In her statement to a nobbled judge hearing a trumped-up charge before a kangaroo court, Yekaterina Samutsevich explained why she had “blasphemed”. The secular forces of oppression at Putin’s disposal were not enough for him, she said with remarkable lucidity given her perilous circumstances. He wanted “transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the pinnacle of power” too. The Orthodox church, “associated with the heyday of imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself”, now gave credulous believers religious reasons to support the crime gang in the Kremlin.
Pussy Riot had staged many protests. Revealingly, the security apparatus came for Samutsevich and her sisters after a 30-second stunt in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral. It hit a nerve by striking at Russia’s union of church and state – of patriarch and oligarch – into a common reactionary front.
“Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, chase Putin out,” they sang. The Holy Mother remained as elusive as ever, but Kirill I, Patriarch of Moscow, is more than content to keep Putin’s money launderers in the Temple. He has struck a deal. Putin offers the Orthodox church a partial restoration of its tsarist privileges: state aid for the restoration of churches the communists destroyed; and the return of priests to the schools and universities. Kirill returns the favour by making support for the Kremlin kleptomaniacs a quasi-religious duty. Everyone quotes his statement that Putin’s rule was a “miracle of God”. But they miss the hysterical assertion that before Putin’s divine intervention Russia was in as bad a state as when the Nazis invaded in 1941. Those who protested against Putin’s rigged election, continued Vsevolod Chaplin, spokesman for the Moscow patriarchate, were comparable to foreign agents. They were “under the influence of puppet masters” – manipulated and suspect.
Russian Orthodoxy has always been a state religion. The communists persecuted believers, but the KGB found many collaborators in the church who were prepared to put obedience to established power first. For this reason, it is a mistake to dismiss Kirill’s support for Putin as simple cynicism. He believes in autocracy and hates liberalism as much as his predecessors did and Putin does. That Kirill is liberalism’s avowed enemy becomes clear from reading his Freedom and Responsibility: A Search for Harmony. If its Amazon ranking is a guide, hardly any English reader has glanced at it, which is a pity because although the cleric’s arguments are drear when they are not repellent, they provide as a good an illustration as any of how opposition to human rights can be covered with smells and bells.
“The most fundamental conflict of our present era is the clash between the liberal mode of civilisation on the one hand and national culture and religious identity on the other,” Kirill begins. To which one can only say that he is right and that he is also fighting for the wrong side. I must emphasise that by liberalism the patriarch does not mean rampant individualism but any human society that tolerates “sin” providing sinners “remain within the law of land and do not harm others”. No charge is too wild to throw at such hell holes. “The human rights concept is used to cover up lies, falsehood and insults against religion and national values,” Kirill fumes. Secularism is diseased – “infected with the bacillus of self-destruction”. Secular countries allow women to control their fertility and tolerate homosexuality. They are nominally free “but defenceless against evil”.
The cleric barely makes an effort to disguise how Russia’s dark traditions of occidentalism and antisemistim have influenced his thought. Universal values are the product of a malign, alien ideology that comes from the western “protestant” theologians and – but, of course – “Jewish philosophers”. The Orthodox church can accept liberalism in the far-off lands of Europe and North America. But in Russia they “cannot stay silent when norms contradicting the foundation of the Orthodox faith are imposed on them”. This is the “multi-polarism” of Putin’s foreign ministry in clerical vestments. Liberal standards have no place in Russia.
As always, the trouble with cultural exceptionalism is that it has no honest way of arguing with members of that culture who want change. You can search Patriarch Kirill’s writings in vain for any acknowledgement that Russians who protest against corruption or the denial of democratic rights or the crimes of the wars in the Caucasus have a case that deserves a hearing. They are just the tools of “puppet masters”; the propagators of the debased ideologies of “protestant theologians” and “Jewish philosophers”.
Kirill’s writing reveals one of Russia’s most sinister characteristics. A regime of former KGB officers and plutocrats is robbing the country blind, while the leadership of the national church supports the thieves and denounces their opponents.
At least the patriarch has made it clear that he is liberalism’s enemy. The great wet blanket that covers criticism of religion in democracies makes returning that enmity a struggle. Overpaid and undereducated commentators in the half-serious media denounce criticism of religion as a form of racism. So I suppose that before I am accused of possessing a phobia about Orthodoxy, I must add that Putin was able to count on the support of Russia’s craven chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, who told him that because protests had taken place on Saturday (the Jewish sabbath) they were “not a Jewish business”.
The regime could also line up a procession of mullahs and lamas to support it. The toleration of tyranny is an ecumenical business in Russia. Nor does indulgence stop at Russia’s borders. The English translation of Kirill’s fulminations carries a foreword by Richard Chartres, the silly and faintly disgraceful Anglican Bishop of London. He offers no criticism of the patriarch. Instead, he praises his “acute intelligence”.
The most ignorant political insult of our time must be the charge of “militant atheism” that invariably follows the accusation of racism. What else is there to say about it? The Soviet communists who murdered Christians, Jews and Muslims were militant atheists. They persecuted others because of their beliefs. Who are the communists’ successors today? If you do not know, I suggest that you direct your inquiries to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. After two years “corrective labour” in a “penal colony”, they may be able to reply.