‘Pussysteria’, or the awakening of Russia’s conscience


On 10th July a Moscow court extended the pre-trial detention of three members of feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot, charged with hooliganism after they performed a ‘blasphemous’ and anti-Putin song in the city’s main cathedral in February. Vladimir Pastukhov believes there is much the case tells us about the relations between the Putin government and the Russia’s Orthodox Church.

Vladimir Pastukhov
11 July 2012

The longer the Pussy Riot case drags on, the clearer it is that their provocative lyrics may have been the trigger for all this furore, but they were not its cause. The roots of ‘Pussysteria’ go deep into the warped national consciousness. The band stepped on a rake and set off a landmine. The explosion was so deafening that the actual lyrics were quickly forgotten.


The three members of punk collective 'Pussy Riot' have been in pre-trial detention since early March. Photo: Pussy Riot blog

To both the ‘pro’s’ and the ‘anti’s’ it hardly matters any more who sang what, where. The fallout from the ‘Pussies’’ arrest has been unprecedented. Suffice it to say that neither Khodorkovsky alive nor Magnitsky dead has gathered in several years a tenth of the ‘sympathy’ the punk rockers have attracted over a few months, without any apparent effort on their part. Admittedly no one has ever accused Khodorkovsky or Magnitsky of being in league with the devil.

Pussy Riot hit a raw nerve in the Russian public, one where the slightest touch causes convulsing agony.

They sang just for the hell of it, but found themselves the nerve centre of other people’s national and religious hang-ups. Russia’s collective gasp expressed both fury and shame. So we should at least be thanking them for making us aware of our sensitivities.

The awakening national conscience

I believe that both the unanimous support for Pussy Riot from the educated classes, and the naked aggression unleashed against the band by the Orthodox Church and its puppet, the Putin regime, are symptoms of certain repressed instincts breaking through the surface from the depths of the Russian unconscious. This type of frenzy is usually an attempt to silence the voice of conscience.

The Russian people’s desire for truth and its inability to live by truth - this is the underlying ethical conflict that is runs through the whole of Russian history

In today’s Russia literally every aspect of life is riddled with lies. Moral relativism and legal nihilism are rapidly destroying social and political norms. But in the depths of their hearts, in the secret recesses of their unconscious, Russians retain an abstract concept of the moral ideal, a vision of truth.

However superficial the Christianisation of Russia, however mangled it was by Orthodox dogmatism, it could not disappear and leave no trace in the Russian character.

The Russian people’s desire for truth and its inability to live by truth - this is the underlying ethical conflict that is runs through the whole of Russian history, sometimes dying back, at other times catching fire. For some people today it’s the Bible, for some the moral code of the fathers of Communism that rings in their ears, but the message is the same: we can’t go on living like this.

Russian social consciousness is depressive, characterised by ‘moral instability and anxiety’. A feeling of fatalistic doom, inevitability and certainty of imminent punishment has overcome people. More and more often you find yourself witnessing unbelievable scenes. Shameless oligarchs, ‘fathers of the nation’, invited to a session of some US Senate subcommittee, talking quietly to one another about how they have been screwed by Russian corruption. An FSB chief complaining to his banker friend about the rottenness of everything. Or an Interior Ministry ‘fixer’ moaning about the cynicism of the cops on whose behalf he is ‘sorting out’ a problem. Let alone ordinary Russians.

And so, although people continue to slag off the regime out of sheer inertia, they are gradually focussing their attention more on themselves. They feel that there is a certain affinity between the rulers that they criticise and themselves, that the regime’s crookedness is to some extent their own crookedness. There is a gradual recognition that the government does nothing that ordinary people wouldn’t do. The scale is different, but it comes down to the same thing.

The Russian Orthodox Church as a ‘natural monopoly’

The Russian in the street, accustomed to an ideological ‘big brother’ watching over him, and missing his party meetings, turned to the church, where he was met with open arms.

Whether they like it or not, people today have to think more and more often about who they are, why they are as they are, and what will happen if they remain as they are. All these questions are directed at eternity. And eternity is, of course, the realm of religion. Any awakening of conscience therefore inevitably impels part of the Russian public into a search for faith. And one truth lover of this kind presents a greater threat to the regime’s stability today than a dozen opposition parties.

