Re: Pussy Riot and Stifling of ‘Offensive’ Speech in the West

by Andrew Stuttaford

Wesley, to be fair, I don’t believe that Pussy Riot interrupted a service. In fact there were very few people in the cathedral at the time. So far as the “private property” issue is concerned (a rather flexible notion in Russia), it is worth noting that, in many respects, the interior of this very large cathedral is something akin to a public space, both conceptually (with the increasing fusion of church and state in Russia) and, to a degree, legally (as I recall it, anyone can go in). The trespass, of course, was the brief (if tasteless) spot of play-acting in front of the iconostasis.

High Tory Anglican blogger Cranmer noted this:

In summing up the prosecution case, Judge Marina Syrova confirmed the tangential theological argument that prayers in a Russian cathedral may only be offered by a priest and not by ‘ordinary members of the public’, so Pussy Riot’s professed protest-as-prayer was contrary to church rules. But this is simply not true: Orthodoxy permits laity to lead public prayer. Perhaps it would not bestow the honour upon rabid feminists, but there is no canonical prohibition. The Judge observed: “It was a small act but maybe not a very elegant act but they consider that it is the country which is sick. For them, individuals are not important, they consider that education in Russia is still in the Soviet mould. And that there is still cruelty in the country and that prison is a miniature of Russia itself.”

If education is no longer in the Soviet mould, justice certainly appears to be.

You rightly note that the punishment these ladies received was grossly disproportionate, and you conclude with this important observation:

In Western Europe, you can be jailed merely for expressing offensive sentiments against religious and other minority groups. Russia is becoming increasingly intolerant of “offensive” speech. But so in its own way is the secular West.

Indeed you can. An interesting angle to this case is that the women were charged under Article 213 (2) of the Russian criminal code: “hooliganism” motivated by religious hatred or hostility. The language of Western political correctness, not to speak of Islamic efforts to suppress free speech, have, it seems, found an echo in Moscow.

I linked last year to this piece in the Daily Telegraph by Brendan O’Neill. I don’t agree with a great deal of it, but there is, sadly, something to this point (and I think you would agree):

The fashionable Western support for Pussy Riot had all the hallmarks of a cause célèbre. First there was the campaigners’ selection and elevation of just one foreign instance of shocking censorship to the exclusion of all others – such as Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s branding of anyone who criticises him as a “genocide ideologist” who can be locked up, for example, or nearby Scotland’s recent passing of an anti-football fan bill that can also send people to prison for singing songs (though sectarian rather than punk ones).