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Hating Russian Orthodoxy

Given the sharp divide on the left between those who consider the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) governments to be the first line of defense against Western imperialism and those who take the sides of the victims of such governments even when the U.S. State Department takes up their cause as well, it should not come as a surprise that the Pussy Riot trial has become a litmus test. Support for Pussy Riot is a sign that you are catching Christopher Hitchens flu or worse.

As one of the highest-profile defenders of BRIC counter-hegemony, Global Research could be relied upon to take the side of the Russian prosecutors. Tony Cartalucci reminded his readers  that stiff prison sentences have been meted out in the West for holocaust denial so why all the fuss? Of course, a more appropriate response might have been to question all laws against free speech whether in the West or in Russia. Meanwhile Information Clearing House, a website with a similar orientation, has a piece by “The Saker” that views support for the young punk rocker/anarchists as little more than religious intolerance:

The sad truth is that the West’s support for Pussy Riot is, in reality, nothing more than yet another expression of its rabid hatred for anything Russian or Russian Orthodox.  And if that means erecting a small group of sexually dysfunctional women into a banner for freedom, so be it! (emphasis in the original)

I am not sure where “The Saker” got the idea that they were sexually dysfunctional, a term redolent more of Kinsey than Kissinger, but the idea of rallying around a beleaguered Russian Orthodox Church was a bit hard for me to swallow. Maybe I am behind the times, but if I took a word association test the first word that would come to mind after “Russian Orthodox Church” would be “Rasputin”. Since the grip of such malevolent figures on Russian society ended in 1917, one has to wonder why the left is in the business of defending the church against blasphemers. I could not help but be reminded of a quip made to me by a Soviet émigré that I worked with years ago, a fellow who greatly admired Ronald Reagan: “The Communists were very bad but the best thing they ever did was suppress organized religion.” He made sure to be clear that this included the synagogues, the faith of his fathers. As someone forced in the 1950s to learn Hebrew (or at least to sound out the words) and to pray to a god one did not believe in, I imagine that I would have envied my 12-year-old Russian contemporaries.

Also of interest is the call to stand up for anything “Russian” or “Russian Orthodox” against its enemies, wedding as it were the Russian flag to the cross of the orthodoxy. Elements of the Western left, always on the leading edge when it comes to Diderot’s injunction that “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”, somehow makes an exception for traditional family values when they are held by the Russian equivalent of Pat Robertson.

At first blush it might seem puzzling why Pussy Riot would stage an action in an Orthodox Church if their main target were Putin. What has been the role of the church? The American left protests Catholic opposition to gay rights and backs the right of women to control their own body, and increasingly takes a stand against the rabbinical blessings for Israeli brutality but what are the stakes for the Russian left?

It is also necessary to examine Putin’s connections to Russian Orthodoxy since the church was at one time seen as a tool of Western interests. Ever the nationalist, wouldn’t Putin have kept the church at arm’s length? As recently as January 2005 Aleksei II, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, took a stand against Putin’s widening powers at a time when protests had been erupting all across Russia similar to those held last year.

Fred Weir, the canny co-author with David Kotz of “Revolution from above: the demise of the Soviet system” and now the Russian correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, told its readers on November 14, 2007 that the ties between church and state ran deep no matter the Patriarch’s reprimand:

The Orthodox Church has been – and remains – closely linked to the Russian state. Even before the Bolsheviks nationalized all its property and took full control over the priesthood, the church acted as the main ideological support for Russian czars. And since the fall of communism, Russian leaders have sometimes turned to the church, which has baptized some 60 percent of Russians, to boost their legitimacy.

Though President Vladimir Putin has frequently stressed that Russia remains a secular state, he and other state leaders prominently take part in Orthodox festivals and he is often seen in company with the patriarch, the head of the Orthodox Church. In a press conference on the reunification earlier this year of the US-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad with the mother church in Moscow, Putin equated Russia’s “traditional faiths” with its nuclear missile shield as “components that strengthen Russian statehood and create necessary preconditions for internal and external security of the country.”

