their political rights should never undermine social unity or the traditional Orthodox model of harmony between government and society. 

Practical examples of such church-state harmony apparently include Putin dodging the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency by using loyal protégé Dmitry Medvedev as a placeholder. In September 2011, after Medvedev announced that he would not seek a second term but instead step aside for his benefactor, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of Public Relations, hailed the development as a “peaceful, dignified, honorable, friendly transfer of power” that other nations should envy. (That Russian voters had yet to ratify the “transfer of power” was clearly a minor detail.)

Ideological Orthodoxy fits snugly with the anti-Western animus that pervades Putinism. Take a look at the much-ballyhooed “Name of Russia” TV project held in 2008 to choose history’s greatest Russian. The winner (almost certainly government-approved, with Internet vote-rigging to avert a first-place finish for Stalin) was the legendary 13th-century prince and Orthodox saint Alexander Nevsky, famous for routing small bands of Northern European crusaders. Future Patriarch Kirill, then an archbishop, championed Alexander in television studio debates as the warrior who saved Russia from the Western menace. Kirill even praised Alexander’s choice to collaborate with the conquering Mongol Horde—whose rule is generally viewed as disastrous for Russia—while spurning an alliance with the Pope. The Horde “only wanted our purses,” Kirill said, while the West threatened Russia’s very identity. 

In a modern context, this attitude translates into a full endorsement of the Kremlin’s Putin-era foreign policy, with its peculiar mix of ego-driven global posturing, imperial nostalgia, and paranoid pique. Kirill, who was elected Patriarch by the senior church hierarchy in 2009 and thus became spiritual and organizational head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has echoed Putin in deploring the Soviet Union’s collapse. Chaplin, the Patriarchate’s P.R. man, raised eyebrows last January when he suggested that Russia should step up its military involvement “in all areas where people are concerned about the danger of orange experiments” (Kremlin-speak for alleged U.S.-manipulated subversion, named after Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, which ousted a pro-Moscow president by challenging election fraud).

Last February, at a meeting with religious leaders hosted by the Patriarch, Putin mused that “the primitive understanding of the separation of church and state” should be jettisoned in favor of “cooperation.” And indeed, the church was cooperating at that very moment by serving as the state’s cheerleader in the face of rising popular discontent. Putin’s planned Kremlin comeback, compounded by fraud in the December 2011 parliamentary vote, had finally roused many Russians from apathy and sent tens of thousands into the streets. The response from church leadership—aside from a few squeaks about the need for government to hear citizens’ legitimate concerns—was to caution against rocking the boat and to praise Putin as (almost literally) God’s gift to Russia.

In early January, as protests grew, Chaplin wrote in a column for the Interfax website that while “the popular will to political activity should not be suppressed,” it was “shameful” for Russian activists to stand next to liberal opposition leaders such as chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov. In televised sermons, Patriarch Kirill warned of the potential bloodshed, chaos, and destruction from people fighting for “their own small, human, insignificant truths” and averred that “Orthodox believers don’t know how to go out to demonstrations.” While hosting Putin’s meeting with clergy in February, the Patriarch described Russia’s revival since 2000 as “a miracle of God”—one for which he bestowed much of the credit on Putin himself. (These comments inspired the Pussy Riot lyrics, “Patriarch Gundyayev [Kirill’s secular name] believes in Putin; try believing in God instead, scumbag!”) 

The Abbot Kisses the Ring

In return for its loyalty, the church—or at least its senior hierarchy—has been amply rewarded with wealth, status, and perks. But that doesn’t mean the more faith-specific parts of its agenda get translated into government policy (aside from local bans on gay pride events and on “propaganda of homosexuality to minors,” an area where church dogma dovetails with majority biases). Abortion, which is as unacceptable in Orthodoxy as it is in Catholicism, remains not only legal but free at public clinics. In 2011 the Patriarch’s plea to end government funding for abortions was briskly dismissed by the ruling United Russia party, and legislation introducing some restrictions, such as spousal consent for married women, died in the Duma (the Russian parliament); the only actual policy change was tighter regulation after the first trimester. Church advocacy on this issue has been fairly low-key and deferential; when Kirill raised it in his meeting with Putin, it was to concede the pro-choice tilt of popular opinion and beg for better incentives for women to make other choices.

The effort to bring Orthodoxy into public education has yielded mixed results at best. A few years ago, proposals to make “the basics of Orthodox culture” a required subject for middle school students met with a strong backlash, including an open letter from a group of concerned scientists whom the church assailed as relics of militant Soviet atheism. Then Putin’s docile Duma nixed a resolution condemning the critics, and Putin himself warned that religious indoctrination in state schools would be illegal. As if on cue, church spokesman Chaplin made a conciliatory statement calling for a pluralistic approach to religious studies. The solution was a class in “secular ethics and world religions” (which recently became mandatory nationwide after a two-year pilot program), with several options from which parents can choose. So far less than a third of students have enrolled in the Orthodox track, compared to more than 40 percent for secular ethics and 20 percent for world religions. The Patriarch blamed the church’s comparative failure on “the liberal press.”

All this is a far cry from theocracy, even if disturbing examples of religious coercion are common. (Last spring, REN-TV did a report on kids being pressured into baptism at a summer camp for the children of railway employees.) It is, rather, an unequal tandem of a cynically pious state and a cynically servile church. 

Of course, subservience to state power is an old tradition for the Russian Orthodox Church; it started under the czars—particularly after the 1700s, when Peter the Great effectively reduced the church to a subordinate branch of government—and continued under the Soviets, when the church was brought back from near-obliteration as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Soviet regime and the KGB. 

That dark legacy lives on in the present-day church. In 1992 a parliamentary investigative commission co-chaired by Father Gleb Yakunin, an Orthodox priest and Soviet-era dissident, released KGB files exposing a vast network of collaborators among clerics, particularly at the highest levels. (Shortly afterward, Yakunin was defrocked, supposedly for violating church discipline through his political activity.) One of those collaborators, code-named Mikhailov, was almost certainly Kirill himself. In the 1970s, the future Patriarch, then an up-and-coming church official, traveled regularly abroad for conferences where he participated in the Soviet “struggle for peace” and pooh-poohed claims about religious persecution in the USSR.

Compared to Soviet times, the church today enjoys a far more exalted status. Yet there is no doubt as to which side dominates in the church-state “partnership.” A few days before the Pussy Riot verdict, a clip from a Russian newscast made a splash on the Internet: On a visit to a historic monastery, a startled Putin shrank back when the abbot bowed and moved to kiss his hand. Russian media outlets treated the abbot’s abasement as a comical gaffe, and he later apologized for his inappropriate zeal; but many Russians saw the gesture as a fitting bit of symbolism. 

‘War of the Whores’

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.”