You must feel proud that the Russian punk-rock group, now on trial in Moscow, has chosen such an elegant English name for itself. This shows how generously the Anglophone world shares its cultural achievements with all nations.
In February this year, as if to prove that they had absorbed the spirit of our pop culture, not just its form, three Pussy Rioters delivered a disgustingly blasphemous performance at the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
Penetrating the area reserved in the Orthodox church for the clergy only, the three girls performed a mockery of the hymn Sanctus, begging the Virgin to ‘kick Putin out’. They also referred to the Patriarch as ‘a bitch’ (the Russian word suka can be profitably used to describe a member of either sex) and, instead of ‘holy, holy, holy, Lord God’, sang what Wikipedia wrongly translates as ‘shit, shit, shit of Lord God’. In fact, the Russian word sram only means ‘shame’, with no faecal implications whatsoever. Still, the act was indisputably blasphemous both to the church and to the national leader it venerates. The three women are now on trial, facing a maximum sentence of seven years in a concentration camp.
On general principle, I’m in favour of locking up all pop ‘musicians’ and, if they have committed blasphemy, throwing away the key. But such principles don’t apply in this instance, for the trial raises graver issues.
The prosecution has declared that the Pussy Rioters ‘undermine the state’s spiritual foundations’, presumably meaning Christianity. Here I have to disagree. Putin’s KGB state is founded, spiritually, not on religion but on thievery and money laundering. In a show of hypocrisy infinitely more offensive than anything perpetrated by the Pussies, Putin and his gang these days attend church services with the same pious expressions they sported at party rallies not so long ago. But their Father isn’t in heaven: he’s at KGB headquarters and in offshore banks, where the gang keeps its ill-gotten laundry.
The church hierarchy, ably led by Patriarch Kiril, KGB codename ‘Mikhailov’, belongs to the same gang. His Holiness, a lifelong KGB agent, recently won a court case against his neighbour whose refurbishment work had allegedly caused $1.7 million worth of dust damage to the Patriarch’s flat. As a monk, ‘Mikhailov’ took a vow of chastity and poverty, which doesn’t prevent him from sharing his palatial quarters with a woman who was at first described as his ‘sister’, then became his ‘cousin’, then his ‘distant relation’. He gets away with such ill-concealed cynicism because the upper echelons of the church are his moral twins. For instance, both priests who contested the patriarchal elections against Kiril were KGB agents too.
While the KGB represents a modern phenomenon, the Russian church has been an extension of the state since at least the reign of Peter I (1682-1725). Moreover, it has always enjoyed a cosy relationship with the secret police. A law Peter’s Synod passed in 1722 obligated all priests, on pain of death, to report to the authorities any suspicious statement vouchsafed at confession. The penny dropped, and priests (with many exceptions, to be sure) continued to inform on their parishioners for the next two and a half centuries.
In fact, looking at Russian history, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the church has always been probably the most reactionary, and certainly the most anti-Western, estate. It has always toed the line drawn by the government, but it has done so with particular fervour whenever the state pursued rabid anti-Western policies.
Thus the church was more than ready to seek the protection of heathen Mongol invaders against the Western Christian orders. Its relationship with the doctrinally godless but refreshingly anti-Western Bolshevik regime was also ambivalent to say the least. Thus its adoration of the increasingly anti-Western Putin government follows a time-honoured trend.
Putin loathes the West not just viscerally, but also pragmatically. Having established his kleptocratic regime by larcenous means, he knows that any serious liberal opposition invoking legality can unseat him. That’s why Putin has to appeal to the reactionary masses spearheaded by the church. And reconfirming his anti-Western credentials is an essential part of that appeal.
It’s mostly for this reason that the kleptocracy consistently champions any regime in conflict with the West, including the most hideous ones. Putin knows, for example, that Assad is a lost cause, but he’ll continue to support him until the final fall of the axe. The kleptocrats sense their spiritual kinship with Assad, and fear that his demise could lead to their own, one domino knocking the others down.
Such fears too have historical roots, best exemplified by Peter’s father, Tsar Alexei, responding to the execution of Charles I in England. When the English Muscovy Company, which had enjoyed a near monopoly on Russian trade since Elizabethan times, applied for an extension of its licence, it was floored by the short uppercut of the tsar’s ukase: ‘Inasmuch as the said Anglic Germans have slaughtered their own King Carolus to death, we hereby decree that none of the said Anglic Germans shall henceforth be admitted to Russia’s land.’
It’s not just the ‘Anglic Germans’, but the West in general that Russian rulers variably, and the Russian church invariably, have always wished to keep out. This includes the West at its best and also at its worst, the end so pathetically represented by Pussy Riot.
Much as I find the ladies highly objectionable, I think we should all campaign for their release – the months they’ve already spent, and will spend, in custody until the end of the trial is punishment enough. A state truly committed to the protection of Christianity would have the moral right to impose a harsher sentence. But Putin’s murderous thugs have no such right – any verdict they pass is unjust because they’re the ones who pass it.