It isn’t only Russia that punishes iconoclasm
Western observers have been thrilled by Pussy Riot’s sacrilegious antics in Moscow. So why aren’t they supportive of sacrilege here at home?
In February this year, a bunch of balaclava-clad women, complete with garish tights, entered Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral. Given their get-up, it will come as little surprise to learn they weren’t there to pray. Instead, they were there to stick a punkish two fingers up at the then Russian president-to-be, Vladimir Putin, and his perceived partner in state crime, the Russian Orthodox Church. Their protest consisted of playing a song called ‘Holy Shit’, which called for ‘the Virgin Mary [to] put Putin away’, while dancing and mock-praying at the altar.
The jollity didn’t last long. In March, with Putin just days away from winning the presidential election, several members of Pussy Riot were arrested and three were charged with ‘a gross violation of public order, including inciting religious hatred as part of a planned conspiracy’. And last week, with the world’s media glare now firmly focused upon a sweaty courtroom in Moscow, the judgement was issued. The three accused – Maria Alyokhina, aged 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30 – were sentenced to two years’ corrective labour in a prison colony. Handing down the sentence, Judge Marina Syrova stated: ‘Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alyokhina committed an act of hooliganism, a gross violation of public order showing obvious disrespect for society. The girls’ actions were sacrilegious, blasphemous and broke the church’s rules.’
In Russia, the whole Pussy Riot brouhaha seems to have prompted a response quite heavily split down class lines. For the slim strata that is Russia’s cosmopolitan liberal set, well-travelled people for whom, as commentator John Kampfner noted, Putin is ‘uncouth’, the judgement was an embarrassment, an indictment of Russian backwardness. Yet while Muscovite and St Petersburg ‘creatives’, as Putin has been calling this upwardly mobile constituency, were outraged, the vast majority of ordinary Russians were less than sympathetic to Pussy Riot. According to independent research group Levada, only six per cent of Russians polled sympathised with the women and 51 per cent felt ‘indifference, irritation or hostility’. It seems that like the British punk of the 1970s, indeed like its Dadaist, avant-garde precursors in the 1920s, Pussy Riot – itself formerly a performance-art collective called Voina – was premised upon an opposition to the conventions and tastes of the masses. The objective: to scandalise the stupid audience. Little wonder support has been muted.
Yet whichever way the Pussy Riot arrest, trial and conviction are spun, there’s no getting away from the principles at stake. Three women have been sent to a penal colony for playing sweary music in a cathedral; they have been punished for expressing themselves. And if you support freedom of speech, as we do at spiked, then the Pussy Riot trial can only appear as an affront to that principle.
Not that anyone in Western circles is saying otherwise. As the Pussy Riot trial started gaining media traction internationally (the BBC and CNN both broadcast the trial live), there has been a veritable deluge of seeming support for free speech. Pop royalty, from Paul McCartney to the Sex Pistols, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to Madonna, have stood alongside the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to condemn the punishment. Politicians, current and former, have joined in, too. Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt announced that he was ‘deeply concerned by the sentencing… which can only be considered a disproportionate response to an expression of political belief’.
The commentariat was similarly staggered by, as Michael Idov of GQ Russia put it, the ‘depths of vengeful backwardness… teased out of the Russian soil’ by the case. In fact, so riled was Britain’s bible of the liberal elite, the Guardian, that on the day of the verdict, its website exclusively released Pussy Riot’s new single, ‘Putin Lights Up the Fires’. Elsewhere, a Telegraph columnist was content to contrast the draconian punishment meted out to Pussy Riot with that served up by the British judiciary to activist Peter Tatchell for interrupting the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon in 1998: he was fined £18.60.
