From Russia with love

An article from the Moscow correspondent of the New York Times has left me perplexed. On one level the story entitled “Punk riffs take on God and Putin” is a silly piece of journalism.

What do I mean by silly? I’m not quite sure myself. The tone of the story is half post-modernist supercilious sneer half celebrity profile for People magazine. Now these are subjective assessments of mine and I find the style in which this article was written not to my taste. But taste is neither here nor there.

It is the journalism on display that has me perplexed. There is no balance, no sense of history to this story as well as an excess of adjectives. The heroes and villains are one dimensional characters. And at bottom, the story displays a worldview that affirms Pussy Riot’s (the heroes in our tale) intellectual condescension towards the aspirations of Russia’s church and her people.

Stylistically, this story is silly — journalistically, this story falls short  — morally, this story is a wreck.

Follow me through and see if you see what I see.

MOSCOW — In the month since it performed an unsanctioned “punk prayer service” at Christ the Savior Cathedral, entreating the Virgin Mary to liberate Russia from Vladimir V. Putin, the feminist punk band Pussy Riot has stirred up a storm about the role of the church, art and women in Russian society.

The group has been accused of blasphemy; three of the women are in pre-trial detention and could face up to seven years in prison.

Video of their performance, which went viral on YouTube, shows five Pussy Riot members in trademark masks dancing, arms flailing, in front of the altar of the cathedral, a vast structure rebuilt in the 1990s on the site of a cathedral that was blown up on Stalin’s orders in 1931.

The cathedral, where Patriarch Kirill I celebrates Christmas and Easter services attended by Mr. Putin and Dmitri A. Medvedev, the departing president, has become a symbol of the ties between church and state in the post-Soviet era.

The story then moves to a recitation of local reactions, noting that “top officials in the Russian Orthodox Church have called for the band’s members to be strictly punished — at times tempering this demand by saying that they do not insist on a long jail sentence.”

Soft and hard statements are offered with “Russian Orthodox nationalists” calling for the group to be “flogged” while  “other Orthodox activists have condemned such calls as shameful.” However, no names or examples are offered.

The first voice to appear is that of:

The Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior Orthodox cleric known for his own outrageous statements on a range of topics, reiterated on Monday that there were no grounds for leniency and “that this text and this video are extremist materials, and their dissemination constitutes an extremist activity.”

The members of Pussy Riot “have declared war on Orthodox people, and there will be a war,” he told the Interfax news agency. “If the blasphemers are not punished, God will punish them in eternity and here through people.”

The group’s attorneys follow with their contention the charges have not been proved, and at that point the article notes that the:

scandal has had the interesting side effect of breaking a taboo around the word Pussy (Poosi in the Russian transliteration), as the band is usually referred to in short. It has been mouthed without embarrassment by commentators, officials and Russian Orthodox priests. Pravmir, an Orthodox news Web site, has translated the meaning of Pussy Riot as “uprising of the uterus.”

The story then offers details of the incident that led to the girls’ arrest noting the performance included the refrain about Orthodox bishops:

“The K.G.B. chief is their chief saint, he leads protesters to prison under convoy,” reads one verse in a version published on several Web sites. “In order to not offend His Holiness, women must give birth and love.”

The chorus is in the form of an appeal to the Virgin Mary. “O Birthgiver of God,” sings the band, using Russian Orthodox liturgical language for addressing the Virgin Mary — “get rid of Putin, get rid of Putin, get rid of Putin.”

One of the groups members, the Times notes has been:

criticized especially harshly for participating in a 2008 orgy at a biology museum, in which she is shown having sex with her husband just days before giving birth. She has been condemned as desecrating motherhood and harming her child — now an adorable braided blonde who made a taped appeal for her mother’s release.

The article then closes with a comment from a feminist writer who states the performance has nothing to do with feminism.

