On the day that three members of the punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years’ prison for having interrupted a service in the Christ the Savior cathedral in Moscow in February to sing in front of the altar a blasphemous “prayer”—which included the refrain “Sh-t, sh-t, the Lord’s sh-t”—a group in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, staged an event in support of the imprisoned three. A busty girl in red hot pants and with bottle-blonde locks flounced into a public park, stripped her chest bare in front of her cameramen and the general public, knelt at the foot of a large wooden crucifix (which had been erected to the victims of communism), bowed, made the Sign of the Cross (in the Eastern fashion), and then, still topless and with “Free Riot” written in black lipstick above her bosom, proceeded to cut down the 20-foot cross with a chainsaw. She waved her implement exultantly in the air as the crucifix came crashing to the ground.
The next day, her group, FEMEN, threatened to do the same to every cross in Russia “to save the country,” and several have indeed now been desecrated; FEMEN has also published poster montages depicting the Russian patriarch’s head being sliced by a chainsaw, and group members holding up by their hair the decapitated heads of President Putin, Patriarch Cyril, and the Pope. The group’s hatred of Christianity (and Islam, against which it staged an obscene public act at the London Olympics) was also demonstrated last November when a FEMEN girl (apparently the same one who cut down the cross in Kiev) stripped off in St. Peter’s Square and waved her breasts around, only to be arrested on the spot by Italian police.
However shocking, FEMEN’s antics are mild compared with those of their muses in Moscow. Members of Pussy Riot who were imprisoned in August can be seen online indulging in an orgy in a museum, engaging in oral and penetrative sex in front of the public and the cameras, while on an earlier occasion one of their members filmed herself buying a chicken in a supermarket and then masturbating with it on the floor. On this disgusting video there is an especially sad moment when a baby can be heard crying in distress as the group is moved on by the supermarket’s security staff, but no one in the West has complained about the group’s behavior in front of children. In a third series of photos, also online, another of the girls, heavily pregnant (as she had been during the orgy in the museum), smiles enigmatically as live cockroaches are poured over her. The group has thrown live cats at staff in McDonald’s and live sheep down electoral banners; it has also staged mock hangings in public places.
By any chalk, Pussy Riot are marginal extremists. The pregnant woman, Nadezhda Tolokhinnova, now convicted, has a disturbing look in her pretty eyes, which suggests either drug abuse or a personality disorder: The scene with the cockroaches is perhaps an allusion to the delusional parasitosis that can be brought on by amphetamines. Yet these people have been raised to the altars of political correctness as martyrs by the West, which has reacted with outrage at their conviction. National governments, European organizations, Western NGOs, and human-rights associations have spoken with one voice to condemn this latest proof of rising authoritarianism in Russia, making the usual risible comparisons between Putin and Stalin and between contemporary Russian prisons and the gulag.
They make these attacks in spite of the fact that Western penal codes are themselves replete with the sorts of provisions used to convict the three girls in Moscow. In Poland in January, a woman pop singer was fined for blasphemy (that crime can carry a two-year jail sentence), while in Britain public-order offenses are often punished with prison terms of between 2 and 14 years. The West and Putin’s Russian enemies have also attacked the prosecution as politically inspired—illogically quoting in support of their claim the fact that Putin said in London he hoped the three would be treated leniently—even though it is common for Western ministers to infringe constitutional rectitude by calling for harsh sentences for such offenses. When two pigs’ heads were left outside a mosque in the southern French town of Montauban in August, the French minister of the interior condemned the act as “revolting” and promised that the police he controls would be “totally determined” to prosecute those responsible. As for freedom of speech, in the name of which Russia and Putin have been attacked for the prosecution of Pussy Riot, it should be recalled that the (Jewish) French journalist Eric Zemmour was convicted last year for saying on radio that most drug dealers in France are blacks or Arabs.
In spite of appearances, it would be wrong to accuse Western politicians of double standards, as some of Russia’s defenders have done. On the contrary, it is well known that Western leaders do not condemn attacks on Christianity as they condemn attacks on Islam or Judaism: When a play in Paris last year showed children throwing excrement at the face of Christ, it was defended in the name of free speech. The antics of Pussy Riot should therefore not be seen as merely the latest in a series of deliberate provocations to discredit President Putin and the country in general. No, the affair is also part of the West’s remorseless campaign against Christianity itself, at home as well as abroad.
