In Russia, a Church is Just Another Government Building


Personally I think this style of worship would really bump up the numbers at the church box office.  I’d go!

I’ve been reading, and really enjoying, Spymaster by Oleg Kalugin, former KGB big baddy. So this morning, in the wake of the 2 year “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” sentences handed out to agit-prop activists Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in a bent Russian courtroom, when I came across this passage: “the KGB’s nearly total control of the Russian Orthodox church, both at home and abroad, is one of the most sordid and little known chapters in the history of our organization”, it had extra resonance.

Hmmm, I thought. Didn’t Putin start out in the KGB? And aren’t former KGB still liberally populating every aspect of Russian power politics?

I looked around the Web for articles about the hooliganism verdict that touched upon this aspect of the long-standing collusion between the state and the church (try Pussy Riot + KGB) and to my surprise, found that the only big UK paper explicitly going into it was the Telegraph who is lucky enough to have the excellent Daniel Weiss, of the Henry Jackson Society think tank, on its masthead. I was really surprised that neither the Independent nor the Guardian were carrying this story, with the Independent even going so far as to analyse the situation totally the wrong way round and characterize the verdict as a sign of the church’s power when it is in fact a sign of the church’s corruption in service of Putin’s power!

Here’s the link to the Weiss piece.  Highly recommended.

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/michaelweiss/100177054/pussy-riot-hit-putin-where-hes-seldom-hit-his-manipulation-of-russian-orthodoxy/

I then looked into the pre-revolutionary history of the Russian church to see how far back the collaboration between religious and political institutions went.  Sure enough, the church’s history as a tool of the governing authority goes back at least to the time of Peter the Great (early 18th century) who incorporated the church into the administrative structure of an absolutist state, with him at the top.

When I read the Guardian’s rather thin analysis of the situation, as well as those on other sites, I couldn’t help but notice the comments from those people (you’ll know the ones I mean) who can’t resist the opportunity to respond to any undemocratic outrage anywhere in the world by saying something along the lines of, “it’s just as bad in the UK/USA!”  These are really tortured comparisons, to say the least.  It reminds me of a passionately pro-Palestine activist I once knew who tried to convince me that Iraq had better quality of life under Saddam Hussein by insisting that the social restrictions, post-US Invasion “made Saudi Arabia look like Amsterdam”; surely one of the most head-scratchingly-OTT, bad analogies, of all time.  (Don’t even try to work it out. It hurts the mind.)

So I posted the following letter, in an effort to address both topics, and thought I’d re-post here as I know a lot of people, especially friends in the USA who probably haven’t been getting news coverage of this until recently, have been somewhat puzzled about what is behind this case.

*

Why doesn’t the Guardian point out the long-standing collaboration between the Russian Orthodox Church and repressive forces within government? During the Soviet Era, the Church was almost 100% controlled by the KGB. Today’s Russian government is still full of ex-KGB men, like Putin, and so is the Orthodox Church. So-called religious values are being shamelessly exploited for purely political purposes. After all, how can insulting the president be “motivated by religious hatred” simply because the stunt takes place inside a Church? Only if, as some of the more knowledgeable readers on here have already commented, the faux-religious ideology associates political leadership roles with the Godhead. This is indeed the case in Russia, ever since Stalin deliberately appropriated religious iconography for use in his enormous propaganda machine, creating images that baldly equated the leader of the new godless state with a sort of divine super-dad.

Russia is a broken country that has been getting it consistently wrong, when it comes to rule of law and society, for several hundred years at least. For this reason, it’s intellectually wrong to equate this type of show-court verdict with those unfortunate miscarriages of justice that still do occur in Western Europe or the USA. Whereas Russia has spent the last few centuries going from a nearly Arabian-style bloated aristocracy vs. impoverished peasant class society, through a series of harsh communist dictatorships featuring mass imprisonments, concentration camps and a heavy emphasis on espionage, followed by a disastrous entry into global free trade economics that turned into a botched social reformation under the helm of Russia’s new nouveau riche and now a return to the old order in disguise; the UK (and then as an outgrowth of it, the USA) has been developing fairer legal instruments and court processes for centuries. The intellectual traditions of legal justice and a separation of church and state have a long and detailed record of establishment here in the West and however imperfect it may sometimes be in application (and religious fanatics are always getting in there and trying to mess with it), time and again we find that the built-in mechanisms of checks and balances in Western law can frequently be employed to reverse bad decisions when they are made. I would say the UK probably still has the fairest court system in the world. (There are plenty of laws I disagree with, and regularly disregard, but that’s a different subject.) Russia, in stark contrast, did not spend the last few hundred years developing a system of law built on the ideal of finding the best balance between individual liberty and societal protection, with an increasing emphasis on the rights of the individual but rather has a long, long, history of law courts essentially being theatrical devices designed to punish enemies of the ruling powers, be they Tsar, Papa Stalin, or Putin. This is what people need to understand.