In defense of the way this story was framed, the International Herald Tribune printed this as part of a series on women after it first appeared in the Times. So perhaps the audience of this story were readers of People, who would respond appropriately to the bit about the “adorable braided blonde” who pleads for the release of her mother, and the lede sentence that promises a discussion on “the role of the church, art and women in Russian society.”

But this discussion never happens. Perhaps the closing comment that this is not feminism supplied the discussion, but it is otherwise absent from the story. Another omission is the nature of the crime. One need look outside the Times to find the women are being charged with “hooliganism“, not blasphemy. Their past public performances have led to their being charged with disorderly conduct and being let off with a fine, but the Cathedral incident on Shrove Tuesday has prompted public prosecutors to up the ante from a misdemeanor to a felony.

And what does the Times mean when it says the newly constructed cathedral, built on the spot where the old cathedral had stood until it was dynamited in 1931 by Lazar Kaganovich on the orders of Stalin, is a “symbol of the ties between church and state in the post-Soviet era.” Does this imply the church is a tool of President Putin? There is no explanation of this comment, nor voices speaking to this contention.

Christ Our Savior Cathedral, MoscowIn the introduction to Fr. Chaplin, what does the Times mean by saying he is “known for his own outrageous statements on a range of topics”? These “outrageous” statements are not cited nor has the dialogue between the church and Pussy Riot taking place through Twitter and the media been  explored. The article also implies that Fr. Chaplin wants to see the girls imprisoned. However, he has stated that he wants them to be punished, but not jailed.

As an aside, I met Fr. Chaplin at the World Council of Churches meeting in 2005 in Porto Allegre, Brazil. And yes, he is a character. I sat with him while an official from a liberal American denomination was giving a speech and Fr. Chaplain played the cantankerous Russian — muttering under his breath, “heretic”, “schismatic”, “infidel”, “Bolshevik” every so often.

While the article does mention that senior Orthodox clergy were disturbed by the incidence due to memories of the Soviet past, it does not explain why such memories would provoke such a sharp reaction. Nor does the charge made by Pussy Riot against against the Orthodox bishops of being stooges of the KGB get a hearing.

The Russian Orthodox Church was nearly wiped out in the Stalinist era. The state sponsored persecution of the Orthodox Church began with the sort of spectacle undertaken by Pussy Riot in Moscow’s chief cathedral in the 1920′s eventually led to the arrest of 168,300 priests, monks and nuns in the purges of 1937-1938 (of these over 100,000 were shot). Some of those who survived, did so through collaboration with the regime. The extent of this collaboration was such that the 2008 the Keston Institute report that outed Patriarch Alexy II as a KGB agent was not that much of a surprise.

Stylistically I did not care for the story. As journalism, I believe it failed to live up to its lede. It did not offer a discussion of the “role of the church, art and women in Russian society;” or a balanced or thorough account of the issues.

But the cheer-leading for Pussy Riot displayed a failing of sensibility.  Russian society is going through the painful process of rebuilding itself in the wake of the Soviet era. But this process is not fast enough for Pussy Riot and the New York Times, which believes that by insulting the church — a symbol of Putin’s state in the Times‘ and Pussy Riot’s view — a short cut to social change will be found. They seek “perfection as the crow flies” to use Michael Oakeshott’s phrase.

By pleading for tolerance for the actions of Pussy Riot, the Times seeks to elevate certain liberal ideas and constituencies above public criticism rather than trusting that they will eventually emerge victorious on their merits in open public debate. Framing the story as it does, the Times endorses the irrationalism of Pussy Riot against a villainous Russian government and a stodgy Orthodox Church.

I’m not quite settled in my thoughts, however. Am I taking a shovel to a souffle, beating with a cudgel this story from Moscow? Is too much being read into this article, or is there too little to read? Should the Times step back a bit, or can we trust it to pick the winners and losers in stories from far away about which we know very little?

What say you GetReligion readers?

