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Some Orthodox Reflections on the (P)ussy (R)iot Case

By       Message Nicolai Petro     Permalink
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A few remarks based on an interview given to Fr. Chris Metropoulos of the Orthodox Christian Network on August 22, 2012. See

First, give us the background. What happened in the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior to start this chain of events?

In September 2011 a group of activists from various radical performance groups decided to establish a punk band called "P*ssy Riot" (PR). It is not really a band in the traditional sense since they refuse to advertise their performances, wear masks to hide their identities, and plainly state that the purpose of their performances is to provoke and eventually change the political system. Illegal acts are central to their purpose because they attract media attention.

PR first staged an expromptu concert on Red Square, certain members later staged a live sex act in the Museum of Natural History in Moscow and, two days before the incident in question, they staged a dress rehearsal for it in the Elokhov Cathedral and then spray painted its gates with antireligious graffiti.

The incident for which they were finally arrested took place on February 21, 2012. While commemorative services were being held elsewhere in the Cathedral, three women stormed the altar and began to parody the liturgy, referring to the Patriarch of Moscow as a "(b)itch," telling the Orthodox faithful that they "crawl and bow" to "their chief saint--the head of the KGB," and describing the liturgy itself as "God sh(i)t."

The area they occupied is known as the ambo. It is the raised platform from which rabbis in the Jewish Temple read the scriptures to the people. It serves the same function in Orthodox Churches. It is also where the faithful are exhorted to share communion and "in the fear of God and in faith, draw near."  

It should also be noted that the Church of Christ the Savior is Russia's pre-eminent cathedral. It was consecrated to the victory over Napoleon, and destroyed by Stalin in 1931 to demonstrate his devotion to the utter destruction of religion. It was rebuilt in the 1990s in a national campaign that many see as the true end of religious persecution by the state.   

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Some have said that the acts committed in the cathedral were sacrilegious and even a religious hate crime. What is your opinion?

Although Ireland and Australia still have statues against sacrilege on the books, they are hardly ever enforced. The term that has come to replace it is "hate crime."

A hate crime typically has two characteristics. First, an identifiable group must be targeted--in this care Orthodox Christians. Second, members of this group need to demonstrate to a judge that they were somehow injured.

Since, in this case, the charge of hooliganism was aggravated by violation of the law on Freedom of Conscience, Religion, and Religious Association, one of the prosecution's main objectives was to show precisely how members of the target group had been victimized and had suffered.

One of the most interesting pieces I read in doing research for this interview was an Open letter of Fr. Sergy (Ribko) to Sir Paul McCartney, which you sent to me, Nicolai. Can you tell our listeners about that?

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Along with several other well known artists, Sir Paul McCartney has voiced his support for the group. He is apparently unfamiliar with the case, since he describes it as involving "support for the principles of free speech . . . as long as they do not hurt anyone in doing so."  The trial did in fact revolve around this very point, and several witnesses were produced who described in detail how they had been hurt.

Fr. Sergei, a former rock drummer and self-described "hippie" who now serves as rector at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Moscow, sought to enlighten Sir Paul about those feelings, and about the need for mutual tolerance and respect between believers and non-believers.

Now, there's been a lot of coverage in the Western media about the trial and conviction, most of it siding with the protesters. But all news is biased, so where's the bias here? Is there anything we aren't seeing?

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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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