Pussy Riot Trial Unleashes Putin’s Secret Weapon: The Orthodox Faithful

A Russian President whose popularity is declining needs a 'national idea' to rationalize his rule. And it's in the traditions of the pre-Soviet church-state relationship that he hopes to find it

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Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

A supporter of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot and a man who appears to be an Orthodox priest stand outside a court in Moscow on Aug. 17, 2012

The prison sentence handed down last week against three members of Pussy Riot, a group of activists opposed to President Vladimir Putin, will restrict a lot more than the personal freedoms of the young women convicted. Judge Marina Syrova sentenced them to two years in prison for offending the faithful of the Orthodox Church by performing a crude anti-Putin song near the altar of a Moscow cathedral in February. While many were offended by the gesture, the judge’s verdict has put the state’s seal of approval on the righteous anger of one community, and that anger is proving hard to control.

On the night of Aug. 17, hours after the verdict, about a dozen Orthodox believers confronted a young man in a Moscow cafeteria. Their victim was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the song that got Pussy Riot thrown in prison — “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away.” For 40 minutes, the vigilantes stood over the table where the young man was sitting with his friends, demanding that he remove his shirt and burn it. They shouted at him to “repent,” at times quoting directly from the verdict read by Syrova. “You are insulting the feelings of the Orthodox faithful! You are inciting ethnic hatred,” they yelled by turns. And when the police arrived, the zealots appeared stunned when the man wearing the Pussy Riot T-shirt was not immediately arrested. From the baffled faces of the officers, it seemed they weren’t quite sure what was legal anymore, so just to be safe, they took both sides of the argument down to the station. A video of the entire incident was posted on YouTube:

Five days later, a Slavic supremacist organization called Holy Rus announced its intention to patrol the streets of Moscow in search of “blasphemers” and “those who insult the Orthodox faith,” again appearing to claim legitimacy by quoting from Syrova’s verdict. The group’s leader, Ivan Otrakovsky, claimed that 2,000 people per day were volunteering to join the vigilante force, and within hours of this announcement, an influential Orthodox cleric, Vsevolod Chaplin, gave the plan his blessing. “In Orthodox tradition, this kind of defense has always been the duty of the Orthodox people. Orthodox believers are called upon to carry this responsibility,” Chaplin told the state news agency Itar-Tass. He added, “But, of course, all within the framework of the law.”

The members of Holy Rus and the vigilantes of the cafeteria incident had all been among the clusters of people gathered near the courthouse to condemn Pussy Riot. Although they were always outnumbered by the band’s supporters, they had a way of attracting the most attention. It was hard to ignore the wild-eyed priests waving icons over their heads, the skinheads with picket signs and the doomsayers proclaiming Pussy Riot to be the work of Satan or the U.S. State Department, terms they seemed to use interchangeably. On the day of the verdict, a group of uniformed Cossacks showed up and tried to start a bonfire on the street so that the young defendants could be burned. For the reporters, loony quotes were easy to find among Pussy Riot’s enemies; reasoned discussion was harder to come by.

One exception seemed to be Tatyana Ageyeva and Fyodor Bobrov, who would come to the courthouse to film clips for Bobrov’s YouTube channel — AntiPussyRiot. While Ageyeva held the camera, Bobrov ran up to an 11-year-old girl with a Pussy Riot placard, stuck a microphone in her face and demanded, “Do you even know what pussy means in English?” They were shouted down as provocateurs by the crowd.

(PHOTOSThe Cry Heard Around the World: ‘Free Pussy Riot!’)

But Ageyeva, at least on the surface, seemed to have a lot in common with the young women on trial. At 26, she is well educated, solidly middle class, attractive, clever and eloquent. I thought of her when the judge cited the defendants’ “mixed disturbances of personality” to justify imprisoning them: these included self-confidence, ambition and a “tendency to express opinions categorically.” Those terms may have applied equally to Ageyeva, except that her opinions are staunchly loyal to the church and state.

The coordinator of various Orthodox youth groups around the country, Ageyeva first came to national attention before the Pussy Riot trial began. At the Kremlin’s annual showcase summer camp for patriotic youth, Ageyeva asked Putin whether he would approve of a national body to rally the Orthodox youth. “We are united by one thing,” she told him. “Our belief in God and our love for the fatherland and the Russian church.” Putin took it as a cue to expound a view of Russian statehood as founded on Orthodox Christianity, with the union of the Kremlin and the church having been disrupted by the Bolshevik revolution. Putin has advocated a return to religion as the core of a new Russian national idea. “Orthodoxy has played a special role in the history of our state,” he told them, suggesting that before Vladimir the Great had united and Christianized the slavic tribes of the 10th century, “we didn’t have a united Russian state; we didn’t even have a Russian nation as such.”

Thus Putin’s effort to create an ideological glue to secure his political survival. The emergence of a progressive middle class has manifested itself through street protests against his rule, and this month, his popularity ratings were at their lowest in a decade. Sociologists report that Putin no longer has an energetic base of support, relying instead on an apathetic mass of voters who lack viable alternatives.

“He practically has no more motivated fans, no more enthusiasts,” says Mikhail Dmitriev, president of the Center for Strategic Research, which studies public opinion through nationwide focus groups. “But there are a great many people who react to him extremely badly, who renounce him, and that group is growing fast.” Never in the history of Russia has a politician been able to reverse this process, says Dmitriev, who helped write Putin’s first presidential campaign platform in 2000, when he still had plenty of enthusiasts. “At this point, Putin’s supporters have ceased to ensure the stability of the regime. There are now only neutral voters holding it up, and they are politically lazy. They will not fight for him.”

The last bastion of Putin diehards is to be found among the believers of the Orthodox Church, which has a long tradition of bestowing the mandate of heaven on whoever happens to be in charge. Bobrov, the activist who worked with Ageyeva outside the courthouse, called it one of the central dogmas of the church: “All power comes from God,” he explained. This expression dates back to the czars, who were believed to be appointed by God, and it is back in vogue among many Orthodox believers. “Every morning we pray for the state,” said Bobrov, pulling a prayer book from his pocket. “Putin understands that Christ is the only truth.”

Ageyeva was slightly more pragmatic. When the street demonstrations broke out against Putin last winter, she and her friends attended the counterprotests, but not out of some blind belief in Putin. “We just realized that we do not need a revolution,” she said. Her interests lie in advancing the Orthodox faith, and as long as Putin sees Orthodoxy as a national idea, she will continue to support him. “The fact that the state is taking this course is an opportunity for [the church],” she argued. “And we should use that.”

For the church and state, the result would be some kind of symbiosis, which may be Putin’s only chance of reawakening his tired base. According to the latest polls, two-thirds of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, although only a small percentage keep the fasts and attend services weekly. The verdict against Pussy Riot has empowered this base and its values, and while its members may not be enough to turn Putin into Vladimir the Great, they will surely help drown out the cries of his detractors. Whether that serves the cause of national unity is, of course, another matter.

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