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About geoconger
  • Pete

    I say LOL to this:

    — muttering under his breath, “heretic”, “schismatic”, “infidel”, “Bolshevik” every so often

    But secondly, the story is much more complicated than the times has made out, as you have demonstrated. In the United States, there is really still a mixed perception of who/what exactly Russia is, both religiously and politically. This could be a massive piece if the time is taken to examine how this particular issue is dividing the country. Sure, there are extremists that one no punishment at all, and there are those that desire a public, physical beating. But what would be most interesting to know is what the majorities (multiple, like the top 2 or 3 groups) think about the incident–what was really being accomplished, who should be upset, who should be forgiving, and how does this change the religious or political landscape if at all? Just my thoughts.

  • Martha

    I think yes, there probably is “too little to read” in this story as it stands. There is, as you point out, no example of whatever the outrageous statements Fr. Chaplin may have made, so we have no context in which to compare and contrast him with the band.

    There’s a hint that Putin interested himself in the case because it might have been tied in with protests pre-election but if so, that could just as well have been a canny political stroke to appeal to public opinion as much as a crackdown on opposition protest.

    In short, we don’t get a sense of what this band may have done before (did they perform similar stunts in public buildings? The reference to “an orgy in a biology museum” sounds as though they may have, but we get no background) or are they tied in with a political movement opposed to Putin or what is going on – other than, apparently, the Russian Orthodox clergy has been offended.

    I really think this is just an example of “The New York Times” regarding this band as artists, the stunt in the cathedral as performance art, and the objections as just more religious zealots being offended by a perfectly legitimate artistic strategy. I’m only surprised they didn’t try to tie in Andres Serrano as an example of how crazy the Bible-bashers can get because they don’t understand artistic freedom.

  • carl jacobs

    So I watched the video, and thought “That’s it?” Of course, I didn’t understand the lyrics and so a translation would have been helpful. But still. They didn’t actually hurt anything, and they didn’t actually bother anyone so far as I can tell. It didn’t seem like they interrupted a worship service. I got the impression they used the cathedral as a backdrop for a music video at a time when the cathedral was open to the public. I got the impression that the nuns and priests shown in the video were a part of the video.

    My second thought was “Imprisoned for blasphemy?” Are you kidding me? A little background on when blasphemy became punishable in Russia would have been nice. And some detail on why this was considered blasphemy as well. (See comment about Translation.) It looks like trespassing to me. Perhaps this was blasphemy against Fearless Leader for Life Putin? The one huge missing piece in this story is some detail on the alleged connection between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Gov’t.

    I expected to be righteously offended by this story. I was all ready to bash the media with my trusty cudgel. I ended up kind of sort of maybe sympathetic to the band.


    • geoconger

      Carl, Blasphemy is not a crime in Russia. That was one of the mistakes in the Times article — not making that clear.

  • Pete


    The Orthodox Church isn’t one to loan out its worship space for a concert–at least not one consisting of any more than liturgical music. Not hurting anything/anyone doesn’t really do justice to how highly the Russian Orthodox hold their places of worship–rightly or wrongly. So to hold an unsanctioned punk song/dance there, in front of the altar, on the solea itself, is much more than scandalous.

    The only similar concept I can think of regarding sacred space is Pompey profaning the Temple.

    The story doesn’t do a very good job of explaining why the Church might be upset, especially when no “liturgical items” were physically abused or defaced, &c.

  • Richard Mounts

    I think this story is a journalistic train wreck, mostly for the reasons by geoconger and the comments above.

    I would have liked to know how the band was able to set up to perform. Was this a kind of flash mob sort of thing? Did they ask pemission to use the cathedral? (That seems unlikely.)

