Today we witness a landmark event in freedom of speech and ability to question the objectives of orthodox religion abroad. As the debate over religious freedom and freedom of speech has gained prominence during the past year in the United States, concern for religious relevance and the right to articulate that concern is not unique to America in 2012.
In the early hours of June 11, members of Russia’s “Investigative Committee,” made their way onto the balcony of Maria Alykhina’s apartment, “turned on an electric circular saw, and threatened to cut the door down,” before ransacking the apartment, leaving with her computer, books, political materials, and a trove of family photos.”
This invasion followed several public protests and statements by Alykhina and her two comrades who, together, are members the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. Those protests have been made against the policies of Vladmir Putin and an open inquiry regarding whether the Christian Orthodox Church can evolve with changing times.
On the 21st of February four members of the band walked into the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a gaudy building built after the Soviet collapse that hosts Russia’s senior officials on major holidays. They thought they were highlighting the church’s increasingly close relationship with the state and what they saw as campaigning for Putin by Patriarch Kirill, its leader.
Their protests and public statements urging that official religious as well as political figures adjust to a more humanitarian posture have been mischaracterized as hatred for religion as “they were motivated by a deep hatred of all Orthodox Christians rather than by anger at the Putin regime. Church representatives argued the trial was the work of God.”
But the three women have simply responded that “We are representatives of our generation.”
For those of us who follow the issues of church and state, this whole scenario is incredibly momentous. “Our goal was to bring attention to Father Kirill’s public statements that the Orthodox must vote for Putin,” Alyokhina told the court. Sound familiar? is a Russian Orthodox bishop who has been Patriarch of Moscow and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church since 1 February 2009.
“I thought the church loved its children,” Alyokhina’s statement read. “It turns out the church only loves those children who believe in Putin.” Alykhina and three other members of the band have since been arrested and detained. On March 3rd, Alyokhina and fellow band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were arrested by Russian authorities and accused of “hooliganism.” Then, on March 16th a third woman, Ekaterina Samoutsevitch, was also arrested.
During the court proceedings Alyokhina explained , “It is important for me to understand whether the church is growing along with society or whether it remains a conservative institution. In the search for an answer, I did not expect a repressive and inquisition-like reaction.”
Pussy Riot formed as an “anonymous feminist punk collective in October 2010” with a big story to tell that simply decries global authoritarianism and issues a call to humanitarianism by church and state, all in a response put to music and dance. And it was triggered by Putin’s declaration that he would return to the Russian presidency. He had stepped down because the constitution did not allow more than two consecutive terms as president sending strong, raucous reactions throughout Russia for fear of a return to an authoritarian rule.
These women have been given two year jail sentences despite the possibility exists that leniency would have prevailed, given the heightened global attention the case has received, Putin’s political need for a “reasonable” reputation and changing times.
According to BBC correspondent Daniel Sandford, “Their treatment has caused deep disquiet among many Russians, who feel the women are – to coin a phrase from the 1967 trial of members of the rock band The Rolling Stones – butterflies being broken on a wheel.”
For the sake of these three young women, freedom of religious expression and freedom of speech, today the world sends out a collective prayer to punks.