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.

MORE: Madonna Lays Off the Swastika, Doubles Down on Pussy Riot

48 comments
AnnaG
AnnaG

Sickening extremist views on both sides. The core of the problem does not stem from government or religion, but rather, the human capacity for hatred. This is a contemporary witch hunt. When will people evolve? The political or religious issue becomes irrelevant when extremists get involved. Far too much time is invested in hate wars that do not fight for positive reforms, but rather, look for individuals and groups which they can condemn. Fear and ignorance breed unintelligent and hate fueled arguments that overshadow the important issues worth discussing.

Joshua Robert Wark
Joshua Robert Wark

Pussy Riot should either be sent to jail for life, or deported, or exacuted. the only reason the mass media is giving these piles of filth so much attention to to attack not just putin, but the russian people thesmef's. their religion amp; their culture. this is absolutely disgusting. two years is far two light of a sentence. this is the exact same thing that happed in the west in the 1960's. cultural marxists (funded by zionist's globalists) took over the country and desecrated our culture and look at the cestpool's that white westenr country's have become today. this is cultural genlcide against the russian people, which will eventually lead to ethnic genoicde. why orthadox churxhes? why not jewish synagogs or muslim mousques? wy not go to some brown muslims coutnry and arttack the culture and tell women to rebel? this is a war being waged against white people. we must not take this lying down!

dave
dave

Pussy Riot you dumn Lesbians and Punks rotten in jail you worms of the modern times ...hopefully Madonna, Angelina Jolly and other punks will follow you ! Well done comrade Putin and mistake toi let CNN make these bitches famous !

18235
18235

stalin used russian orthodox church to fight hitler when he invaded ussr...and then cracked down on russian orthodox church after ww2.

Irinaski
Irinaski

Mr. Shuster - there is so much ignorance and intolerance in your writing.  And you seem truly unaware of even the basic principles of Orthodoxy that you hold up to ridicule and denigration.  Let me try to help educate you, so that you can see how misleading your article is and how grossly it mis-characterizes a faith that has endured in Russia since 988 and the East for almost 2,000 years.  I am among the very many extremely educated practicing Russian Orthodox.  I also happen to have a native command of English and live in Russia so I am very happy to meet you in Moscow and try to answer your questions.  This kind of journalism does not do you or time.com any honor or credit.  If you want to be a propagandist, then at least have the decency not to call this mainstream journalism and we will all understand the nature of the playing field.

Simon Shuster
Simon Shuster

 Many thanks for your comment. I'd be happy to meet for coffee and a history lesson. I'm fairly easy to find on twitter, facebook, etc. So please be in touch.

Joseph Bandana
Joseph Bandana

...and Prostitution has been around for over 6000 years; and Murder has been around for over 8000 years!! Evil and  Superstition is NOT Venerated jestfer Longevity!!  WakeUp NOW!! There are NO PregnantVirgins!! hehehe!! (sorry.....mary....nexttymejestsaynononotewancientangels!staywithJoseph!)

Joseph Bandana
Joseph Bandana

Plus.......Yer JesusGod is the ONLY God EVER tew have BOTH the WalkonWater and WaterTewWine SUPERPOWERS!! YESYES! hehehe!! (cheappettricksbeenaroundcenturies...gothealingoverhere..ferreal!!)

Irinaski
Irinaski

Prostitution is a profession, if you will, and murder is a crime. They have nothing to do with belief so your comparison is totally off point.  And belief in a Higher Power has been around for way longer then 6,000 or 8,000 years.  You can chose to believe what ever you like - including that "There are NO Pregnant Virgins!! hehehe!!" You have no ability to compel me to believe that there wasn't one.

Joseph Bandana
Joseph Bandana

Weeell....Prostitution may be YOUR Profession and Murder may be YOUR Crime...but...God will FERGIVE YEW! YES!

(sosorryaboutthoseMuslimChildren..growupferEternalHella!) (ohyeah...thoseAtheistchildrenandHinduChildren...Too!SSSSSSSSSSSSSorryMOSTofCreationMUST PERISH! oHwElL!)

real fact
real fact

 Can drown the hatred. Russia is strong spirit - 99 % of believers and pure soul of people! Dogs can become hoarse from useless bark as the Elephant will go only forward!

arvay
arvay

The best thing about this whole thing is the fact that it has forced the Orthodox patriarch and other religious primitives (but I repeat myself) to utter and write the word "pussy" over and over and over.

Among the failures of the USSR was its failure to obliterate religion. It did, however, moderate the Islamic intensity of the Central Asian states, so that through a policy of suppression and intermarriage -- old Mulsim men sit near the mosques sipping vodka rather than tea. No bin ladens from former Soviet states in this region. 

real fact
real fact

 All this heresy and lie. Nobody oppresses Russian people by means of religion. It is simply favorable to think out any rubbish to some persons that it is more a stench to inflate round Russia.

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 Give me a break.

 Russia has one Orthodox Church. Ukraine has at least four + Roman Catholics.

 Try opening an independent church (even Orthodox) in Russia. All the hell will break lose as you will be accused of "encroaching on canonical territory".

