"Kirill believes in Putin, when he'd do better to believe in God."
Why have these words and a minor act of trespass in a Moscow church become one of the most controversial, buzzed about events on earth?
Short version: In March 3, 2012, an group of female, anarchist, punk-art performers notoriously calling themselves "P---- Riot" entered Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in their trademark balaclavas and performed a subversive little song called "Holy S---," petitioning "Virgin Mary, mother of God, rid Russia of Putin!" The Cathedral's keepers were not amused and had the girls dragged off the stage/altar and later arrested where they have remained in custody to this day.
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Since the women's arrest, media has been fascinated with their fate, and the bizarre, Stalinesque showcase of a trial. For the uninitiated, wondering why all the fuss over a few vulgar anarchists, there's the more to the story. It's a perfect storm convergence of sexy young artists, world politics, religious skullduggery and lots of corruption blowing in from all fronts. Not surprisingly the subject has mutated into an international affair with pundits, celebrities, politicians and the populace weighing in.
The first time I heard about the arrests of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, I was far from sympathetic. Still gagging over the presumption of the Occupy Wall Street bunch, its far-left rhetoric, threats and cheesy political art, P---- Riot was nominally related by type-casting at least. For instance, Nadezhda was previously involved with the aggressive group Voina (war) which took "deconstruction" literally, including torching police cars and public sex in museums while continuously tempting fate and the iron hand.
P---- Riot made a name for themselves by public jeers and accusations in the form of raucous guerrilla performance songs. Alarmed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's re-entering the election, P---- Riot symbolized his political opposition, claiming the process was a "rotten, broken system."
Accompanied by electric guitars and screamed lyrics to convey "inner suffering, hysteria and dissonant sounds," they serenaded inmates at a jail last winter, little knowing they would soon join their number. More dangerously, they addressed hostile songs in Red Square to Putin and criticized his quid pro quo relation to the Russian Orthodox Church, especially with the "Patriarch of Moscow and all of Russia," Kirill I.
This is where the trouble really started. Their mistake was to publicly insult and accuse the powers that be of corruption and cronyism, something most Russians I've spoken to seem to accept with a yawn. Their charges against Putin and Patriarch Kirill were serious, including corruption, personal appropriation of public properties, collusion and oppression.
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But the two men yield tremendous power, and they flexed those muscles throughout the trial.
The girls were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" and received a two-year prison sentence, although the prosecution didn't prove religious hatred. Several of the P---- Riot's approximately 30 members attend church regularly and a few have been church volunteers. Apparently the church was almost empty, and the only people seen on their video are a few nuns and security guards, who were the plaintiffs and claimed to be terribly emotionally wounded, "unable to sleep."
The defendants claim to protest ties between Putin, the Kremlin and the Orthodox church and not to attack the church itself. They clearly savaged Patriarch Kirill, though. In a Russian Today state-run network yet, P---- Riot call forth a "punk prayer" to "give courage and power to send away King Herod and his servants." They also claimed the church had become "a tool in dirty electoral intrigues."
Generally illegal protestors are fined about $40 or receive a 15-day jail sentence for this type of offense, but the girls stepped on some big toes that day.
Patriarch Kirill pontificated from his vantage condemning the young women for "mockery of a sacred place" and implied they were satanic and immoral. Lawyers for the prosecution called it a "conspiracy" of global scale, and their statements impute the CIA, the Masons and even "forces above them," most ludicrously accusing Satan as the mastermind.
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Showing none of the common Christian attributes such as forgiveness or loving enemies, Kirill urged "strong punishment for the three women."
Immorality is one of the charges P---- Riot lobbed at Kirill for a number of reasons. The man infamously accumulated $4 billion (as of 2006) and acknowledges he made this trading in cigarettes and tobacco, by using his special privileges of the church to avoid taxes. Kirill withstood several scandals, and a current one has him in court defending why he sued former Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko, also a fellow priest, for 20 million rubles because of "dust" ruining his books in his apartment and eventually took Shevchenko's apartment entirely.
But it gets even worse, and if P---- Riot detailed all the man's apparent moral foibles, it might take them several verses. Patriarch Kirill isn't married, but the aforementioned apartment is inhabited by Lidia Leonova, whom he variously designates "a very good friend" to close friends and "sister, cousin" or "keeper," depending whom you ask. He is accused of owning a luxury Timmerman yacht and building himself palatial residences, although those haven't been proved yet. And there's the infamous disappearing watch: a £20,000 Swiss Breguet watch, which appears miraculously on Kirill's arm as he claims he only owns a cheap one. The non-existent Breguet was Photoshopped out of images, and people noticed the changes, but the image of the watch still remained in reflections.
Vocal in his support for Putin, to the point of calling him "a miracle from God" conveniently before the last elections, Kirill was an eerie echo of America's similar apotheosis of Obama. To be fair, other religious leaders in Russia have supported him also, but Putin and Kirill practically draping into a swoon of mutual admiration is a bit creepy, even for someone who loves to see the church unmolested and left to do its work. The president is accompanied by church officials in religious raiment at public events, reminiscent of Henry the VIII and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Bells rang, special services were held in Putin's honor and nuns sang psalms through the night for his health at his election.