***

So friends, at least maybe now, in the wake of this decision, the still well-kept “sordid” secret of KGB infiltration into and control of the Russian church will finally get out there and expose the reality of how much of the former Soviet “apparatchik” is still in its same position of power as under hard-line communism.  The international community ought to suspend recognition of Russia as a democracy at this time. The charade has gone on long enough.  “Former” KGB officers have crossed international borders and carried out assassinations in broad daylight, with the release of a radioactive poison in a public London tea room being just the most outrageous of a number of hits on opponents of Putin as well as oligarchs and enemies from all sides of various internal Russian power struggles.   The country really is being run by something equivalent to the Mob and I just really feel that Russia does not deserve the veneer of respectability as a contemporary democracy that it has attained since the Glasnost era, just because they have voting devices.  There is more to a democracy than that and freedom of speech is one of the non-negotiables.

We have to continue to foil Putin’s PR-driven efforts to present Russia as having transitioned into anything resembling open society. It’s a sham and their status must be downgraded.

Finally, this case is a perfect example of why religious orders must ever be kept out of adjudication proceedings and why legal tenets must forever remain free of adherence to doctrines based in religious texts and ideologies, rather than common sense.  The “crime” of offending this or that person is one that appears to be on the rise in all countries, yes even here in the UK which also has some of the worst (most unfair) libel laws in the world, that favour liars with something to hide.  One of the problems with laws of “causing offense” is that not only do they create a new and ill-defined zone of risk but that this vagueness is actually intentional so that the law may be deployed willy-nilly, and also, perhaps even more nefariously, as a means of putting a pre-emptive curb on people’s exercise of free speech.  Most people will err on the side of extreme caution and muffle their dissenting voice if they think their joke may get them in trouble.

I think it is really awful, for example, that when I recite a satirical poem of mine that shreds on the history of the veil (We’re the Bare Naked Burkas), one of the most common reactions I get it is, “Oh no, but you can’t say that! You’ll get a Fatwa on your head!”  And this is after they’ve wiped away their tears of laughter.  It’s very clear to me that there is no hatred in my poem (one of the refrains is “don’t care who your god is, if you’re sexy, what your race is / but I love all my sisters and I wanna see your faces”), hatred of anything but outmoded systems of gender discrimination against women that is.  Hatred that “cultural sensitivity” is the wimpy excuse that keeps getting trotted out when some dare to complain of seeing Burkas gliding silently down the streets of Western Europe’s fashion capitals in the 21st Century.  Yet it is suggested that I ought to feel it would be reckless of me to perform the piece and that therefore I should what, self-censor in order not to trigger an irrational person to commit an act of violence against me? And so then what?  If I do perform it (I will) and I do get attacked (highly unlikely as I intend to require anybody wanting to hear the poem to be strip searched – hey, ya win some liberties at the cost of others…) then it is my fault, for provoking an imbalanced fanatic?

Similiarly, in the case of the Punk Prayer, the international public is being asked to take a “they brought it on themselves view”, which is only true if you are using the circular logic that public exposure of the unholy alliance between church and state is likely to result in said alliance colluding on a harsh retribution and thereby proving the case against itself.  Perhaps Maria, Ykaterina and Nadezhda optimisticaally hoped they would be released after trial, with time served, under the blaze of international scrutiny. But they must have also known, after all they are activists living in Russia, that there was a strong chance they would have to serve prison sentences.

To everyone that takes issue with the content or style of their action, or doesn’t like the band name (I don’t care for it myself, by the way, and think its ongoing use to collectively refer to 3 individuals has become dehumanizing which is why I make a point of using the women’s names in this piece) or thinks they are idiots for taking this risk or in any other way sanctions the crooked verdict of the court needs to remember this important fact:  these women risked jail to make their point and now their point is being made by them being actually sent to prison for another deuce, having already served 5 months.  No matter how you look at it, I hope that everyone can see that to do so is categorically nothing short of a brave sacrifice.   It’s the kind of thing that is required to make sweeping changes in society.

Yet I’ve read cynical remarks that the band should be happy for the free publicity or that  2 years at the hands of Putin’s jailers is really not so bad of a trade-off due to the modelling prospects of stunningly beautiful Nadezhda upon release.

Please pass this article on, so that the reasons for this protest may be better understood and the verdict more effectively challenged therefore.

Let’s make sure that this pussy is well and truly let out of the bag!

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5 Responses to “In Russia, a Church is Just Another Government Building”

  1. John Bunzl Says:

    Very interesting post, Diana, thank you. I don’t doubt the collusion between the church and the state/KGB. But what interests me more is the public reaction in Russia and the division between traditional and modern worldviews which it has shone a light on. Traditionalists, after all, don’t really see much difference between church and state anyway (viz, for example, the strong ‘coherence’ that exists between the Republicans and sections of the Christian church in the U.S.), whereas modern and postmodern worldviews more easily understand and presume the vital importance of the separation of church and state AND of the judiciary.

    So what we’re seeing in the public reaction, I think, is an interesting clash between the old traditional worldview that many, including the state, are clinging on to, and the new, modern worldview which is struggling to establish itself; a clash which, one hopes, will spur the evolutionary process as more and more people move OUT of the traditional worldview and IN to the modern.

    Unfortunately the unnatural haste in bringing free-market capitalism to Russia has deeply de-stabilised the society and this has, I think, only served to reinforce support for the traditional worldview. As things have become economically unstable, so people naturally seek more order and more certainty – and that tends to mean more support for the state (i.e. the traditional worldview) and less support for the modern worldview.

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