A Verdict Against Russia

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says the international community shouldn’t get hysterical over the two-year prison term handed to three members of the punk band Pussy Riot. Some European countries, like Germany, France and Austria, he argues, have laws that impose prison terms for antics offensive to believers.

I pity our esteemed minister. His job in this (and not only this) case, which has undermined Russia’s international prestige, is to find ways of justifying something that cannot be justified.

Pussy Riot struck at the sorest spot in modern Russia — which is why the group deserves praise, and not condemnation. The blow fell on the active merger of church and state into a single ideology, on the attempts to create a model of “Orthodox civilization” in Russia. The merger is intended to destroy the protest movement that has become a significant social phenomenon since December 2011 by depicting it as anti-Russian, as something alien to Russia’s special way.

If this model is imposed, a vast state will appear in which liberalism, democracy and personal freedoms are officially cursed and suppressed. The ruling elite needs this state in order to maintain its power.

The rulers have every reason to fear the protest movement. Those who have participated in the huge rallies in Moscow and other major cities are aware that the movement is split into evolutionary and revolutionary components. The first calls for a reasonable dialogue with the authorities; the second, for putting Vladimir Putin on trial. The authorities refused to talk with the reasonable protesters, who include the pro-European middle class, and so the revolutionary line now predominates.

In their final speeches to the court, the young women of Pussy Riot — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich — displayed intelligence, erudition and competent political analysis. I honestly did not expect speeches so compelling from these radical artists. The gist was that continuing to rule Russia the way the Kremlin is doing is disastrous for the country’s future. Russian authorities — above all the president — must find the courage to rethink their political behavior. Otherwise Russia will sink into a new religious-political schism.

In the first years of his rule, Putin made an inadvertent gift to Russia. Seeking to stabilize the country, he gave people the freedom of private life. We gained a real sense of private freedom.

But only a short-sighted politician would not see that private freedom in the middle class would evolve into demands first for social freedoms, then political. It was the president himself who gave birth to the protest movement; now he is trying to put out the fires.

I did not believe that the Moscow court would sentence the women to prison. Hundreds of the most popular cultural figures in Russia — including Putin supporters — called for freeing them. They were joined by internal musical stars led by Paul McCartney, Madonna and Sting, as well as major Western politicians.

But the Kremlin spat at them all. For 40 seconds of a punk rendition of “Mother of God, drive Putin out” before the altar of the Moscow cathedral, the young women will pay with prison terms.

That it was a political trial is clear. Had the girls sung “Mother of God, defend Putin,” they might have been nominated to the Duma. In the Russian Orthodox Church, a split has developed between enlightened advocates of a religion of love and forgiveness and tough legalists demanding punishment for those who disobey the commandments. The legalists are dominant for now. But it’s more than that. The leaders of the church want real power over society, and society is instinctively beginning to defend itself. This is the meaning of the open letters from the Russian intelligentsia demanding that Pussy Riot be set free.

My brother Andrei Erofeyev, the curator of the controversial “Forbidden Art” exhibition in 2006, was subjected to similar persecution for displaying paintings which were purportedly offensive to religious values. He was also tried, and a relatively mild sentence — a fine — was handed down from the very top. But this was before the protest movement.

The verdict in the Pussy Riot case reflects a crisis of Russian rule. Instead of a dialogue with enlightened citizens, the Kremlin offers fear. Russia refuses to be a modern civilized country.

The verdict reflects a crisis of contemporary Russian Orthodoxy. In the Soviet era, the church was persecuted, and so supported by the intelligentsia. Now the church itself has become persecutor. Only the blind can’t see that after this trial a large number of youths will never cross the threshold of a church.

The verdict also reflects a crisis of the Russian mentality. Pro-European elements may support Pussy Riot, but a significant part of the population is happy with the public flogging of the young women. We are still an archaic country, incapable of creating a competitive, attractive Russia, so we opt for the forces of religious-political repression.

The verdict is a crisis of neophytism. The ruling powers, from the president on down, have decided to move closer to God, but yesterday’s Communists do not know the traditions of Christianity. They are offended by real or imagined blasphemy as a threat to their own fragile but fanatical faith.

The verdict is a blow to Russia’s future. For now, goodbye Europe!

I have my personal prayer: “Mother of God, give Putin reason.” The country cannot rely on the past, on the absurdity and fears of its rulers. We are part of the world community. We are a country of liberal writers, from Pushkin to Chekhov, from Pasternak to the majority of contemporary writers. We have traveled widely through Europe over the past 20 years and appreciate the Western standard of living.

“Mother of God, give Putin reason.”

Victor Erofeyev is a Russian writer. This article was translated from the Russian by the IHT.

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