The brief sigh that Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin allows himself when asked about imprisoned punk rockers Pussy Riot is a mixture of undisguised weariness and irritation with a legal case that has split Russian society down the middle.
“A Christian country should act decisively when one of its holy places is attacked,” he intones, his deep-timbred voice echoing off the high ceiling of the 18th century downtown Moscow church, where he is the rector.
As unprecedented demonstrations against the rule of Vladimir Putin took place across Russia this spring, four masked women from the already notorious all-female Pussy Riot group staged a high-profile protest against the church’s support for the former KGB officer. Alternately high-kicking and crossing themselves at the altar of the Christ the Savior Cathedral, where Russia’s leaders traditionally celebrate religious holidays, the band performed a raucous and atonal “punk prayer” that urged “Mother Mary” to “drive Putin out.”
“If someone insults me personally, then of course I will forgive them,” Chaplin says. “But if someone insults my faith or my God, I wait until they change their position and admit that they acted wrongly.”
“God does not forgive those sins that have not been repented of,” he insists. “And it is an anti-Christian idea to suggest that God forgives everyone.”
Chaplin, 44, is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department on Relations with Society. While not an official spokesperson, his willingness to enter into public debate has made him the church’s de facto point-man on Pussy Riot as the row over the continued custody of the three women - two of whom have small children - continues to rage.
Free Pussy Riot?
Three members of the Pussy Riot group – who claim the 1990s U.S. Riot Girl music scene as inspiration – were detained in March and have been locked up in a Moscow pre-trial detention center ever since. They face up to seven years behind bars if found guilty of hooliganism charges.
The case has rapidly become both one of the most politically charged legal sagas in modern Russia and a cause célèbre for international free speech advocates. The Kremlin’s own rights council and a host of stars from Russia’s arts world have also slammed the decision to keep the women, who are all under 30, behind bars. Lawyers for the group have alleged Kremlin pressure and accuse the court of judicial abuse reminiscent of “Stalin-era repression.”
The suspects have also faced a series of increasingly hysterical accusations that mingle claims of Satanism with suggestions the group were working for unnamed foreign powers.
In comments more reminiscent of Middle Ages witchcraft trials, a lawyer for a cathedral security guard - who says he has had problems sleeping since the protest - claimed last week that the group was trying to lead believers “through trickery and cunning, not to God, but to Satan.”
“Behind this stands the real enemies of our state and Church,” lawyer Mikhail Kuznetsov told the Moskovskie Novosti newspaper. He also suggested that Pussy Riot were part of a global network of Satanists also responsible for the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
But Chaplin dismisses suggestions that the powerful Orthodox Church should seek to dampen passions by “doing the Christian thing” and seeking freedom for Pussy Riot, whose trial has yet to formally begin. While a number of high-profile believers have expressed unease at the prolonged confinement of the anti-Putin punks, the Church has not issued a public call for their release.
The stance is at odds with public sentiment, in Moscow at least. In a survey carried out by the independent Levada Center this month, 50 percent of Muscovites were against criminal charges being brought, while 36 percent were in favor.
“If they repent, the church’s attitude toward them will change, but we cannot interfere in the court’s decision,” Chaplin says. “After the verdict, there will be a chance to evaluate things.”
“Without repentance there can be no forgiveness,” he goes on, reiterating an apparent celestial stance he says was “revealed” to him in a recent vision. “And I do not see that they have repented.”
The Pussy Riot debate has stirred passions on both sides of the increasingly deep divide between those who want to see them jailed and those who fear the case could set a catastrophic precedent for Russia. But Chaplin pronounces his judgment with barely a flicker of emotion, as if secure in his belief that he is speaking for God himself.
“As a matter of fact,” he smiles. “Everything has already been said. And for now the court should be allowed to work calmly.”
Split in Society
The Pussy Riot case reflects a wider issue within Russia, where a new, educated middle class is seeking a greater say in the political life of the country and pushing at the confines of Putin’s system of “managed democracy.”
And the church has not remained on the sidelines of what Putin memorably dubbed earlier this year “the battle for Russia” With less than a month to go before the March 4 presidential elections, the church’s 65-year-old head, Patriarch Kirill, hailed the Russian strongman leader as the country’s “savior” in a televised meeting. Putin was duly elected for a third presidential term in a landslide victory.
But Chaplin denies that Kirill’s endorsement of Putin was in any way inappropriate for a country whose Constitution clearly states the separation of church and state.
“The patriarch is obliged to give his opinion of politicians – positive or negative,” he shrugs. “And his comments were hardly a surprise.” He likewise dismisses allegations that it was an unacceptable signal to the some 65 percent of the electorate who describe themselves as Orthodox Christians as to whose ballot box God wanted them to tick.
“For a Russian Orthodox believer, it is normal for the state and the church to cooperate in harmony with each other,” he insists. “They should have the same values and cooperate in the majority of spheres.”