But truth lovers and faith seekers come up against an unexpected obstacle: in Russia, it turns out, there is a state monopoly on religion which seems just as natural to the Russians of today as Gazprom’s monopoly on the extraction and distribution of gas. The government gives a ‘licence’ for the ‘right faith’ to its selected religious corporations, primarily the Russian Orthodox Church. Freedom of religion for ‘private consumption’ has practically ceased to exist in Russia.

Vladimir Putin and close ally Patriarch Kirill I, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Photo: Kremlin.ru/Konstantin Zavrazhin

This situation has its roots in Russia’s history. Orthodoxy, like Communism later, was nationalised a long time ago. By the middle of the 19th century it had become a surrogate religion, more like a national ideology. The Orthodox Church remained in this position – somewhere between a faith and an ideology – during the Soviet period, although it was consigned to a reservation.

However as soon as an opportunity arose to leave the reservation, the Church broke free and occupied all the available spiritual space, pushing out, with a certain satisfaction, its former rival, Communism, and hijacking its ‘market’. The Russian in the street, accustomed to an ideological ‘big brother’ watching over him, and missing his party meetings, turned to the church, where he was met with open arms.

A question of politics

There is little genuine Christianity in the official Orthodox Church today, if only because the nature of Christianity makes it unsuitable as a national religion. Russian Orthodoxy has, however, a completely different mission, whose significance is not completely recognised – it is the ideological basis for Russian national identity. So the position of Orthodox Christianity in Russia is less about religion and more about politics.


Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova during a court hearing. Photo: Demotix/Anton Belitsky

That is what did for Pussy Riot. If it was really a question of causing offence to believers, the band’s ‘blasphemous’ action in the church of Christ the Saviour would have passed unnoticed in today’s godless Russia. Across the country churches are torched, priests murdered and icons stolen, and no one bats an eyelid. Pop star Filipp Kirkorov sings in church at the christening of his daughter, born to a surrogate mother, and melts the hearts of all pious Russians. But Pussy Riot struck out at the ‘sacred’ relationship between the church and the state, so their action was seen as an attack on the foundations of the constitutional system.

In effect, under a double layer of legal obfuscation the band members are being accused of treason. It’s ridiculous – behind the charge of hooliganism is an accusation of blasphemy, and behind the accusation of blasphemy is an accusation of sedition.

But in essence it’s a purely political business. It has much more in common with the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s than with medieval witch hunts. The regime regards Pussy Riot as on a par with Yemelyan Pugachov, who led a peasant revolt against Catherine the Great more than two centuries ago. Not only do they fall into the same category as the organisers of the mass rallies of the last few months - they arouse even more anxiety in the Kremlin, since they have challenged what the regime sees as the foundation of its own power. When they call them ‘enemies of religion’, they mean ‘enemies of the people’. I am sure that their case is being run by the lads from the Interior Ministry’s ‘E’ directorate, whose job is to repress the opposition.

The end of church history

Pussy Riot have turned over an important new page in Russian history. Thanks to them, the Russian Orthodox Church has come under criticism from all sectors of Russian society, and in the eyes of many they have broken the taboo of self-censorship. I am also in no doubt that these events will cause much unrest within the church itself. And whatever the fate of the ‘Pussies’, attacks on the church will continue. It’s a vicious circle.

The awakening of conscience will create a need for faith. The search for faith will come up against the Orthodox monopoly. The church will rise to the defence of the ‘true faith’. The state will be called in to provide the means of defence. Repression by the Kremlin will lead to more rumblings of conscience.

As a result, in a few years Russia will be facing such a ‘Pussy Riot’ that their recent outrage will seem like a school choir.

Everyone is expecting the Kremlin to show some common sense, and many predict that the band members will soon be freed and that the case will be dropped. I would love to be mistaken in my prognosis, but I feel that there will be no quick resolution of this case. A witch hunt could still be called off, but a treason trial – never. It’s not the right time.

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