Conflict & Justice

Slideshow: Russia Remains Divided on The Pussy Riot Case

Despite 70 years of atheist Communist rule, Russia remains a deeply conservative society with traditional Christian values. Pussy Riot's "punk rock prayer" was not received well by most Russians. But the way state and church officials handled the punishment did not go over well either.

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At a recent opposition rally in Moscow, some of the banners and slogans normally directed at President Vladimir Putin also attacked the Russian Orthodox Church, seen as a key Kremlin ally. Gleb Pavlovsky, who was a Kremlin political adviser for 15 years until he was fired last year, said Russia has been deeply affected by Pussy Riot.

"There is a tremendous split," he said. "I know a lot of families in Russia in which the topic of Pussy Riot is forbidden to talk about at the dinner table."

Pavlovsky attributes the political muscle of the Orthodox Church to Russia's immature political culture. Simply put, politicians are losing credibility and there is no other game in town. The Pussy Riot case brought this trend out into the open.

"It has shown that in our culture, a secular alternative has not yet formed," Pavlovsky said. "That's why many so people turned directly from the religious indifference of the Soviet years into fierce religious warriors."

The divisiveness of the Pussy Riot trial has fuelled talk about two Russias. Pyotr Verzilov, husband of convicted Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, said the government has used the case as a wedge between two Russias. One — urban, educated and worldly — supports Pussy Riot.

"And the other Russia, lives in small cities or villages, doesn't use Internet, is very disconnected from mainstream media and from mainstream western culture and to that portion of society," Verzilov said. "It was very easy to explain that what Pussy Riot did was some horrible blasphemous act they should be brutally punished for."

Politically, some commentators see the Pussy Riot uproar as a victory for President Putin in the short-term.

"He made the church fend for him, fend for the Kremlin, pretending rather that it was solely an offense to religion rather than an offense to the Kremlin and Putin personally," said Konstantin von Eggert from Komersant FM in Moscow. "And it presented the opposition as a bunch of marginal idiots whose idea of being in opposition is dancing in churches."

This political maneuvering between the Kremlin and the church was the result of a few church officials, according to Priest Georgi Mitrofanov. He said most church officials are indifferent to politics. Mitrofanov agrees that the Kremlin used the church for political cover.

"That's why I think the church should be keep a maximum distance from the state, so that the state won't be able to use the church to protect its own actions," Mitrofanov said.

Among politicians who support close ties between the state and the church is Vitaly Milonov. He is a legislator in the regional parliament of St. Petersburg from the governing United Russia Party. Milonov makes no apologies for using the levers of the state to protect religious belief.

"This faith should be protected because faith is the most deep inside tender feeling," he said. "If we protect health, we protect private property, why should not we protect faith?"

At the end of the interview, legislator Milonov shared his frank opinion about living in a democratic society.

"Most of the people in Russia, they absolutely agree that this action should be punished," Milonov said. "Without any doubt. Of course there are a certain number of people whose reaction is different. But no, we are living in a democratic society. Unfortunately."

A good number of those who feel differently are young people. Religion analyst Geraldine Fagan said Russians over 30 grew up in the Soviet era when the church was a symbol of resistance to state oppression. So they are used to giving the church the benefit of the doubt.

"The younger generation whose conscious experience is really only living under Putin, what they know is a privileged church, a church that's shown on television, a church that's allied with the regime. And they think negatively about the regime," Fagan said. "For them, I think there isn't this automatic feeling of support for the church when something like this happens."

While the Communist state tried to crush the church, analysts note the government today is trying co-opt it. The Russian parliament introduced a bill on Wednesday enacting criminal penalties for "offending religious feelings."

  • cathedralofchristthesavior.jpg

    The Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow where Pussy Riot performed their punk prayer service urging "Mother of god, cast Putin out!" (Photo: Matthew Brunwasser)
  • protest1.jpg

    A protester at a recent Moscow opposition rally. (Photo: Matthew Brunwasser)
  • protest2.jpg

    LGBT protestors at a recent Moscow opposition rally hold an image of the three Pussy Riot women as the Holy Trinity in a Russian Orthodox-style Christian icon. (Photo: Matthew Brunwasser)

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