Faith on Fridays: The Holy Foolishness of Punk and the Suppression of Critical Thought

There are three new names on my prayer list—(left to right in photo) Maria, Yekaterina and Nadezhda—three members of the Russian punk band, “Pussy Riot.” I don’t know these young women personally, but after reading their “closing statements” before being sentenced to two years in a Russian jail, I decided the best thing I could do for them was to pray. And not necessarily for their salvation. I’m not judging these women for their acts—it’s too damn hard to sort it all out—but I fear for their safety in a Russian prison, and I pray for their freedom. And for their actions to bring about positive changes in their nation and throughout the world.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Orthodox Church’s department for relations with society

Another name I need to add to that prayer list—and I confess it’s difficult for me to do so—is that of Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior clergyman of the Orthodox Church in Russia. In a recent article in Time Magazine, “The Priest Who Beat Pussy Riot: The Orthodox Point Man with the Kremlin,” Simon Shuster says this about Chaplin:

“In 2010, while campaigning for a nationwide ‘dress code,’ he proclaimed that women who wear revealing outfits are guilty of inciting rape. He later lobbied for legislation to ban Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita and suggested that all Russian intellectuals should be condemned for the ‘sin of Russophobia.’”

And in the same article in Time:

“Chaplin, who heads the Orthodox Church’s department for relations with society, was one of the leading cheerleaders for the prosecution from the start. In April, about a month after the Pussy Riot members were arrested, he said the group represented a campaign of ‘literally satanic rage’ that the Russian opposition movement had unleashed against the church. He called on all believers to fight this ‘heresy,’ including through the use of force, ‘so that there be no more temptation to equate Christianity with pacifism.’”

Pussy Riot, painting by Jean Smith

Two weeks ago today I posted the first news I had seen about Pussy Riot: “Pussy Riot in Moscow.” When I linked to the post on Facebook, a heated conversation ensued, which is now up to 38 comments.

As I read those comments today, words that come to mind are, “We didn’t start the fire.” (“We” meaning Pussy Riot and those who are in sympathy with their protest.)

I dislike how responses to Pussy Riot’s actions seem to line up on “sides”—like so much else in our culture that divides us. And so the comment I appreciated the most on that Facebook post came from a young friend, Mary Elizabeth Phillips:

“Susan, thank you for this. Honestly, most of the Orthodox folks’ reactions to this event that I have seen have only served to remind me of why I’m not Orthodox anymore. I am relieved and thankful that there are Orthodox people like you who can foster fruitful conversation about this protest without immediately declaring it to be evil and blasphemous. It’s a breath of fresh air.”

And this one, from another young friend (and excellent musician/artist) Tim Stanek:

“What these ladies are doing here is unprecedented. …”to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture” is a fantastic plan to catalyze massive social change. The media is absolutely key to any massive social change. It’s been said that he who controls the presses controls the people, but Pussy Riot is playing the game and winning from the outside. Way to go!!!”

And also these words from my friend and fellow parishioner at St. John Orthodox Church, (who is also a musician) David Twombly:

“Susan, thank you for this post and also for the recommendation of the Orthodoxy and Culture synchroblog. I found Deacon Steven Hayes’s insights in the latter to be especially helpful for me, especially given his own experience of being charged with ‘profaning’ the Church in his youth.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot

Isn’t it interesting how artists, writers and musicians seem to have a somewhat similar take on these events? And how society—and especially totalitarian governments—try to keep us quiet? I’m reminded of the late Madeleine L’Engle’s words:

The first people that a dictator puts in jail are the writers and the teachers because these are the people who have vocabulary, who can see injustice and can express what they feel about it. Artists are dangerous people because they are called to work with human clay, with the heart and the soul. So to protect itself, society has had to pretend that either art is unimportant or that it is simple…. When Hugh and I went on a trip to Russia I almost didn’t get a visa because our travel agent put down my occupation as writer. Writers think. Writers ask questions. Writers are dangerous.”

Two Orthodox women who are published authors have weighed in on Pussy Riot’s actions in their blogs.

In “History, Blasphemy and Russia” Frederica Mathewes-Green says:

“These women could use their talents to gather and tell the stories of those who lived through the bad times, and the stories of those who did not make it through. That would be something we could all agree on—a project that could bring healing and understanding, and strengthen memory against future abuse.”