And it is this “cooperation in symphony” between the church and the Kremlin that Chaplin believes will shape the future political system of the largest country on Earth.
“The Russian political system is developing and I hope it will develop in the direction of those political traditions and that political culture inherent to the Russian people, who differ from people in the West,” he says. “I hope that our political system will, eventually, differ from the Western model. And both the West and our leaders must eventually understand this.”
“The separation of the secular and the religious is a fatal mistake by the West,” he goes on, unprompted. “It is a monstrous phenomenon that has occurred only in Western civilization and will kill the West, both politically and morally.”
Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” was a sign of growing disquiet among even Orthodox believers over what critics say is the Church’s political clout and persistent rumors of the luxuriant lifestyles of its leading officials.
Patriarch Kirill came under unprecedented criticism in April after he insisted in an interview with a Russian journalist that he had never worn a $30,000 Breguet watch he had been given as a gift. Any photographs of him doing so had likely been doctored, he suggested.
But eagle-eyed bloggers quickly discovered on the Church’s official Web site a photograph of Kirill with the watch in question on his wrist. Less than 24 hours later, the watch had been airbrushed out. Unfortunately for the Church, the inattentive editor had left intact the tell-tale refection of the luxury timepiece on a varnished table, triggering a storm of online mockery.
“It was a bad decision to remove the watch,” Chaplin says simply. “Pure stupidity.”
“But I believe the patriarch has the right to wear any watch he wants,” he insists. “When I hosted my own radio program, an ordinary woman called me once and said ‘if I had the money, I would buy him a diamond-studded watch because he is my patriarch.’ Most people think like that. It’s a Russian Orthodox tradition.”
“Even in times of war, of famine, people brought their most expensive things to the church. In periods of poverty, people built churches and decorated churches and built the residences of their bishops,” he explains. “Patriarch Kirill’s service in the church presumes a special grandeur. He is the symbol of the church of the triumphant Christ.”
Putin and the KGB
Chaplin is equally as unconcerned by President Putin’s security services background and sees no contradictions between his public religious piety and his previous life as an officer in the KGB, the feared secret police force in the world’s first officially atheist state.
“Even representatives of the Soviet security services and the Communist Party secretly had their children christened,” Chaplin says. “Atheism was not something that was deeply felt in the Soviet Union – it was a reflection of the dominant ideology that few genuinely adhered to.”
And he likewise rubbishes rumors that the KGB routinely infiltrated the Orthodox Church during the Soviet period as “an absolute myth.”
He also defends the Church over widespread criticism that it ensured its survival by collaborating with the Soviet-era Kremlin.
“A church has to enter into a dialogue with any ruling system – even an anti-Christian one, be it the Roman Empire or the Soviet Union,” he says. “There was nothing wrong with talking to the Soviet authorities.”
“And, you know,” he goes on, returning to what is clearly a pet topic, “I don’t believe the political system in the West today is any better for a Christian than the Soviet system.”
Some 200,000 clergymen were executed during the Soviet period, according to a 1995 presidential committee report on Stalin-era repression. The Moscow Patriarchate says that the Soviet authorities murdered 80,000 people for their faith in 1937 – the peak of Stalin-era terror.
And the archpriest positively glows with nostalgia when asked how he became a Christian amid the hard-line official atheism of the Soviet era, when those churches that had survived the Bolshevik anti-religion campaign were often used as warehouses or auto-repair yards.
“I found God in 1981 – like most young Christians in the 1980s Soviet Union, I was from a family of committed agnostics,” he recalls. “It was, a miracle, as Patriarch Kirill has often said. People who had no religious upbringing and knew only about religion from what they had read in atheist Soviet textbooks, suddenly started to come to God.”
“My parents were against it of course. I can’t say my father approved of everything that went on in the Soviet Union, but he was totally committed to atheism and the cult of science that was popular at the time.”
Navalny and God’s Love
Chaplin met with opposition figurehead and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny this year for informal talks with the man who has rapidly become one of the most troublesome thorns in the Kremlin’s side.
Navalny, an Orthodox Christian, caused controversy in opposition circles when he subsequently described the talks as “interesting and friendly,” and the archpriest smiles when reminded of the meeting.
“He’s obviously a clever person, but it’s difficult for me to completely agree with everything he says,” he comments.
“But it’s clear that such people should be drawn into national politics. I hope that Russia’s future political life will develop through dialogue and maximum participation, and not through revolution and chaos.”
Russia has seen more of the “revolution and chaos” that Chaplin so fears in the last 100 years than many countries have suffered in their entire modern history.
“If God loves someone or something, he creates difficulties,” he concludes. “If a person is living a sated, peaceful life, this means God has forgotten about him. This life is but a preparation for the next, real life, and it is through suffering that God prepares us.”
And with that, Chaplin wraps up the interview. He has, it seems, work to do. After all, as the Bible reminds us, the Kingdom of God waits for no man.