The Corner

Not So Much of a Riot

Representative Rohrabacher has come up with a sharp response to Daniel Foster’s tough criticism of what Representative Steve King had to say about that naughtily-named Russian trio. Daniel has, I see, just replied to the congressman.

It might be helpful to note a few points.

As performances go, Pussy Riot’s didn’t amount to much. The whole thing — mainly some jumping around and a mocking pretense at prayer — lasted less than a minute. Words and music were added in later. Yes, this brief protest did take place in a church. That’s not something I would necessarily endorse, but I do understand why the group chose the venue that they did. The undeniable, unfortunate fact is that the Russian  Orthodox Church has become an accomplice of the Putin regime, a stance that some would see as rather more systematic process of “desecration” (I’ll use the congressman’s word) than one tasteless stunt. And let’s be clear that—in return for its support—the Russian Orthodox Church has seen a notable increase in the state’s harassment of other faiths, some Christian (Baptists, for example), some not.  When a church does go so terribly astray, it is only to be expected that it might see some protest on its premises.

And I suspect that the site that was chosen for the protest was selected for reasons that stretch far beyond its size and central location. This was not some small village church, filled with the pious and presided over by a kindly parish priest. Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral  is in many ways the building that most symbolizes the fusion between church and state in post-Soviet Russia. That this particular cathedral has this role in what has become the Putin era is a particularly bitter irony. This, after all, is the cathedral dynamited by Stalin in the early 1930s, and rebuilt during Boris Yeltsin’s false dawn. If you are looking for sacrilege, the identification of this cathedral with a regime headed by a former (and far from repentant) secret policeman of the state that presided over its earlier demolition takes some beating.

In her closing statement, one of the defendants, Yekaterina Samutsevich, had this to say about the way that the Putin regime has coopted not only the modern Russian Orthodox Church but also its historical reputation as a victim of the Soviet state. It’s a subtle point, carefully made.

It may be that the tough, failed policies of Putin’s government, the incident with the submarine Kursk, the bombings of civilians in broad daylight, and other unpleasant moments in his political career forced him to ponder the fact that it was high time to resign; otherwise, the citizens of Russia would help him do this. Apparently, it was then that he felt the need for more convincing, transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the helm. It was here that the need arose to make use of the aesthetics of the Orthodox religion, historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself.

How did he succeed in doing this? After all, we still have a secular state, and shouldn’t any intersection of the religious and political spheres be dealt with severely by our vigilant and critically minded society? Here, apparently, the authorities took advantage of a certain deficit of Orthodox aesthetics in Soviet times, when the Orthodox religion had the aura of a lost history, of something crushed and damaged by the Soviet totalitarian regime, and was thus an opposition culture. The authorities decided to appropriate this historical effect of loss and present their new political project to restore Russia’s lost spiritual values, a project which has little to do with a genuine concern for preservation of Russian Orthodoxy’s history and culture.

It was also fairly logical that the Russian Orthodox Church, which has long had a mystical connection with power, emerged as this project’s principal executor in the media…

Representative Rohrabacher lists other stunts perpetrated by the group and its associates. They are certainly not to my taste (I would have to wonder about the romantic history of any chicken cutlets they might serve at their meals ) and their politics are not mine, but context is key.  To start with, the trio’s ideology (as I noted on the Corner last year, but the archive system here is not what it was) represents a sort of feminist twist on an absurdist-anarcho-leftism that does have  some connection to (doomed) movements in the early Soviet Union. Much of what they do may be crass, but it is rather more than simple hooliganism.

More than that, context can mean that what would be worthy of condemnation in a free society has to be viewed very differently when it is designed as an act of protest against a regime that has fallen a very, very long way from the democratic ideal. That doesn’t necessarily justify what Pussy Riot did (and it’s worth noting that, even if we make allowance for the amount of disinformation about this case spewed out by the Kremlin, most Russians do not appear to think much of these sort of protests) but it merits rather more “sympathy”  (or at least understanding) for their case than Rep. King  appears to have been  prepared to show.

Even then, I could perhaps agree that a fine or a brief ‘warning’ detention would not have been altogether out of line with legitimate Russian notions of where the limits of protest should lie (in his second post Daniel looks at the position from an American point of view, but that’s something different). But when I contrast the group’s sentence—two years, much of it to be served in a tough prison camp—with what they did,  I know where the real obscenity lies.

One of the three has been released. The other two can still be found in the Perm Region’s Corrective Labour Colony No. 28 .

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