Another Orthodox author, Lily Parascheva Rowe, says, in her recent post, “Pussy Riot and Their Punk Prayer”:

“This is the greatest irony of all, the fact that the girls’ protest against non-critical thinkers and the suppression of thought is being used by left and right to suppress critical thought.”

Well said, Ms. L’Engle, Lily Parascheva, Mary Elizabeth, Tim, David… and Billy Joel. I’d love to hear from my readers on this subject. I know it’s dangerous, but please speak up.

14 thoughts on “Faith on Fridays: The Holy Foolishness of Punk and the Suppression of Critical Thought”

  1. I’ve been following along with this story, trying to sort it all out. The idealist in me feels wounded by the way the media has ignored the religious element of this story, especially after reading Frederica’s article and learning about the history of that particular church. (Have you seen Terry Mattingly’s assessment of the media coverage? )

    But the artist in me, the one who really digs performance art in all its weird manifestations, also really gets the success of their demonstration. As I understand it, their protest is of the close ties of the church leaders to the political leaders. And isn’t the way we feel about the church being sullied by their performance the same way they feel about the church being sullied by its political involvement? Aren’t the church’s leaders unholy actions just as desecrating as the girls’ performance? (Forgive me, I don’t know enough about Russian politics to know if our leaders really are behaving in an unholy way, I just mean that this is their point.) What better way to communicate those visceral feelings than to make us feel it?

    I still wish it hadn’t happened this way. I’d rather they exercise free speech without trampling on what others feel is sacred. I also wish the sentence hadn’t been so extreme. But moving forward, perhaps all parties have something to learn here.

    1. Dear Laura –

      As an Orthodox church attending person living in Russia, let me clarify one thing – these “girls” are not at all concerned about the Church, its policies, or its allegiances. They are atheists who hate Putin and the publicly declared aim of their organization and its parent, the protest art collective “Voina” (“War”, in translation), is revolution. In this way, they are absolutely no different from the League of Militant Godless who marched through the streets of recently post-revolutionary Russia in the 1920s and 30s parodying church services, prayers, church members and clergy. The desensitization that this created in Russian society contributed significantly to the ease with which the authorities destroyed millions of innocent people, including observant churchgoers, during the Stalinist purges in the 1930s. Piotr Verzilov, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s husband and himself a leading member of Voina, expressly stated in an interview with the German Die Spiegel that PR had no idea that their actions would result in imprisonment. They were counting on a nominal fine.

      1. Thanks for your comment, Irina. I especially appreciate hearing from Orthodox Christians like yourself, who live in Russia. I’m trying to understand the connection you are making between PR’s demonstration and the post-revolutionary militants you describe here. You may not feel safe answering this in a public discussion, but I’m wondering how you feel about the Church’s ties to the government.

  2. Thank you for this post. Lily Parascheva Rose states, in the post linked to above, “I think there needs to be room in this discussion for people who might support the girls’ message but find their method offensive.”

    Yes, yes, and yes. Thank you for making room.

    Another quote from Ms. Rose sums things up fairly well:

    “If these girls are sincere in their closing statements, and I believe they are, they are not against the Orthodox Church. They are against the fact that, in their belief, the Patriarch allows the Church to be used by Putin to deceive Orthodox people into being as politically uninvolved as possible.”

    I’m pretty sure I know much less about the real details of life in present-day Russia than she does. I will say, though, that my own limited perceptions of the supposed close ties of the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church to the State–and the possible co-opting of the former by the latter–kept me from seriously exploring Orthodoxy for a long time. Not that my perceptions were, or are, clear, accurate, or informed, but they did, and do, lead me to sympathize with the (perceived) intent of these protests.

    Again, thank you for providing a “safe” forum for discussion.

    1. A “safe forum for discussion” seems to be harder and harder to come by these days, David. Especially when it involves politics or religion. I avoid most discussion of politics on Facebook because of how violently partisan the atmosphere is. One FB friend recently said he was going to unfriend everyone who spoke freely for the opposite political party. How can he expect to have a “discussion” when he shuts down everyone he disagrees with? Most of my life I’ve been told what is and is not appropriate for me to say–as a “good Southern Christian lady.” Well, the (Sunday go-to-meeting) gloves are off, especially where thugs hiding behind the walls of the Church are concerned. Thanks so much for reading and contributing to the discussion, David.

