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opinion | cathy young

Russian rulers get religion

Ex-communists, church join forces in prosecution of anti-Putin punk band

 Three feminist punk rockers — from left in glass cage, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich— wait at a courtroom in Moscow Wednesday.

Associated press

Three feminist punk rockers — from left in glass cage, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich— wait at a courtroom in Moscow Wednesday.

Remember when Russia was ruled by godless communists who persecuted believers? How times have changed: In the latest Moscow show trial, three punk rockers who sang a protest song in a church face prison time for insulting religion. The one constant between then and now is a state hostile to free minds and free speech.

The prosecution of the singers from the all-female band Pussy Riot represents a new low in political repression in post-Soviet Russia. But it is also a cautionary tale about the entanglement of church and state.

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On Feb. 21, in the midst of Vladimir Putin’s campaign to reclaim the presidency, Pussy Riot brought its guerrilla theater to Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Wearing their trademark colorful short dresses and balaclavas, the young women ran out in front of the altar and began a song-and-dance act which opened with a “punk prayer chant”: “Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, deliver us from Putin.” Subsequent lyrics — only a small portion of which was audible before the group was hustled away — denounced the close ties between the church and the regime (“the head of the KGB is their patron saint”).

 A protester holds a placard of pictures of people wearing balaclavas, in the style of the arrested performers, outside the Russian embassy in Berlin.

REUTERS

A protester holds a placard of pictures of people wearing balaclavas, in the style of the arrested performers, outside the Russian embassy in Berlin.

Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich were charged with “hate-motivated hooliganism” and held without bail, even though two of them have small children. The charge carries penalties of two to seven years’ imprisonment; the prosecution is asking for three. There is no jury, and the judge has shown blatant bias against the defense throughout the trial, which wrapped up Wednesday. The verdict is due next week.

This case is clearly political, and is part of a larger crackdown on discontent. Yet it is also no accident that the group’s performance in the cathedral — and not, say, an earlier protest in which they sang a vulgarity-laced anti-Putin song on Red Square — was singled out. Turning dissent into sacrilege, the indictment accused the women of malicious intent to “demean the feelings and beliefs” of Orthodox Christians; in his closing argument, the prosecutor asserted that their lyrics “blasphemed against God.”

What makes this all the more surreal is the fact that Russia’s present rulers, from Putin on down, are heirs to an atheist state under which faith was repressed and stigmatized. After the fall of the Soviet Union, religious freedom briefly flourished. Then, with a neo-authoritarian revival, religion began to replace communism as the ideology of state power. (Pussy Riot’s alleged offenses also include “belittling the spiritual foundations of the state.”)

While the Russian constitution ostensibly affirms the separation of church and state, current law singles out the “special” place of Orthodox Christianity. Politicians routinely affirm their piety — Putin claims, hilariously, to have been a cross-wearing believer in his KGB days — and attend church services that are broadcast on state television.

Church leaders, meanwhile, pay tribute just as ostentatiously to Russia’s rulers. During last spring’s farcical presidential campaign, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian church, urged the faithful to vote for Putin and shun protest rallies. Church leaders have not only praised the authoritarian Russian state as a model of social harmony but endorsed repressive acts, from bans on gay pride events to curbs on “offensive” expression. In 2005, the church pushed for the prosecution of museum staffers who organized an art exhibition critical of religion — and for dismissal of charges against nationalist goons who vandalized the exhibits. (The museum workers were convicted of “inciting hatred” and heavily fined.) ­Today, church spokesmen have demanded punishment for the Pussy Riot singers.

In a July poll, only 20 percent of Russians familiar with the criminal case approved of the church’s stance. Yet a disturbing 37 percent felt the women deserved at least some prison time. More alarming, over a quarter said Russians should not be able to criticize the church.

All this might seem irrelevant to America, whose religious pluralism couldn’t be more different from Russia’s history of state religion and state atheism. Yet, when some conservatives speak of a “Christian nation” and decry the “fiction” of church-state separation, Russia should be a warning. In his 1983 “Evil Empire” speech, Ronald Reagan contrasted communism’s rejection of God with the faith-based “human quest for freedom.” Thirty years later in Russia, communism is gone, and God is back — and freedom is squelched in his name, too.

Cathy Young is a columnist for Real Clear Politics.
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