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Punk-Rock Authoritarianism

David Satter

The opening of the trial of a Russian female punk band for an unsanctioned performance in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in which they called on the Virgin Mary to drive away Putin is more than a travesty of justice. It is also an ominous hint that Putin now faces real political opposition in Russia, and may seek to defend himself with the help of a new authoritarian ideology.

The members of the band, Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, are being charged with “hooliganism motivated by racial or religious hatred,” a crime that carries a maximum sentence of seven years. They are being tried in the same court where the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted in his second trial and, like the Khodorkovsky case, the matter has overarching symbolic importance.

The members of the band behaved inappropriately in staging a political demonstration on the altar of Russia’s most important cathedral. But their behavior was not criminal. As Russian observers have pointed out, they appealed to the Virgin, not to Satan, and although their song was unusual and not in keeping with the solemn setting, there was nothing about it that was prohibited. In fact, the message that the band was trying to convey was a fundamentally important one that there is something anti-religious about the Russian Orthodox hierarchy’s subservience to Putin.

As Putin has strengthened his authoritarian control over Russia, he has relied increasingly on the Church to legitimize him. He is regularly accompanied by Church hierarchs at political events and is shown celebrating all religious holidays. A course on “Orthodox culture” is offered in the schools while no other religion has such a privilege. The presence of Orthodox priests is common for the “sanctification” of banks, offices, and even weapons.

At the same time, the Church leaders have benefited from corruption. The opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, in a recent article on the personal wealth of Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, estimated his personal wealth at $4 billion. A recent photograph of Kirill wearing a $30,000 Breguet watch was photoshopped to remove the watch. Unfortunately, the photo specialists neglected to remove the reflection of the watch in the surface of the polished table at which Kirill was sitting.

If the members of the offending band are now given long prison terms, Putin will undoubtedly depict himself as the defender of Orthodox Christianity. This will be a new charade to complement the existing charade in which he poses as the protector of Russia against the aggressive designs of the West. Unfortunately, the regime can act out its pretensions. A brutal sentence for the musicians may be only the first step.

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