    But what amused and saddened me was Rev. Chapin’s comment about the band’s just punishment. Amused becauase it seems proof of his history of outrageous comments. Saddened because I have to wonder about his theology education–punishing blasphemers in this world has nothing to do with God’s decision about how to deal with them in eternity. If they are going to be punished in eternity it wil be about their repentance, or lack of it. And then for the sins through all their life not just one. OBTW, how does the Rev. Chaplin know God’s mind so well? There’s a question the inteviewer missed.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Carl, Blasphemy is not a crime in Russia. That was one of the mistakes in the Times article —- not making that clear.

    If I remember right (based on what I heard on NPR) the women are being charged with ‘hooliganism’, which is a catch-all element of the Soviet criminal code that covers general bad behavior. They’re also going to be charged up to the limit of the law. I can’t feel in the least sympathetic to them.

    Re: Perhaps this was blasphemy against Fearless Leader for Life Putin? The one huge missing piece in this story is some detail on the alleged connection between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Gov’t.

    I’m not sure why that’s a problem. The Orthodox Church can support Putin, or the liberals, or the communists, if they feel like it. You may not be aware of this, but the history of church-state relations in Russia and other Orthodox countries is somewhat different than in the America.

  • GhaleonQ

    I think you got it exactly right, although your criticism was far more specific than the journalist’s effort demanded.

    The sexy (my apologies) story often overwhelms the austere, administrative story in any newspaper. That’s bad enough in the United States. Lots of our religious trends are clearly visible and comprehensible thanks to the country’s relative lack of embarrassment regarding its religiosity. We can get the picture, even with subpar reporting.

    Russia’s story is simultaneously older AND newer, and it’s significantly more complicated. Too bad, “Russian nihilist artists did a cool thing!” ended up being the message.

  • Matt

    The Russian Orthodox Church was nearly wiped out in the Stalinist era. The state sponsored persecution of the Orthodox Church began with the sort of spectacle undertaken by Pussy Riot in Moscow’s chief cathedral in the 1920’s eventually led to the arrest of 168,300 priests, monks and nuns in the purges of 1937-1938 (of these over 100,000 were shot).

    Can you expand on this, George? Are you saying that the Bolshevik persecution began with demonstrations like the one carried out by Pussy Riot? That Pussy Riot may have (for people haunted by certain memories) been replaying events that led to the near-destruction of the Russian church? If so, I’d like to know more, and I’d like to know whether Pussy Riot themselves were likely to know about the parallel.

    • geoconger

      I do not know what is in the minds of the members of Pussy Riot, or whether they are conscious of the parallels of their activities with those of the Soviet era.

      Yes, the initial Bolshevik persecution of the church included anti-religious carnivals that mocked Christian beliefs. The historical literature is clear on this point. On page 109 of Richard Stites’ Revolutionary dreams: utopian vision and experimental life in the Russian … there is a description of a Komsomol parade held in Moscow on the Orthodox Christmas (6 Jan 1923).

      … processions formed up at noon and paraded until dark. The marchers included students, Komsomols, members of women’s organizations, and working class youth with horseman holding anti-religious banners. They were followed by trucks bearing clowns who mocked God, a figure of God embracing a nude woman, and rabbis and priests in ridiculous poses chanting parodies of church liturgy set to indecent lyrics. As night fell, effigies of all the gods were burnt on a bonfire while the students danced around it and Komsomol Christmas carols based on the Orthodox troparion were sung.

  • Julia

    This is what the women are mocking:


    Rejoice, O Virgin

    , part of his Vespers collection.

    It is often sung in this country with Ave Maria lyrics

    About Rachmaninov’s Vespers:

  • Julia

    I should have said that the musical piece being mocked is the Eastern Christian prayer that the West calls the “Hail Mary”. The second half of the prayer is a bit different from the Western version, but both are mainly taken from the New Testament.

    It makes sense that a feminist group would pick the famous prayer to Mary as its musical background to blasphemous actions on an altar and requests that Mary get rid of Putin.

    This performance and its implied criticism of Orthodox leaders seems related to the debate about whether religious leaders in Cuba should overtly object to the powers that be or try to get the best treatment for their people by being open to dialog.

