No Escape from the Collective
The case of Pussy Riot is a reflection of Russian political culture rather than ‘sacred’ values.
The Russians share a stale joke: Krupskaya sneaks up on Vladimir Ulyanov and barks suddenly: “We love you, Lenin!” Ulyanov is startled: has his affair with Inessa really become public? And then he realises it doesn’t matter! Because what matters the most is that the Russian people love him.
The joke exposes the roots of the characteristically Russian conflict between the individual and the collective. The collective is more important than the individual. You’ve got to live in the collective and for the collective. Take a look at Russian history and its current state, and you’ll see that nothing has changed over the centuries: the lives of independent thinkers in Russia are bitter struggles and citizens who prefer individual freedoms to society simply become outcasts and are subjected to persecution.
You needn’t look far to find examples – there are plenty of them in the more distant past when clerics were exiled after falling out with the Church and in modern day Russia where you might end up in prison or in an asylum for any divergence from accepted norms of thinking. This was vividly demonstrated by the case of a girl band, despite the girls’ quite limited musical talents. If you say out loud that you do not like the president and the Church leader Kirill, you risk seven years of imprisonment – that’s how it is in today’s Russia, nothing special.
Dostoyevsky was the man who promoted the odd concept of the ‘Russian Idea’. It means a vague symbiosis between a grand and sacred Russia and ‘little’ men. It incorporates endless stories about Russia’s ‘mission’ to save the world, or at least Europe, and about Russians never being able to become Europeans, which in its turn means that they must forcefully position themselves in opposition to the rest of the world.
The rest of the world hasn’t been excessively fond of the idea that the only sacred land on this planet was Russia. The thought that Russia is sacred doesn’t suit some members of the Russian intelligentsia either. And they better watch out because these kinds of doubts constitute treason at the very least!
Alexander Panarin has repeatedly stated that any support for Western values would undermine the singularity of Russia, its historic significance and its civilisation; Russia must stand alone as a mental axis of power. Personal freedom and freedom of speech clearly form an inseparable part of Western values. In the Russian system of values, however, the same applies to unconditional reverence to the state, i.e. the centre of power. So, fighters for free speech automatically find themselves in a conflict situation.
In Russia, the Church is an ally to those in power as it symbolises the solidity and continuity of the Russian authorities – a fact that has often been ignored by people over here.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the intertwined relationship between the Church and the state in Russia in connection with the havoc caused by Pussy Riot.
There is a general consensus that the Russian Church lost a great deal of its liturgical accuracy in 1654 when Patriarch Nikon had service books revised on the basis of Greek sources and various local traditions banned, thereby transforming it into a reformed state church. Peter I abolished the Patriarchate as an institution and replaced it with a 12-member Most Holy Synod whose members were not chosen by the Church any more, but the Tsar. Catherine II proceeded with tightening the state’s control over the Church even further – in 1762, its property was appropriated by the state and the provision of supplies to the clergy was directly subordinated to the state, which meant that the Church, a former independent institution, was made wholly reliant on the authorities. So, the Church has not operated separately from the state ever since the 18th century, despite its occasional attempts at rebranding. However, the continuity of the Russian Orthodox Church was completely broken in the 1920s when the Soviet Russian security organisation suffocated Patriarch Tikhon who had refused to cooperate with the Communists and the Cheka. From then on, the Church didn’t take a single step without consulting the security organisation for permission. The Cheka appointed the so-called ‘white clergy’, i.e. clerics who were willing to cooperate with the authorities on any terms. Most of them were agents who nosed around at a local level. They were opposed by the ‘black clergy’ who still existed in the 1920s, but due to their reluctance to cooperate with the Communists they usually ended up shot in the head or in prison. The Church had been taken over. Moreover, a journal Bezbozhnik was published until the late 1920s, trying to convince the reader that there was no God but the Great Russian State. God is the dictate of the proletariat.
Numerous studies have been written on the topic of the quite smooth transition to the Soviet system in Russia. It was not only terror that facilitated the transformation of religious peasants into comrades loyal to the Party, but also the similarities between the party power hierarchy and the church system which governed all aspects of life through an established chain of command and for which ordinary man was nothing but ‘dust in the wind, toyed by the breath of God’ (Venedikt Verlonov). The Soviet authorities with their self-proclaimed God status treated man in the same manner: you didn’t argue with them. They’re also the source of these unwritten guidelines for all who suffer from personal opinion or – God forbid! – from dissident or anti-establishment tendencies: “Don’t write if you can speak. Don’t speak if you can keep quiet.”
Sociologist Matvey Malyi once suggested that Russia’s troubles stemmed from the absence of private property – this prevented caring and continuity from taking root. In addition to the physical lack of private property in Russia, the concept does not exist on the mental plane. There is no individual with his rights and freedoms – there are only ‘us’ and ‘them’. “We invented the radio,” is written in a Russian children’s book about inventions, Stories about Things, without even bothering to mention some suspicious character called Popov – ‘we’ is enough. We won the war, we sent a man to the Moon, our Church is the holiest because its roots trace back to the beginning of faith, and so on.
In the Western world, the law is generally regarded to be more important than man or even the authorities, which shields people who are opposed to the authorities from automatic harassment. In Russia, you can find a law for every purpose, meaning that the law is interpreted arbitrarily. In these circumstances, it would be quite odd to talk about freedom of speech or human rights.
Matvey Malyi has made a profound remark: “Good and honest laws have never been drafted in Russia because those who draft them do not apply them to themselves. There is always a clique that is above the law.”
If the truth doesn’t serve your purpose, you can always lie. All through history, both the Russian authorities and the Orthodox Church have had the habit of stretching the truth or of simply lying. In 1996, Russian Patriarch Alexy who had Estonian roots sent a letter to Bill Clinton, asking him to forcefully intervene in Estonian politics because ‘members of the Orthodox Church are being persecuted in Estonia and many of them are threatened with exile’. At that time – correct me if I’m wrong – there was a schism in the Orthodox Church and it was getting back at those who didn’t want to hear anything about the Moscow Patriarchate, but were interested in being transferred under the subordination of Constantinople.
The same applies to Pussy Riot. The girls couldn’t be blamed for any specific crime (except for the ‘blasphemous’ lyrics directed at Putin and Patriarch Kirill). What do you do? You lie and concoct a legal justification for arresting the hooligans and hide them from the public eye as a warning to other free spirits. Something similar happened to Patriarch Kirill’s expensive wristwatch which was edited out with Photoshop, while its reflection stayed visible on the table underneath...
The Russian Church and the Russian state can do no wrong. Arguing with them would mean to challenge an accepted cultural norm.
The French geographer Jean Jacques Reclus wrote in his book, The Earth and Its Inhabitants. The Universal Geography, about a concept called ‘effective area’ – this is the territory suitable for living and for human activity. He believed that a place was ideal for living if it wasn’t located higher than 2,000 meters above sea level and if its annual average temperature didn’t fall below -2Ã‚Â°C. Everything’s easily measurable in geography. Unfortunately, there’s also an effective area on the mental plane – that is independent thought. I don’t know how to measure the conditions that are conducive to independent thought, but one thing is clear: Russian history, circumstances and environment have contributed in every way to stifle any budding independent thought among its citizens as quickly as possible. The collective has been, and will be, preferred to it.
What about human rights, freedom of speech and female punk rock collectives? The situation in Russia with respect to these values is that there’s no point in leafing through the law books; instead you should go to a sauna with a prosecutor.