The Russian Punk Band and Religious Hate Crime
Religion & Liberty Online

The Russian Punk Band and Religious Hate Crime

The all-girl Russian punk band, which in February pulled its juvenile, blasphemous stunt on the ambon of one of Russian Orthodoxy’s holiest places of worship, has generated an unending stream of twaddle from so many commentators who betray a deep, willfully ignorant grasp of Christianity and a perfectly secular mindset.

Commentator Dmitry Babich on the Voice of Russia observed that “the three female members of the group, who called the Patriarch ‘a bitch’ and ‘the God’s excrement’ in the holiest of the holy (the altar of Russia’s main Orthodox cathedral), were lionized by nearly all Western press.”

Did the band members deserve two years in prison? No — a massive over reaction. But imagine if the girls had pulled their punk-stunt in the United States in, say, a mosque or a synagogue or a liberal church, and directed that kind of language at the minister or imam. How would the Western media have reacted? (Even so, they might have qualified for a National Endowment for the Arts grant).

Peter Hitchens points out in “Pussy Riot and Selective Outrage” that the exhibitionists who staged this little exercise in “protest” weren’t just interested in free speech:

It’s attention-seeking disruption of someone else’s sacred space, quite easily classified as some sort of breach of the peace in any legal system. Now, for me, a penalty along the lines of six weeks spent publicly scrubbing the cathedral steps on their knees rather early in the morning would be rather more to the point than some penal colony. We should make much more effort, in the world in general, to make the punishment fit the crime. I don’t regard these women as specially pleasant, let alone as heroines of the struggle for free expression. Struggle to gain attention, more likely. You’ll note that there’s never been any suggestion that the authorities have the wrong people, so if Russian law is in any way comparable to the laws of counties like our on this subject, and if it unquestionably bans such behaviour in cathedrals, and prescribes certain penalties for it, then that’s not lawless. And if they’d performed their little concert in a Moscow café, I doubt if anything would never again have been heard of it. It was the location, location, location that did it. They got the publicity. Maybe they underestimated the reaction,. And if Putin’s repressive hellhole was as bad as they say it is, how come they did that? Cause that sort of trouble even in Brezhnev’s Red Square, let alone Stalin’s, and it would have been a guaranteed one-way ticket to the far side of the Urals.

Philip Jenkins, author of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died and other books, gets the historical context and faith perspective exactly right in a commentary on RealClearReligion titled, “The New Soviet League of Militant Godless.” He asserts that “a good case can be made that it was a grievous act of religious hate crime … ”

Look, above all, at the site of the demonstration. Historically, Christ the Savior was a central shrine both of the Orthodox faith and of Russian national pride, and for that reason, the Bolsheviks targeted it for destruction. In 1931, in a notorious act of cultural vandalism, the Soviet government dynamited the old building, leveling it to the ground, and replacing it with a public swimming pool. Not until 1990 did a new regime permit a rebuilding, funded largely by ordinary believers, and the vast new structure was consecrated in 2000. The cathedral is thus a primary memorial to the restoration of Russia’s Christianity after a savage persecution.

It’s difficult, perhaps, for Westerners to realize how bloodthirsty that government assault was. Russia in 1917 was overwhelmingly Orthodox, and in fact was undergoing a widespread religious revival. Rooting out that faith demanded forceful action by the new Bolshevik government, which had no scruples about imposing its will on the wishes of a vast majority. Government leaders like Alexandra Kollontai — the self-proclaimed Female Antichrist — illegally seized historic churches and monasteries, and used soldiers to suppress the resulting demonstration. Hundreds were killed in those actions alone.

Through the 1920s, the Bolsheviks systematically wiped out the church’s leaders. Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev perished in 1918, shot outside the historic Monastery of the Caves, while Bishop Hermogenes of Tobolsk was drowned in a Siberian river. Archbishop Andronicus of Perm was killed the following year, followed by most of his clergy. In 1920, Bishop Joachim of Nizhni Novgorod was crucified upside down from the iconostasis in his cathedral. In 1922, a firing squad executed the powerful Benjamin, Metropolitan of Petrograd/St. Petersburg. The repression was indiscriminate, paying no attention to the victims’ records as critics of Tsarist injustice and anti-Semitism.

Persecution claimed many lives at lower levels of the church, among ordinary monks and priests. We hear of clergy shot in their hundreds, buried alive, mutilated, or fed to wild animals. Local Red officials hunted down priests as enthusiastically as their aristocratic predecessors had pursued wolves and wild boar. The number of clergy killed for their faith ran at least into the tens of thousands, with perhaps millions more lay believers.

The regime also rooted up the churches and monasteries that were the heart of Russian culture and spiritual life. Officials wandered the country, vandalizing churches, desecrating saints’ shrines and seizing church goods, and murdering those who protested the acts. Militant atheist groups used sacred objects to stage anti-religious skits and processions. Between 1927 and 1940, active Orthodox churches all but vanished from the Russian Republic, as their numbers fell from 30,000 to just 500.

In the process of dechristianization, the crowning act came in 1931 with the obliteration of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. For the Bolsheviks, it was the ultimate proof of the Death of God.

John Couretas

is a writer and editor based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.