Sunday, August 12, 2012

Orthodox Punk & Russia

Having spent only a moment of time in Russia, and having studied and read much of its history and culture, I feel fit or fool to pronounce on the Pussy Riot controversy.  Three members of the punk group staged in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (Moscow) a song in protest against Vladimir Putin's re-election, and were promptly arrested.

The reaction of Russian officialdom, and the blending of church and nation state in that reaction, are a continuation of a long and assumed practice going back to the foundation of Orthodoxy, and of Kievean Rus.  As with Western Christendom, but more intensely, the orthodox faith has always been as much a political enterprise as a theological one, and Constantine gleams in the brighter distance, and Christ appears in gold and Kingly garb.

Tied taut to the growth and expansion of the state, from Vlad to Ivan to Peter to Alexander, and sanctioned as a holy union with an imperial mission by the sainted Dostoevsky (in Western climes), it was always going to return to this familiar structure once the communists crept off stage.

An odd mediaevalism does seem to run through what Orthodox practice I witnessed during my sojourn in Russia.  Gold bibles, icons of the slaughtered and now sainted Nicolas II, and his family, Jesus as Tsar... The most unusual example was not in Russia proper, but in Tbilisi (Georgia), where I stumbled upon a wedding ceremony (in a public church, where strangers could mill around) and saw a burly man escort a little lamb to sacrifice.  Animal sacrifice, really?  The Caucasus have always been spiritually close to the Levant, but still.

As in a certain Latinate interpretation of Catholicism, there approaches a point where ritual and ornament outdistance message, hence any infraction on the sacred space is an immediate offence.  Russia straddles two conflicting dynamics.  On the one hand, an incredible social and sexual permissiveness - drug use, alcoholism, and one of the highest abortion rates on earth - and on the other hand this reverence for an older version of a solid and moral church.  It is a puzzling thing, and something that plays out in my own country.

The Pussy Riot trial is really a further iteration of this social puzzle; of selected, targeted, and sanitised rage.  The prosecution are asking that they be sentenced to three years because, in the curious phrasiology of the prosecutor, 'they violated the traditions of our country'.  Another stated that 'feminism is a mortal sin'.

The thing is now turning on whether it was actually an act of political protest or a targeted insult to the mother Church, thus ignoring the clear and shimmering blend.   It is all a continuation of a two thousand year theme, manifesting now and then in different forms and under different banners, keeping alive the old red flame.

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