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And the well known KGB background for Putin is downright sinister, while Kirill is variously reputed to have worked with KGB also.
The point P---- Riot was making of collusion and co-option of the church to serve the state was abundantly clear in the trial and in government statements. As Putin rallies his troops in a nationalistic movement, he's rewritten the work of the church as becoming the "backbone of the Russian culture."
It sounds more like an ideology that requires being native Russian, although he body of Christ is global.
Vladimir Nadein criticized this is in Yezhednevny Zhurnal: "The church is serving the regime with the passion of early Magdalena."
Vladimir Vigilyansky of the Moscow Patriarchate condemned public questioning of the patriarch's private life, calling it "unethical." Both the church and the Russian government make almost identical statements, claiming to be attacked by "slanderous informational" campaigns. A recent statement from the church laments "anti-church" protestors and charges they are "frightened of the revival of national self-conscience and mass popular initiative."
Many of his Putin's actions diverge wildly from Christianity, although he appears pious and attends church, while the Patriach Kirill extols his qualities and good will. Many ex-Soviets in the U.S. flatly deny Putin is a Christian, which leads me to wonder if the outrageous dames in day-glo clothes are on to something.
Big, buff, macho, half-naked leader of all Rus (a.k.a. Putin) perhaps had his sensitivities disturbed when the group taunted, "Putin's got scared," in a brazen Kremlin performance.
His personal fingerprints are all over the trial, as Judge Maine Syrova presided over an obviously pre-arranged verdict. Russian publication, OpenSpace.ru analyzed her cases, saying 90 percent of the time she agreed with the prosecution, and from 178 verdicts delivered by Marina Syrova there was only one acquittal.
"I thought the church loves all its children, but it appears that the church only loves those who vote for Putin," Maria Alekhina wrote in her statement to the court, which like all political references was quickly dismissed.
Did Putin ask priests before his buxom "Putin's Army" girls prepared to "tear their clothes off for Putin" last summer in sexy strip ads? Did Putin consult the church before he supported and materially helped Iran in creating nuclear bombs, even as it threatens to annihilate Israel and possibly the West? Putin has become very wealthy, far beyond what his salary would pay and the image he projects. His net worth, also kept under wraps, is at the least $40 billion and possibly much more according to a Guardian article in 2007 – and all of it was accumulated as a "public servant."
Hundreds of actors, pop stars, artists, politicians and writers have sent out statements or rallied to the defense of P---- Riot. Paul McCartney, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting and Martina Navratilova petitioned for their release, as did Amnesty International. Madonna gushed over the girl band, honoring them in her performances in Moscow last week to the point they seemed almost saintly.
When the judge levied a two-year sentence on the band (plus half-year already served) ad-hoc groups sprung up protesting in a couple dozen cities across the globe, protesting Putin and the Russian state. This has been a publicity disaster for the president of the Russian Federation and brought a new scrutiny to the church there.
Not so many Russians are favorably impressed with the antics of P---- Riot and other anarchists groups like Voina, who have admittedly done some awful things, such as releasing 3,000 live giant Madagascar cockroaches into a courthouse. About 70 percent of Russians are Orthodox and have tended to defend their patriarch without much thought.
This case, however, has polarized the nation and may backfire on Putin as the entire world now closely examines every claim of a previously obscure group of punk street artists in weird clothes. It doesn't help that they are held in barred cages like dangerous wild animals.
Russian supporters of the group are vocal, including chess champ and opposition leader Gary Kasparov, who devotedly championed the group and was beaten and arrested outside the courthouse while he denounced the trial.
Famed sci-fi writer Boris Strugatsky stated, "It's impossible to describe my disgust," and angrily asked, "Who launched this machine of mutual misunderstanding … who needs this?"
It's unpleasant to even list accusations against Patriarch Kirill, because the church is truly under unfair and vicious assaults in so many places today. Believers in Russia are just as sincere as they are in the West, and it was a joy when Christ the Savior Cathedral was rebuilt in the 1990s as a sign of freedom and victory against Stalinism and state control.
Yet that's where it gets ironic, because with Patriarch Kirill at its helm, the church appears to remain in league with the state, only the names have changed.
P---- Riot is undoubtedly vulgar, associates with rough criminals, has awful manners, is far left-wing and their music hurts my ears. But that's nothing compared to the really big sins they lodge against Putin and his crony Kirill, which are potentially more dangerous to Russia and the church there.
I can hardly believe I'm saying this, being a conservative church-lady artist, but if I had to choose between the current Putin/Kirill alliance and the other side – I'd stand with P---- Riot this time.
Video of P---- Riot's protest can be seen below, set to their music (lyrics contain profanity in Russian):