Irinaski
Irinaski

Since you raise the "cannonical territory" point, why don't you explain what you think that means?  Then we can have a meaningful discussion.

JackThomas1991
JackThomas1991

Ukraine has two schismatic "Orthodox" churches plus the canonical autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church in union with Moscow, plus the Ukrainian Greek Catholics and the Roman (Polish) Catholics (and I'm not sure why you brought them up, because just as Latins, Uniates, Protestants, and non-Christian religions all exist in Ukraine, they also exist in Russia). 

There is no such thing as a legitimate "independent Orthodox church", but even then your facts are wrong, as there exists in Russia a "Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church" (Belokrinitskaya Hierarchy), a "Russian Old-Orthodox Church" (Novozybkov Hierarchy), both out of communion with Moscow (as well as many other groups of schismatic Old Believers), non-Chalcedonian "Armenian Orthodox" churches, and until earlier this year, the ROCOR in Russia operated as a separate entity to the Moscow Patriarchate (and has only been in canonical union with the MP since 2007 after remaining canonically separated from most Orthodox churches, with the exception of Serbia and Jerusalem, for most of the Soviet era).

jkaravidas
jkaravidas

why is it wrong for Putin to seek out the vote of Christians by befriending the church, and it is NOT WRONG, for Italian political candidates to seek out alliance with the Vatican Church, for US political candidates to be backed up politically and financially by evangelists or protestants or whatever form of christian religion exists in the US. and better not mention the islamist nations where religion and state is connected by an unbreakable bond. it is HYPOCRITICAL to blame Putin for using the iflluence of religion in the same way that every politician in the world does 

eccles11
eccles11

All of those are wrong. We just happen to be seeing the ugly results in Russia right now.

Irinaski
Irinaski

What "ugly results" are you referring to specifically?  "Ugly" to whom?

Irinaski
Irinaski

Eccles11 - please explain how YOUR free expression is being restricted by what is going on in Russia.  You seem quite free to me.    I believe in free expression too.  At the same time I don't believe in unbridled free expression in any temple that violates the sanctity of that space.  And let me let you in on a little secret - no government has enacted laws on that basis (i.e., unbridled free expression).  Pussy Riot had another very public action in Red Square and very close to another historic church castigating Putin, not long before their "punk prayer".  They were not arrested.  Nor do I think they should have been.  So what is so worrying to you now?    

eccles11
eccles11

 Ugly to those who value free expression and those who do not believe laws and behaviours should be dictated to others based on those who claim to represent the will of an invisible unproven being.

TMLutas
TMLutas

Obama played that game in 2008 with a large group of historically black churches. There weren't a lot of condemnations back then. 

Joseph Bandana
Joseph Bandana

Americans are Funnnney!! They slam that RussianCommunistState over their Non-Tolerance of PussyRiot Rant in the  RussianOrthodoxChurch...but...let some Enlightened American StandUp in some BaptistChurch and challenge their AncientSuperstitiousReligiousFaithBeliefs! Watch What Will Happen!! Somebody going tew JAIL Tonight for: HATE CRIME!! hahahalala! "Jesus is the BasterdSon of VirginMary and GodFather!!" "Horsewhip JesustheBasterd NOWNWONOW!!!" heheh! (sorryJoe............yewareNOTthefather............hehheh!)

TMLutas
TMLutas

I think it's the charge that's ruffled so many americans the wrong way. Disorderly conduct and trespass charges would not have even raised an eyebrow in most parts of the US. 

HeartsOwls
HeartsOwls

"'Every morning we pray for the state,' said Bobrov, pulling a prayer book from his pocket. 'Putin understands that Christ is the only truth.'" This sort of theocratic fascism is exactly what many on the far right want for America.

Irinaski
Irinaski

The Russian Orthodox Church in the United States also prays for the country and its government - in this case the United States and its rulers. And the Russian Orthodox Church in England prays for England and its rulers, etc. by country.  This is a voluntary courtesy (i.e., this is not dogmatic) that the Russian Orthodox give to the government of which ever state they happen to find themselves in.  What is wrong with that - with people asking God to bless the rulers of the country they in live?  Even of you're a complete atheist, how can this cause you any harm or infringe on your "rights"?  Can you please explain your "theocratic fascism" point?  It is totally off point.  What ARE you talking about? 

j_600
j_600

Irinaski: "What is wrong with that - with people asking God to bless the rulers of the country they in live?" 

What is wrong with it is the repression, corruption and closeted fascism that lies behind the front of the Orthodox Russian Church with its current icon Putin.

TMLutas
TMLutas

I can't stand President Obama. In my opinion he has done incalculable damage to the country during his term in office. I have prayed for him every week I attend liturgy and have no difficulty doing it. I pray that he gain wisdom to rule better. I pray that he lives to the end of his term of office so we are not inflicted with Joe Biden. I pray that he is ever so much more energetic in implementing his good ideas than his bad ones. 

There is nothing about praying for the ruler of a country that precludes being aligned with the policies of said rumor. 

Irinaski
Irinaski

You realize, of course, that you've just combined two thoughts that don't have any logical relationship, don't you?  Try again.  The question was:  "What's wrong with people asking God to bless the rulers of the country they live in?"

