Pussy Riot and the Legacy of Persecution

This week in Moscow, trial began for Pussy Riot, the feminist punk band that stormed the main altar of Christ the Savior Cathedral last winter to perform a “punk prayer” protesting the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for Vladimir Putin. (I wrote about the protest here). Prosecutors charged members of the band with “hoooliganism,” a crime that carries a seven-year prison term, and have detained them in prison for months. The long detention has created  sympathy for Pussy Riot among Western human rights campaigners and even among the Orthodox faithful, many of whom think the state has punished the protesters enough. This week, Vladimir Putin himself signaled that the state would show some leniency, telling reporters that he didn’t think the band “should be judged too harshly.”

It’s easy to dismiss the Pussy Riot prosecution as an example of typical Russian authoritarianism — the charge of “hooliganism,” so closely associated with Soviet “justice,” doesn’t help — and I’m sure that the Putin regime and its supporters in the Church hierarchy relished the chance to teach protesters a lesson. It’s not clear to me that authoritarianism completely explains things, though. Westerners may not understand the sensitivities that surround Christ the Savior Cathedral. The present building is, in fact, the second Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. The Communists dynamited the first in the 1930s as part of their campaign against the Orthodox Church (above); they replaced it with a public swimming pool. In the 1990s, with the help of donations from Orthodox faithful, the church was rebuilt, almost exactly as it was, in the same spot. The cathedral thus symbolizes for many believers the rebirth of Christianity in Russia after decades of brutal persecution. Pussy Riot has been punished enough; but the history of Christ the Savior Cathedral no doubt explains why so many Russians, even those who detest the Putin regime, resent the disrespect shown it.