    This is the same debate as the one about whether Pius XII should have been more confrontational on behalf of Jews in the 2nd World War instead of doing what he could behind the scenes.

    I’d like to see some reporter connect the historical dots that keep repeating generation after generation.

  • Hector

    Re: This is the same debate as the one about whether Pius XII should have been more confrontational on behalf of Jews in the 2nd World War instead of doing what he could behind the scenes.

    Uh, it’s hardly the same debate at all.

    Whatever one feels about Putin or, for that matter, Castro, they aren’t remotely the same kind of evil as the Nazis were.

  • Tom in Lazybrook

    Kiril’s Russian Orthodox Church did something extrordinary yesterday. From (the national news wire of Russia for relgious news) under the Headline “Moscow Orthodox Community tells gays not to play with fire”,

    A prominent Russian Orthodox Priest, Father Sergy Rybko, was quoted as having had “blessed Orthodox Believers to combat…” Gay people protesting. This call, which was apparently issued in churches and in conjunction with the Church’s Nationalist Youth Group, was at best a call to vigilantism and at worst an open call to lynch mobism. It also names persons to be singled out as the subjects of vigilantism or lynch mobs. Is this what Kiril and Russian Orhodoxy has sunk to?

    Its simply not credible that Kiril’s Russian Orthodox Church does not read or know what is being reported on interfax-relgion, which appears to consist mainly of press releases issued by the Church itself.

    So the Russian Orthodox Church, in the form of a very prominent priest, not DIRECTLY calls for vigilanties to combat peaceful protesters?

    Wow. Read that again. Go to interfax-relgion and click on the story “Moscow Orthodox community tells gays not to play with fire”.

    And they have the nerve to call others ‘extremists’?

    Is this a “Christian” faith or a violent gang? Wow.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I am thinking that if a group did a similar unauthorized concert in many church buildings in the US some sort of tresspassing charges would be brought. It would not lead to calls for beatings, but in most cases people would just shrug of charges of links to the CIA. Even at that, charges of links to the CIA are not as inflamatory.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Actually Julia I think the debate is not what you make it out. The question here seems to me to be at what point does disruption of privately owned space constitute tresspass in the name of protest.

    If Romney is elected president does it then become OK to form a flash mob inside the Washington DC chapel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where he attended church?

  • xariskai

    I wonder what public and judicial opinion might be in the U. S. if a punk “God Riot” band played anti-abortion songs in an abortion clinic and resisted requests by management there for them to leave. “They didn’t break the surgical instruments, what’s the harm in art”?

    Hopefully not something like seven years in prison, but then again the law simply states seven years as the maximum, not the minimum, allowing judicial flexibility given the range of possible events of the type that might occur. For example, few would suppose just a slap on the wrist was sufficient if it was a punk Nazi Riot band in a Mosque or Synagogue, or a punk Polticial Riot band in a government building.

    IMO the Church should say publicly, if asked for further public comment, that they are praying for the criminals, but that their fate is in the hands of the state, and that it is impossible to simply say what they did does not matter so much and that they should be let off with a grin and lol without inviting every person with a cause to turn every church, mosque, and synagogue in the country into a potential three ring circus, but that what exactly should or will be done is not a church matter.

    If a band wants to play in a cathedral without permission they should build their own or buy a green screen.

  • Stan

    xariskai, I think most people would prefer “God Riot” playing music in an abortion clinic over the actions of Scott Roeder, James Kopp, Michael Griffin or other good Christian men like them. What I think is sad about the Pussy Riot situation is no one is talking about what they were protesting in the first place. That the state and the government were becoming too close. Look at the actions of Putin and tell me if he is a good Christian. When he was running for his third term (really his fourth) Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Kirill not only surrported Putin, but told his followers not to go to opposition rallies. It would be interesting to see people on this webpage talk about that. Or is it too complicated? Lets just pass judgement on these girls for calling attention to an injustice.