Ever since the fall of communism, the West has pressured cities in Eastern European and former Soviet states to allow gay-pride marches. Moscow has famously refused to comply—the official justification is that the marchers would be attacked by members of the public—but smaller states have buckled under the remorseless pressure. This June, the first gay-pride march was held in the Dalmatian city of Split in spite of the fact that—or rather, precisely because—the Catholic Faith is an important component of national identity in Croatia, and big Catholic processions are regularly held in Split. The city authorities allowed the event to go ahead, in spite of public opposition, because they wanted to prove that Croatia was attached to “European values,” and indeed vigorous support for sexual perversion is now what this unhappy phrase has come to mean.
No one should underestimate how important this issue is for the West. At least since 2004, when the Italian professor Rocco Buttiglione was sacked as a European commissioner because he said that, as a Catholic, he accepted the Church’s teaching on homosexuality in his private views, the European Union and the United States have put the promotion of homosexuality and transgenderism at the very forefront of their foreign policy. Before she became executive director of Amnesty International USA—which has led a vehement campaign in support of Pussy Riot—Suzanne Nossel worked for Hillary Clinton as deputy assistant secretary of state. Last year, she successfully waged the U.S. government’s campaign for LGBT rights to be defined as human rights, and therefore to have universal status, by the U.N. Human Rights Council. (Nossel lucidly described this success as “a paradigmatic example of using the UN system to advance one of President Obama’s top policy priorities.”) Permission or not to allow gay-pride marches, and attitudes toward sexual deviancy generally, have for years been the West’s litmus test for other countries’ alignment with its own anti-Christian policies.
The Pussy Riot affair is therefore not simply a political stick with which to beat Putin. It is ideological. There is a complete harmony of goals between the West’s assault on what is left of tradition at home and in postcommunist societies, on the one hand, and the assaults on decency and public order committed by Pussy Riot and their allies, on the other. In the minds of those activists, it is precisely the alliance of Church and state (to the extent that it exists in Russia) that must be destroyed—hence the attacks on the patriarch and on crosses. The girls know full well that the Christ the Savior Cathedral was erected in thanksgiving for Russia’s existential victory over Napoleon in 1812, and then rebuilt in the 1990’s, having been razed to the ground by the Bolsheviks and replaced by Stalin with a heated outdoor swimming pool: It is the very symbol of Russia’s national rebirth. And in the minds of the girls’ European and American backers, as in the minds of those 19th-century nihilists of whom Dostoyevsky wrote and whom Pussy Riot in some ways recall, it is precisely the fact that religion has once again become a major component of national identity in Russia that is intolerable.
That this is so can be seen by comparing Putin with Medvedev. It is in fact the West’s preferred president, Dmitri Medvedev, not Putin, who is demonstrably devout: He was photographed kissing a cross at the enthronement of the present patriarch in 2009, while in 2010 he took time out of the official schedule of a formal state visit to France to visit Notre Dame, where he venerated the Holy Crown of Thorns. Putin, by contrast, has never engaged in similar acts. This shows that it is not so much personal devotion that enrages the West but rather any religious observance that reinforces national identity and cohesion.
This is the key to the West’s deranged fascination with Putin. Like his radical opponents within Russia, the West attributes supernatural power to the Russian president: He is said to be responsible for murals in the Moscow metro, forest fires during summer droughts, ballot-stuffing in Russia’s Muslim backwaters, and, of course, for every time a policeman wields a baton. Medvedev was never attacked in this way. The reality is that the Russian president controls relatively little in his vast country, but Putin is on everyone’s lips because, for whatever reason, and occasionally in rather cheesy ways, he has managed to embody in his own person some sort of national consensus around a project of national renewal, albeit in a fairly attenuated form. Medvedev never succeeded in doing this, no doubt because he lacks the common touch, and so he was never hated. In short, Putin, like the Church, has become a symbol—and it is precisely because they are symbols that the West is determined to destroy them.