With seven days to go until the verdict in the controversial trial of Pussy Riot, believers at the landmark Moscow cathedral where the all-female group carried out their now notorious anti-Putin protest were as divided this week over the case as the rest of Russia.
It was here, inside the grand walls of the reconstructed Christ the Savior Cathedral, that Pussy Riot raged against the powerful Orthodox Church’s support for Vladimir Putin ahead of the March presidential polls that returned the former KGB officer to the Kremlin for a third term.
Alternately high-kicking and crossing themselves in the cathedral where Russia’s leaders traditionally celebrate religious holidays, the band performed a raucous “punk prayer” that urged “Virgin Mary” to “drive Putin out.”
Three young women - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30 - were arrested in March and charged with hooliganism as part of an organized group. Prosecutors allege their actions were not political and were meant to insult the faith of Orthodox believers and “incite religious hatred.”
The case has made world headlines, with a host of Western and Russian cultural figures, including pop diva Madonna, calling for the release of the suspects. Amnesty International has also recognized the women as political prisoners.
Worshippers emerging from the cathedral into the Russian capital’s bright summer sunshine this week were split over whether the suspects should be jailed for the three years asked for by the state prosecutor or freed as a demonstration of Christianity’s fundamental message of forgiveness.
“Yeah, of course, Christ taught people to forgive their enemies, but those bit**es should be put away for life, all the same,” snapped Svetlana, a young Muscovite, as she stood on the steps of the cathedral.
“I’d have dealt with them right there inside the cathedral,” she went on. Like many worshippers quizzed on the case, she declined to give her surname.
“If you don’t respect the beliefs of others, don’t come here and dance in our sacred place,” added her friend, removing the silk scarf she had used to cover her head while in the cathedral.
But not everyone agreed that the group should be punished – in this world at least - for what the suspects have since admitted in court was an “ethical mistake.”
“It’s just awful what they did, but they have children and I feel sorry for them,” said Marina Semshyova, a young woman from Siberia, after visiting the cathedral. “They should not be jailed. God will judge them eventually.”
“There is absolutely no need to imprison them,” said Lyubov Golbina, a middle-aged resident of Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg. “The trial is a stupid mistake that hasn’t been thought through correctly. They will repent, sooner or later.”
An elderly church employee selling candles to worshippers inside the cathedral scowled when asked to give her personal opinion on the case. “I’m not going to say anything that will increase their fame,” she mumbled, refusing to comment further.
Putin commented extensively for the first time on the case while in London for the Olympics last week, telling reporters that while there was “nothing good” in the group’s actions, they should not be judged “too severely.” But he also stressed the court’s right to rule as it sees fit, in a statement that has provoked a wide range of interpretations.
No Repentance, No Forgiveness
Among the wider population, including both believers and non-believers, 58 percent believe a jail term would be excessive, compared to 33 percent who endorse a custodial sentence, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the independent pollster Levada in late July. Levada quizzed 1,600 respondents nationwide and the poll had a margin of error of 3.4 percent.
But 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 Church’s powerful head, Patriarch Kirill, said earlier this year that he was “saddened” by calls from believers for leniency.
The Church’s de facto spokesman on the case, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, told RIA Novosti in an exclusive interview last month that he would not comment on the trial until the verdict had been announced by the court. But he also said that without repentance, there could be no forgiveness and to suggest otherwise was “an anti-Christian idea.”
Chaplin’s strident theological stance has been publically questioned by a number of Orthodox believers, including priests, but was shared by many worshippers at the cathedral.
“They have not officially apologized or repented and they are trying to justify their actions,” said Muscovite housewife Svetlana Sidorina. She also dismissed as “not genuine” the group’s courtroom apology for any offense they may have caused believers with what they insist was an exclusively “political” statement.
“They insulted the faith and feelings of all Orthodox believers. It’s as if they danced on the graves of my family members,” she added. “But I can’t say I have this great desire to see them punished. The court should decide. I feel sorry for them and their children.”
She also shrugged off suggestions that the group’s actions were a bizarre form of prayer in keeping with Russia’s tradition of holy fools, outsiders given leeway to make sometimes shocking or controversial observations on society.
“That was no prayer. A prayer is a thing of intimate communion, not a public demonstration,” she insisted. “And all this now with Madonna and so on defending them…This is just an attempt to diminish the standing of Orthodox Christianity in Russia.”
Church and State
The case has also highlighted the growing influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia and caused concern among liberal observers who believe the constitutional separation of church and state is under threat.
Patriarch Kirill was initially seen as a modernizing force when he took over from his predecessor Alexei II – an alleged KGB agent - in 2009. But the unprecedented protests against Putin that broke out last year have also seen a rise in criticism of the Orthodox Church and its backing for the Kremlin, as well as the perceived luxurious lifestyles of its leading figures. This criticism reached a peak when the patriarch praised Putin as a “miracle of God” in the run-up to the March 4 presidential polls.
Archpriest Chaplin told RIA Novosti last month that Orthodox believers saw nothing wrong in the “close cooperation” of the church with the Kremlin, but believers at the Christ the Savior Cathedral were decidedly against an end to the legal division of the country’s religious and political authorities. Even if, at times, their statements were at sometimes at odds with their professed convictions.
“The church should be separate from the state so that its voice can be independent,” said Muscovite mother-of-three Olga Smolova. “But there was nothing wrong with the patriarch backing Putin ahead of the elections. Our church leaders have always blessed our rulers to ensure that their decisions come from God.”
“There is no doubt that the church and the state should be independent from one another,” said middle-aged Muscovite Tatiana as she passed a beggar outside the cathedral’s gates. “But Kirill is a very clever man and I guess he did the right thing in backing Putin. And all this criticism of the patriarch is just nonsense. I see no moral equal to him in Russia today.”
The Pussy Riot story has triggered a debate about the significance of the Christ the Savior Cathedral itself, with believers at odds over the sacredness of the site and its importance for Russian Orthodoxy.
“I don’t consider this cathedral a holy place,” said Lyubov Golbina. “I mean, there used to be a swimming pool here. There are plenty of sacred sites around Russia, but this cathedral hasn’t been prayed in enough to be one.”
The original Christ the Savior Cathedral was blown up on the orders of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1931 as part of the officially atheist state’s anti-religion campaign. Stalin intended to place a gigantic statue of Lenin on the site, but the location proved too waterlogged for its construction and an open-air swimming pool was opened there instead. The cathedral’s reconstruction began in the 1990s as religion emerged from the shadows in the newly independent Russia. The completed cathedral, which was constructed partly on public donations, was consecrated in 2000.
But recent years have seen allegations of the commercialization of the cathedral, which hosts an underground parking lot, car-wash and halls available for rent for private functions.
“This is the holiest place in the country for all Orthodox believers,” said Oleg, a middle-aged man who was initially hesitant about commenting. He had no doubt, however, about what should be done with Pussy Riot.
“I guess three years is about right,” he said. “I have no idea why they did what they did. But the less is written and spoken about them, the better it will be for the church and the girls.”
The verdict in the case will be announced at 3 p.m. (11 a.m. GMT) on August 17. Pussy Riot lawyer Mark Feigin said on Twitter this week that global street protests would be staged in support of the group an hour before the verdict.