  3. “Isn’t the way we feel about the church being sullied by their performance the same way they feel about the church being sullied by its political involvement?” Well said, Laura.

  4. I appreciated that quote as well: “I think there needs to be room in this discussion for people who might support the girls’ message but find their method offensive.”

  5. I will just offer this thought. The US media is doing a very bad job covering this story. If you are only reading US sources, you are definitely not getting the whole story. They are missing many of the cultural realities and, frankly, I think they are just getting some of the facts wrong. It’s a confusing situation. But then again it isn’t confusing. I found the Rowe article to be fairly balanced, but it still had at least two significant errors. These make it a bit misleading. I have written a longer response to it, but I won’t post it here. If you want to see it, I can send it to you privately.

    1. Thanks for your input, Erin. I was hoping to hear from you and would love to hear more via email. I imagine that Lily Rowe would like to hear about the errors in her post which make it misleading. Did you see this letter from the young man in Russia to Frederica Mathewes-Green? And I saw this article by Terry Matingly after I wrote this past: Thanks for weighing in.

  6. One other comment. With all due respect to Tim Stanek, this event is not at all unprecedented. Not at all. There is lots and lots of precedent for this kind of art in Russia. Just take a quick look at the Russian avant-garde art movements of the beginning of the 20th century and you will often see similar expressions. Malevich’s “Black Square” would be a good place to start. Then look at other rock and roll in the 1970s and 1980s and you will see similar trends. And that is just the 20th century. There is other similar work in the 19th century and much earlier, too.

  7. Well, I converted to the Orthodox Church last year, and it looks like the honeymoon is over…and that makes me sad. I had thought the Orthodox Church sorta “flew under the radar” when it came to controversy, but boy have I been proven wrong with this incident! Seems like there’s not a jursidiction that hasn’t been hit one scandal or another, and of course all the people who hate God and religion are just laughing at us for it! It makes me feel very disappointed and discouraged…like I’ve picked the losing side or something. I don’t understand why so many people, including Orthodox Christians are taking the side of the band members and making them out to be some sort of heroes. They are not. Disrespecting a church by doing so called “prayers” that are full of blasphemy and profanity is NOT ok, and it will never be ok to my mind! Whatever their rationale, I still feel that that band was in the wrong for doing that “protest” inside of the sanctuary like that! If they have a problem with Putin, then they should take it to the Kremlin. The church is a house of prayer. It’s not supposed to be a platform for anyone with an ax to grind, I don’t care who you are.

    1. Hi, Sabrina. The Orthodox Church can’t avoid controversy any more than any organization of fallen human beings can. I don’t think any Christians, Orthodox or otherwise, would disagree with you that the church is a house of prayer and isn’t supposed to be used as a platform the way PR did. I, too, am saddened by their actions, but also saddened by the oppressive and corrupt situation that exists in Russia, within the government and also the ranks of the clergy. But hopefully God will use whatever means to call these men to accountability… even a group of punk rock political protesters. I think PR saw their actions as a way to try to reach Putin. That’s the interpretation I’ve taken from what I’ve read, but of course, I could be wrong. I’ve been Orthodox for 25 years, and I also get discouraged and disappointed with the church, Sabrina. Incidents like this can easily cause divisions among Christians. My hope has been that the dialogue here on my blog, and on Facebook, would create an atmosphere for open discussion and sharing of information about all of this. I’m trying to listen to what each person says with a humble and non-judgmental spirit. And to react with a renewed urgency to PRAY for everyone involved, and to trust that God is head over His Church, and “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) Thanks for reading and for commenting.

  8. I’m an Orthodox of the Russian tradition, just finished my book/doctorate on ‘Russian Literature, Holy Foolishness and Orthodox Christianity’. It’s horrible what’s been happening in Moscow/Russia. Patriarch Kyril should have simply invited Pussy Riot around to his place for a chat. But in present day Russia that’s impossible.

    My diocese left moscow a while ago and is now with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Russia, by and large, is in deep denial about its own past.

Comments are closed.