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The forces of good and evil in the guise of rough altar-men versus “unidentified scum” have been duking it out in Moscow over the last few weeks – but which qualifies as “good” is a matter of hot, international debate.

The “altar workers” are ultra-nationalist activists allied with the Russian Orthodox Church and increasingly with the state and Vladimir Putin. They are making themselves heard and felt in the realms of politics, morality and the arts in fierce debates and showdowns with liberals, secularists and some human rights groups.

“Scum” in this case, refers to any number of potential offenders against the church or traditional mores. A Molotov cocktail was thrown by said scum at the Church of Holy Peter in Moscow on Aug. 18. It was the second bombing attack on an Orthodox Church this summer, a skirmish in the larger battle around homosexual culture and its active and vocal opponents.

Leading the charge against “gay propaganda” is St. Petersburg legislator Vitaly Milonov, a former hippie turned conservative and Church volunteer.

“We’ll find them and destroy them,” Milonov threatened the church vandals who are angered over recent crackdowns on promoting homosexuality in schools and media.

Fortunately only the perps were slightly injured in a war that has enlisted supporters from across the globe on both sides.

Although zealous for the Church, Milonov occasionally makes statements that invite international mockery such as blaming the recent attacks on virtually anyone. Specifically he decried the “Flock of the Flying Spaghetti Monster,” a religious spoof group from the U.S. who had recently marched thorough St Petersburg with spaghetti strainers on their heads for no apparent reason whatever. Milonov cited this as proof of “a sickly spirit permeating our society – first they wear pasta strainers and then they torch churches.” The Spaghetti cult was not charged with any involvement.

Russian lawmakers last month passed laws against using media or the Internet to “propagate homosexuality among minors” especially if they cause a “distorted understanding that gay and heterosexual relations are socially equivalent.” Convictions may bring fines up to a million rubles and possible jail sentences of 90 days.

This has dithered a lot of people, generally ones who live in some other place. A pollster (state-run) found 88 percent of Russians actually support restrictions on homosexuality, in accord with the Orthodox statements on the subject.

Curator Yuri Samodurov convicted of inciting "religious hatred" in 2010 Russia

But this was only half of a double-barreled blast by the Duma to protect the increasingly tight embrace of the state and the Orthodox Church in Russia. In what appears to be retaliation against artists, curators and protestors like Yuri Samodurov, Andrei Yerofeyev and Pussy Riot, a series of Russian-style “blasphemy laws” were passed in June. Making it even more clear, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that “playing with religion in this country is the same as smoking at a filling station.”

Far reaching and extensive, the laws criminalize actions such as expressing “disrespect to a community” insulting the “religious sensitivities” of believers or “interfering with religious activities.” They really haven’t thought this out well, considering that the Chechen terrorists felt they were engaged in “religious activities” while they gutted children in 2004. Personally, 75 percent of U.S. television insults me to no end, but I have no intention of blowing up NBC.

Neither “community” nor “belief” is defined by these laws, so Russians need to watch their tongues and pens for now. Considering that blasphemy laws flooded Christians in Pakistan and elsewhere with waves of terror, this may be a big mistake that could backfire on conservatives quickly. What better way to increase hostility toward the Church than to legislate every comparative word or written thought?

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's face onto Muammar Gadhafi's body

Muslims in Russia sprang for the opportunity to shut down opposing views in May, two months before the laws even came into effect. They were after a publisher of a children’s book with an illustration of a crocodile holding what resembled “a torn-out page from the Koran.” Even reptiles won’t be spared the sensitivity sessions.

Not surprisingly, there hasn’t been nearly the hoopla over religious and speech restrictions as over the “anti-gay” legislation, which is bringing calls to target Russian vodka and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Christians have no foot armies mobilized to descend furiously on dissenters, although a government spokesman compares homosexuality to “drug abusers” and drunks and Russian Patriarch Kirill claims gay marriage is a “sign of the Apocalypse.”

Contemporary artists in Russia seem to have little interaction with the Orthodox Church as it aligns itself closer to the state and returns to social and religious tradition. This historical bent extends to art in the Church as well, with swells of interest in iconography and other typically Russian genres. In fact it wasn’t until 2010 that the first contemporary art exhibit was held on Church property in Moscow.

Some of the iconography is beautiful, such as popular naïf-style painter Yelena Cherkasova, who incorporates icons, biblical and Church subjects in her colorful pieces. Cherkasova mirrors the mood of many Russians in a return to nationalism and rejection of Soviet aesthetics. This is true for her piece “The Imperial Family,” who line across the canvas with saintly wings, golden aureoles and attendant angels as evident martyrs to the Marxists.

"The Imperial Family," Russian iconographer/painter Cherkasova

Liberal, secular or leftists artists (the majority) are squaring off with the church over social and moral issues in Russia. There was a flurry of intense activity before the 2012 election, almost all anti-Putin, and some protest of voting irregularities after. Many artists, musicians and writers claim to have felt the wrath of Putin, although he denies any involvement.

Even bloggers and journalists may be threatened with fines and long jail terms such as the recent conviction of popular opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his business partner, Pyotr Ofitserov, on embezzlement last month. Massive outrage and public protests were probably the causes of their release from custody the next day.

Chess titan, writer and rights activist Gary Kasparov is a determined and unyielding Putin foe who fled the country in fear of his safety. He claimed Navalny’s conviction proves “Putin has taken off the flimsy mask of democracy to reveal himself in full as the would-be KGB dictator he has always been.” Kasparov claims the treatment of Navalny is pure, political spite comparable to Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment in South Africa.

Similarly a large percentage of protestors and opposition to Putin may find their work on a Ministry of Justice list of “prohibited books and art objects.” They are suddenly under investigation for various crimes from embezzlement or illegal protest to “threatening the security of the country.”

This is sounding familiar, but in America the terminology is reversed making analogies difficult. Here “conservatives” are increasingly under attack by “progressives” (worn out and incorrect terms but still in use). This was admitted by IRS and other State-sanctioned campaigns against the president’s perceived ideological “enemies” or just anyone blocking his agenda. Our recent “gay laws” are reversed, targeting religious people and their children who would rather not hear public hymns to homosexuality on every side. It’s just as bad.

Alexander Bloks’ poem “The Scythians” may inspire both Russians and Americans denied their rights and placed in lowest political regard: “We are hordes and hordes and hordes. Try and do battle with us!”

Some information thanks to RT.com news, Business Insider, Reuters, Moscow Times, Breitbart, Islam.ru , Aljazeera.com, Pravmir.com, Fox News, Gazata.ru, Interfax news agency, RIA-Novosti

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