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Pussy Riot and Russia's Awkward Version of Democracy

August 17, 2012  |  10:35am
Pussy Riot and Russia's Awkward Version of Democracy

In 1994, I traveled to Russia in the middle of winter to help organize a sports camp for kids the following summer. I was a recent college grad, wide-eyed as I walked the streets of St. Petersberg and the smaller town of Vyborg, near the border of Finland. I’d grown up in the era of Red Dawn and Olympic boycotts and the threat of nuclear war, but in a few months I’d be teaching kids to play baseball and shoot hoops.

I stayed in the home of an elderly woman, a kind, heavyset babushka who was constantly forcing hot green tea upon me. A neighborhood kid named Vanya stuck by me all week, translating every conversation with an abundance of editorial commentary. Vanya said he wanted to work beside me with the kids this summer, but he was graduating school and would have to join the army instead.

To escape the stifling hot, stuffy house, we’d walk around the neighborhood. As we ventured farther into the city, we sought refuge from the bitter winds in a large Orthodox church. The worshipers stood in the open hall of the sanctuary. Beautiful chords from the organ and choir drifted down from the balcony. Candles flickered and dripped wax from every side. A portrait of the crucified Christ reflected the saddened faces of the congregation—all suffering, no grace. The priest entered with great pomp and spoke of promised suffering, as Vanya whispered an English translation in my ear. These people had been persecuted for years under Communist rule, and he assured them that it would continue, even if its powers were less obvious. I kept waiting for a message of hope among the misery, but it never came.

As I gazed appreciatively at the soft oils painted on the crowded walls, I felt tiny, but very firm hands on my forearms. I turned to find an old woman scolding me in Russian, saying “You weren’t raised right!” as she yanked my hands out of my pockets.

I received a dozen sharp looks. I was an obvious outsider. I didn’t share in their anguish; the lines didn’t carve my face. I was too caught up in the elegance of the cathedral even in its disrepair, the solemn and enchanting singing, the very picture of holiness. The people began to line up to kiss the priest’s ring, and I returned to the stinging winds of Northern Russia.

I can’t imagine what the years of Communist oppression had been like for those who remained faithful to Christian Orthodoxy. Before Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost, Orthodox churches were tolerated, but members still faced ridicule, harassment and poor job prospects from a government that sought the elimination of all religion. That the passion of their faith remained strong despite this persecution left a lasting, vivid impression. I’m still thankful for all that I learned about reverence that day.

Russia’s “openness,” though, has had setbacks through the years. Freedom of the press and of speech have suffered greatly since Vladimir Putin began building his “vertical of power” in 2000. I spoke earlier this year with a group of journalists visiting The University of Georgia from Russia and other former Soviet Republics and heard horror stories of arrests, shut-downs and confiscations of equipment.

This time, though, the Russian Orthodox Church has found itself on the inside. Putin attends on most Orthodox holidays and has managed to gain the support of most patriarchs, as well as other leaders of state-approved religions. Sadly, the church is now at the center of a storm which has them on the wrong side of persecution. Three young women did something that angered Orthodox believers much more than an American with his hands in his pockets. A punk band with the name Pussy Riot chose an Orthodox church as a venue for protest against the increasingly totalitarian attitude of a leader who’s held power for more than a dozen years. They’re the voice of a minority who’s unwilling to trade their brief taste of freedom for the stability that Putin brought to a nation whose fits and starts toward Democracy were marred by corruption and violence.

The song the band played asked Mother Mary to send Putin away and accused Patriarch Kirill I of believing in Putin instead of God. The patriarch, who’s reportedly credited Putin’s years in power as a miracle from God, responded that the “Devil has laughed at all of us … We have no future if we allow mocking in front of great shrines, and if some see such mocking as some sort of valour, as an expression of political protest, as an acceptable action or a harmless joke.”

Sometimes, though, satire or mockery is the only avenue left to those outside of power. Without the rights of free speech and press, Democracy will atrophy back into the hands of a dictator—freely elected or not.

Three members of Pussy Riot have now been sentenced to two years in jail for protesting the politics of a man who now controls much of the media and has the bulk of organized religion in his pocket. Two of the women will now be separated from their children.

And while I understand why members of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, where the song was performed, might be offended by a punk band called Pussy Riot playing an impromptu set in a place where reverence is prized above all, I also believe that those congregants should remember what it was like to be outside of power. If they can’t, they weren’t raised right.

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