Russia, it seems, with Putin’s quasi-autocracy to the fore, is providing the perfect stage for commentators, NGOs, politicians and tired old pop stars to demonstrate their liberal credentials. In doing so, they can implicitly celebrate the liberal virtues of the West – even if such virtues come in the form of an £18.60 fine. One columnist almost seemed nostalgic for a time when British or American pop culture felt radical. ‘ In the West’, he wrote, ‘we seem to have forgotten that popular culture once produced people who thought it was their duty to decry some of the most ingrained aspects of their societies, and thereby become lightning rods for dissent’.
And here we come to one of the problems with the Western liberal riot over Russia. Its protagonists seem incapable of grasping the extent to which the blasphemy Pussy Riot were punished for has acquired a secular form in the West. Because that’s the thing about blasphemy, indeed about heresy, heterodoxy or dissent – their content changes with the times. So, yes, in the UK for instance, actual blasphemy laws have been abolished. The church is not authoritative, the sphere of the sacred is not demarcated on religious or theological ground. So you can take the Lord’s name in vain, and you can, as the Archbishop of Canterbury often does, criticise politicians in a church. But if Christian pieties no longer rule national life, liberal pieties most definitely do. The ‘ingrained aspects’ of our society that need challenging are no longer those of old-fashioned religious conservatism; they are the contemporary pieties, from environmentalism to official ‘anti-racism’. Around such ideas, a new sacred forcefield has been drawn. To spout wrongheaded Social Darwinist ideas, as a Cambridge University economics supervisor did recently, won’t land you in a gulag, but it will win you the antipathy of large sections of the respectable press, not to mention the prospect of losing your job should you persist in saying what you think.
So yes, anyone who dissents from, or decries ‘some of the most ingrained aspects of their societies’ in the West is certainly not subject to the draconian legal sanctions of Putin’s Russia – there is quite enough shrillness in the Pussy Riot furore as it is without adding to it. But such Western heretics are subject to a subtler, less severe, but no less constraining form of external pressure: informal censure usually from self-styled progressives.
Over recent years, there have been countless examples of the ‘you can’t say that’ sentiment which inhibits and informs so much of public life today. Ironically, one of the things you can’t express in public, without feeling the soft hand of liberal censure on your shoulder, is religious dogma. Think, for instance, of the fury vented a couple of years ago both at the guest-house owners who refused homosexuals entry to their lodgings and the then Tory shadow home secretary Chris Grayling who defended them. Or think also of the wacky Christian campaign group, the Core Issues Trust, which, a few months ago, was forced by the London mayor Boris Johnson to remove posters promoting its belief that homosexuality is curable through therapy and religious teaching.
And when it comes to environmentalism, criticism or dissent isn’t just collectively frowned upon by the right-thinking set, many of whom were to be found last week wearing tights and balaclavas in support of Pussy Riot; it is also seen as a sign of mental derangement, of ‘being in denial’. Whereas old-fashioned religious dissenters were accused of being in league with the devil, contemporary dissenters from the creed of global warming are accused of being in league with big corporations.
What is orthodox and, consequently, what is effectively blasphemous in the West is not decided by the church any more – it is decided by those self-same illiberal liberals currently clamouring for Pussy Riot’s release. No wonder they cannot identify, let alone defend, instances of parallel blasphemy in the West. As I say, shrillness is to be avoided here. While some, such as ranting Twitter tool Liam Stacey, received a prison sentence for ‘racially aggravated abuse’, many contemporary heretics do not suffer legal punishment. Invariably they are sent to Coventry, not a penal colony. But make no mistake: the informal straitjacket in which free speech is constrained, in which certain issues are deemed de facto sacred, is at work in the West. While I have no desire to defend daft or racist sentiment, for instance, the ‘you can’t say that’ attitude is just as offensive, suggesting as it does that we, the masses, will be incapable of hearing a statement without either unthinkingly acting upon it or becoming incredibly upset by it.
So if Pussy Riot’s freedom of speech deserves support, so too does free speech for those dissenting from Western orthodoxies, be they so-called environmental sceptics or devout, old-fashioned Christians.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.