Joseph Bandana
Joseph Bandana

Er....talking about the SecularState Abusing the DeludedSuperstitious Masses To Control Them!! This Earth is NOT YerHome? YES, Earth IS our home!! Yer Jesus-Designed Mansion is NOT Awaiting Yew In GoldStreetsHeaven!! (YewGottaDieFirst..hehheh!) Let Putin Rule in Russia from his RealMansion!!

Thanks, Churches, fer SELLING OUT the People!!

(seriously...weareallMortals...nomansionsofgold..dealwithreality!)

TMLutas
TMLutas

No secular official of the United States put those prayers into any Orthodox or Catholic prayer book. Sorry to not fit into your pigeonholes. 

And no, the Earth is not our home. It is our trust, our responsibility, and our temporary way station until we are united in Heaven. God holds us to account for how we exercise our responsibilities. 

The Church may elevate people to the clergy who betray their vocations. Bad HR decisions plague every organization. But you have a very strange view to take traitors' actions as the true core of the Church and not the actions of those who are faithful to the stated principles of the Church. 

Irinaski
Irinaski

Your hysteria is amusing, but incomprehensible.  Try to make some sense.  There's not one iota of evidence in your gibberish to support any criticism of religion and its effect on people.

TMLutas
TMLutas

We always pray for the head of state. Sometimes the prayer is for him to stay far away. It is much more accurate to observe that Putin's successful effort of a decade ago to repair a multi-decade schism between the Moscow Patriarchate and ROCOR is the proximate cause of his outsized support among the seriously faithful. Schisms are a nasty business and Putin's efforts were viewed quizzically back then. What is Putin doing involving himself in such an inside baseball argument? 

Irinaski
Irinaski

However, in part, thanks to his involvement, the schism has been healed.  That's good.  It's schisms that are bad.

TMLutas
TMLutas

I was pointing out this episode when it was happening as something to pay attention to. The geopolitical set I was writing for generally gave a collective shrug and opined that it would never matter. It's now obvious that it did matter in ways that even the most hard boiled political realist would recognize as significant. 

Yes, schisms are bad, as unfortunately necessary as they may be at times. I'm glad of Putin's role in ending the ROCOR/Moscow division. But it was never an entirely religious exercise. Putin was, even then, setting up for symphonia, and symphonia is a legitimate alternative to separation of church and state. It needs to be studied as such by the political analysts as well, not just the religious. 

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 To be fair, the prayer for the state is pretty standard for the Orthodoxy.

 However, what these idiots in Russia do, isn't.

 It's a pure local madness of Russian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchy (this is the proper name, as there's a number of Orthodox churches independent of this stupidity).  What's worse, it encourages the "Orthodox patrols".

Irinaski
Irinaski

What, specifically, do the "idiots in Russia do"?  I see pure rhetoric in this response and absolutely no substance.  Since I am in Russia at this moment and an active churchgoer, I am sure I can address whatever it is that we "idiots" do.

JackThomas1991
JackThomas1991

You said in another comment that "independent Orthodox churches" didn't exist in Russia, and now you're saying that they do. Make up your mind?

Keith
Keith

   I think this whole pus y thing is a riot , I love it . Hard labor !!! 

Harry Kuheim
Harry Kuheim

What do you think Hank Jr. would get charged with by the FBI if he did a Flash Mob during a Rev. Wright sermon and sang about what a Racist/Marxist Obama is?

Joseph Bandana
Joseph Bandana

Yew are KERRECT!! ReligiousFoolishness has GovernmentPertection in USA! Religion made DealWiththeDevil tew be TaxFree if Leave EvilSecularGovernment ALOOOOOONE!!! HAHA!!! (godsareancient.....inwheelchairs....inoldgod'shome....drooling!)

Andre Luchaninov
Andre Luchaninov

Why can't I like it this article via facebook? Not the best Social Media management here... But yes, the article is absolutely right. It's amazing to me how seemingly smart people can let themselves be deceived like this and believe in such nonsense.

Joseph Bandana
Joseph Bandana

What Nonsense?! Putin is Nonsense? PussyRiot isNonsense? Religion is Nonsense?! Yer comment IS Nonsense!! FIX COMMENT NOW!!

Timur Khamitov
Timur Khamitov

Heres the thing...these aren't Putin paid protesters, these are real life, legitimately pissed of religious people. The sentiment in Russia was sincerely 99% against Pussy Riot when I spoke to everyone I know. Sure 2 years is steep, but its what the people want.

alexofkansas
alexofkansas

The Orthodox Church will be there until the very end to defend Christ and the Truth. Im way more of a fan of Putin than I am of Obama, who selects people to be murdered each week by power point slide! I mean here we have Obama  who keeps a whistle blower in jail (solitary confinement) without charge for longer than PR will even be in jail! "

Distrust of the Russian government and dissension within Russia are what Washington wants. As Washington continues to murder vast numbers of people around the globe, Washington will point its finger at the fate of Pussy Riot. The western bought-and-paid-for presstitute media will focus on Russia’s evil, not on the evil of Washington, London, and the EU puppet states who are slaughtering Muslims by the bucket-full."