Russia should make blasphemy a criminal offense, a leading Orthodox Church official said on Wednesday, the day after notorious all-female group Pussy Riot performed a protest song at the altar of Moscow’s largest cathedral.
“Yesterday’s escapades at the Christ the Savior Cathedral pose a serious problem,” Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin wrote in an Orthodox Church collective blog. “We cannot and will not live in a state where such acts are possible.”
“We are talking here about deeds that could seriously inflame the situation in our country,” said Chaplin, who oversees relations between Russia’s influential Orthodox Church and society. “We need to make this a criminal matter.”Current punishments for “offending the religious sentiments of citizens” are limited to fines of up to some $35.
“If the Church hierarchy showed some Christian asceticism and did not praise the authorities so, we would be more understanding of the Church as an institution,” Pussy Riot said in a Twitter statement. “It is a big mistake to think we are all atheists. Some members of the group go to church every Sunday.”
The group was briefly detained after their performance, which took place in the presence of several worshippers. And on Wednesday, the rector of an Orthodox school in Moscow asked state prosecutors to bring charges of inciting religious hatred against the group. The charge carries a maximum jail term of three years.
The Russian Orthodox Church has enjoyed a dramatic rise in influence since the collapse of the atheist Soviet Union. In a sign of deepening ties with the authorities, Patriarch Kirill was recently granted official residence in the Kremlin.
Pussy Riot first hit the headlines in January, when they raced through a musical diatribe against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on a snowy Red Square, calling for “Revolt in Russia!” and chanting “Putin’s got scared” before being detained by police.
And on Tuesday, four members of the group, clad in bright balaclavas, performed an acapella version of what they said was a “punk prayer” entitled “Holy Sh*t.” The lyrics included lines such as “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, chase Putin out!”
The performance came with less than a week to go before presidential elections in which Putin will seek to return to the Kremlin for a third term. Although Putin is widely expected to triumph at the March 4 polls, his bid comes amid the largest show of dissent since he first came to power in 2000.
Anti-government protests, the largest of which have been permitted by the Kremlin, began after widespread allegations of vote fraud in favor of Putin’s United Russia party at December 4 parliamentary polls.
“As peaceful, approved demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people have failed to bring the required results, we will ask the Holy Mother to drive Putin out,” the group said in its Live Journal account prior to their performance.
Protesters have called for a rerun of December’s polls, the ousting of the country’s election chief and the release of “political prisoners,” among other demands.
Patriarch Kirill said ahead of a mass protest in Moscow earlier this month that believers should stay at home at pray for “holy Russia.” However, in January he also urged the Kremlin not to “ignore” the protests.
“The Pussy Riot show was a definite reaction to the patriarch’s comments that Russians shouldn’t go out and protest,” said Marat Guelman, an influential art gallery owner and former Kremlin political advisor. “Agitprop actions like this are on the rise now as everyone is tense before the elections.”
Online critics of Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” claimed on Wednesday that the group was playing into the hands of the authorities, who would now use the “Satanic” show in Russia’s biggest cathedral to discredit the opposition in the eyes of the country’s some 75 million believers.
“The authorities are unlikely to do this,” said Guelman, “To do so they would have to allow the group’s message to be heard. And I don’t think they will permit this.”
Agitprop Makes a Comeback
While Pussy Riot’s members admit being inspired by the US 1990s Riot Girl punk movement, they are also part of a very Russian revival in agitprop that has grown slowly in recent years, finding its raison d’etre during the ongoing anti-Putin demonstrations.
“The current wave of agitprop has definitely been inspired by the current mood in Russia,” said Valery Ledenev, editor at the Moscow-based Artchronika magazine. “The scene has come back to life after a long period of silence.”
But he also said that he believed Pussy Riot’s concert was “more political act than performance art,” adding that “the people who witnessed this weren’t at all those whom the protest was directed at.”
St. Petersburg’s Voina art collective is arguably the most well-known of this new wave of Russian guerrilla art groups, making international headlines for stunts that have included the painting of a massive penis on a drawbridge opposite the headquarters of the local FSB security forces.
Voina’s performances have blurred the lines between art and political sabotage, with other actions including the burning of a police truck. Two of the groups founders served jail time for their part in a 2010 art action entitled Palace Revolution that saw a number of police cars overturned.
In January, activists cum artists in south Siberia’s Barnaul staged a high-profile “toy protest” in January, featuring tiny plastic figures holding placards, to draw attention to a ban on demonstrations against alleged vote fraud. Officials subsequently ruled that toys had “no right” to protest, as they were “not citizens.”
“Of course, Russians have always had a fairly negative attitude to their leaders,” Ledenev said. “But certain recent concrete issues, such as the parliamentary polls, have given such art groups a genuine boost.”