Anticipating the prosecution against Pussy Riot, the church and the state joined hands in April of 2008 to silence Mikhail Zlatkovsky, a satirical cartoonist who had represented Aleksei II in a less than flattering manner. While one should always refrain—unlike “The Saker”–from characterizing one’s political adversaries as sexually dysfunctional, one might smile at another of Zlatkovsky’s cartoons: “In one Putin sketch, he is portrayed as a young king on his wedding day, marrying a woman called Federation (the Russian Federation). Egged on by cronies and advisers, he takes Russia into his bedroom but finds himself impotent and does not know what to do with his bride.”

In October 2007, Aleksei II attended a conference of church leaders in Strasbourg to put forward a rather novel interpretation of homosexuality. He dubbed it a “distortion of the human personality like kleptomania.” With respect to a gay rights parade in Moscow, he condemned it as advertising for immoral behavior and asked: “Why don’t we have advertising for kleptomania?”

Despite his affinity for the kind of idiocy heard from Pat Robertson, Aleksei II’s interests collided with those of Protestant missions in Russia. If Yeltsin symbolized unrestrained penetration of the Russian economy by foreign multinationals, the onslaught of Western sects in the immediate post-Soviet period represented the same phenomenon on a spiritual level. In order to consolidate a strong state, Putin had to make the Russian Orthodoxy a state religion. In April 2008, Putin starting to clamp down on the sects in a manner similar to what happened to NGO’s around the same time as Clifford Levy reported in the April 24, 2008 N.Y. Times:

The church’s hostility toward Protestant groups, many of which are based in the United States or have large followings there, is tinged with the same anti-Western sentiment often voiced by Mr. Putin and other senior officials.

The government’s antipathy also seems to stem in part from the Kremlin’s wariness toward independent organizations that are not allied with the government.

Now, of course, if your primary interest is in seeing Russian nationalism flourish, this kind of “anti-Western” campaign might be worth supporting, especially if you are skeptical that any alternative to the current system can exist. Back in the early 1990s, they had a term for this. It was called TINA, meaning “there is no alternative to capitalism”. If socialism is a lost cause, why not settle for second-best, which for some apparently is a Russian strongman and a church that likens being gay to kleptomania?

For those of us with a Quixotic bent, there might be an attraction to Pussy Riot that will never be understood by Tony Cartalucci or “The Staker”. Like us, the punk rockers will settle for nothing less than the abolition of private property whether the stars-and-stripes or the Russian flag sanctifies it. Despite the groundswell of support for the right of punk rockers to say what they want and where they want to say it, there is at least one Russian sophisticated enough to understand what they truly represent. In an op-ed piece that appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Vadim Nitikin should have made the case for backing Pussy Riot even as he was trying to warn off the kind of people who own the IHT, the N.Y. Times or the Washington Post:

Anyone who has bothered to see them beyond their relevance as anti-Kremlin proxies will know that these young people are as contemptuous of capitalism as they are of Putinism. They are targeting not just Russian authoritarianism, but, in Tolokonnikova’s words, the entire “corporate state system.” And that applies to the West as much as to Russia itself. It includes many of the fawning foreign media conglomerates covering the trial, like Murdoch’s News Corp., and even such darlings of the anti-Putin “liberal opposition” establishment as the businessman and anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny.

Pussy Riot’s fans in the West need to understand that their heroes’ dissent will not stop at Putin; neither will it stop if and when Russia becomes a “normal” liberal democracy. Because what Pussy Riot wants is something that is equally terrifying, provocative and threatening to the established order in both Russia and the West (and has been from time immemorial): freedom from patriarchy, capitalism, religion, conventional morality, inequality and the entire corporate state system. We should only support these brave women if we, too, are brave enough to go all the way.

Yes, let us be brave enough to go all the way, just as these three young women have been.

Louis Proyect can be reached through his website The Unrepentant Marxist.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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