The Riot of the Faithful

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The fall out from the Pussy Riot scandal continues unabated. But the activities are less from Riot’s supporters, and more from their detractors. Indeed, it seems that Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” in Christ Our Savior Cathedral has stirred a hornet’s nest, and now all the little bees are angrily buzzing about, thrusting their tiny stingers into side of the so-called “enemies of the faith.” When I noted some of the activities of Orthodox activists in my last post, I assumed that their antics were more flashes in the pan. Now it’s clear that I grossly underestimated the fragility of the sensibilities of a minority of Orthodox followers. Perhaps it’s because I never thought that the religious fanaticism that I often witness in the US, let alone that among the ultra-Orthodox in Israel and elements in the Muslim world, would find expression in Russia.

It just goes to show that a stable post-Soviet identity remains elusive, and the virtually ideologically hollow multiethnic and multiconfessional model offered by the Russian government has yet to find traction. Thus, a radical adherence to Orthodoxy seems to fill that vacuum for some, and like good converts, their anxieties about the purity of their own faith is transferred on to the Orthodox Church as a whole, making anything that appears to threaten its sanctity an evildoer. The global crisis of secularism has found its Slavic voice.

How else to explain bringing a lawsuit against the Russian fashion designer Artem Lebedev for writing “god” in lowercase letters? Actually, Lebedev wrote “F*ck god,” but in justifying their lawsuit, Orthodox activists say that they were offended by the disrespect the lowercase type denotes.

Or the fact that a group of Orthodox activists have prevented the performance of Jesus Christ Superstar in Rostov by charging that the musical offends their religious sentiments. That’s right Jesus Christ Superstar. Funny, the musical has been running in Russia for 20 years, and now suddenly its offensive. The bees are buzzing indeed.

At the moment there is no law to hold Lebedev or the Rostov Philharmonic responsible for offending the faithful. But that might soon change. The Russian Duma is planning on turning the Russian codex back before 1917 by passing what essentially is a blasphemy law. The proposed law, which has support across party lines, will make “publicly insulting the religious beliefs and feelings of citizens” punishable up to a 300,000 ruble fine, 200 hours of community service, or a max of three years in prison, and “the desecration of objects and articles of religious worship and places of religious rites and ceremonies” liable to a fine between 100,000 to 500,000 rubles, 400 hours of service, and up to five years in the slammer.

Now, Michael Bohm’s idea that Russia is becoming Iran and must choose between becoming “anti-Western and theocratic or liberal-­democratic” is quite presumptuous, not to mention downright silly. But that’s the kind of hyperbole that his editorializing is known for. Nevertheless, the upsurge in concern about the sanctity of Russian Orthodoxy does suggest that something is amiss. And that something, I would argue, is that the Russian state has yet to offer its citizenry an ideology to bind the nation. The outlandish maneuvers on the part of Orthodox activists and the politicians that seek to capitalize on them are expressions of this ideological lack. The militant turn to Orthodoxy, however, is hardly a cure. In fact, such gestures in a society that is lukewarm about religion in general are likely to perpetuate the symptoms.


Unsurprisingly, the scandal in Rostov over preventing the performance of Jesus Christ Superstar has lit Runet ablaze. Here’s a run down of some responses courtesy of BesTToday. More interesting, however, is that the Russian Orthodox Church has weighed in on the issue. Daniil Azizov, a representative from the Rostov diocese told Interfax:

“We were quite surprised by the group of people who call themselves believers and wish that their opinions coincide with those of all Orthodox believers. But this is not so. It is only the personal opinion of 18-20 people who do not reflect neither the views of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Rostov diocese, or that of our parishioners. . . Twenty-years ago, when the Bible or the dioceses weren’t in wide usage, people found out about Jesus Christ through the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s a wonderful opera. There is nothing in it that should offend religious believers. . . If I had the free time, I would go see this rock opera myself.”

So there you have it. The message from the Russian Orthodox church is “Rock on Jesus, you superstar.”