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Thursday, 06 September 2012 05:43

In league with the devil

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Mainstream journalists are failing to recognise that the most resolute reactions to Pussy Riot's recent incarceration are originating from outside of Russia. Moreover, the majority of the Russian population disagrees with the group's actions. The chances of political change in Russia need to be placed within the context of the ongoing power of the Russian Orthodox Church within society, and we have to see today's differences from those historical events that did trigger mass revolutionary movements.

Before its protest on March 3, 2012 in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, most people had never heard of the group Pussy Riot before. They staged an illegal performance, which they called a 'punk prayer' at the altar of the tallest Christian Orthodox church to get rid of Vladimir Putin. Specifically, their protest was aimed at Putin's re-election and the Orthodox Church which continuously supported the Russian president. At the trial, Judge Marina Syrova reasoned the high sentence of two years in penal camp by elaborating how thoroughly the group planned their crime and how they activated internet bloggers to distribute their protest online. The church quickly branded the group members sinners and Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Church's department for relations with society, accused the members of representing a campaign of 'satanic rage'. While such statements might cause laughter in many European countries, the Orthodox Church has a solid and influential role in Russian society.

The church and its Patriarch Kirill I are the most respected institutions in Russia with polls showing that 49% of respondents expressed trust in the church whilst only 9% felt distrust. Neither the Russian President, Government or mass media can match these results. The harsh verdict on Pussy Riot didn't change this perception. A survey showed that 70% of participants still hold the same opinion of the church and 80% state their rejection of protest actions within religious buildings. Few people actually see involvement of Putin in this case and regard a perturbed Orthodox Community as a main initiator of the trial.

Religious leaders enjoy a high degree of goodwill within Russian society and their good relations with the Kremlin and the President grants them a unique power position which they use to shape the overall cultural landscape. The church is lobbying for religious education in public schools and several other legislative issues in the cultural sphere. Whilst Russia is officially a secular state, clergyman such as Chaplin openly advocate for a relationship of 'partnership, mutual help and support.' This statement was made two weeks before the Pussy Riot protest.

640px-Pussy_Riot_protest
Photo: Flickr Pussy Riot (CC BY 2.0)
A Pussy Riot Protest, but portent of a revolution?

Whilst billboards were hung up in Novosibirsk and protests took place in Moscow and St. Petersburg, anyone expecting this verdict to spark a change of the Russian political landscape will be disappointed. While Pussy Riot's message is clear and addresses a serious concern among political activists, the group lacks fundamental support from a broader range of Russian society. Upper-middle class support played a crucial role in organising and mobilising uprisings or opposition movements in several previous historical revolutions across Europe. The French Revolution, which is often referred as a labour class revolt against the king and the establishment, involved a large middle class who was inspired by liberal ideas. The March Revolution of 1848 in the German states was largely supported by a conscious middle class that demanded representation and a more liberalised economy. Finally, even Vladimir Lenin was born into a wealthy middle-class family which allowed him to pursue his studies in St. Petersburg and to be exposed to and inspired by socialist ideas. We see a different starting point today, one which will not create a real opposition arising in Russia that wishes to participate in policy issues and to steer Russia's development into a different direction.

Now, the middle class in Russia is facing several obstacles to its development. The salaries of most employees aren't enough to allow them to cover their consumption requirements for which reason most Russian have two or more jobs. Second, many Russians are employed informally which leaves people with a great deal of financial insecurity. The most important factor preventing the Russian middle class from articulating their demands is the fact that its composition changed over the last years. There are currently more civil servants in the middle-class than business people. People employed in the Russian state sector are more interested in keeping up informal connections with bureaucratic bodies and less interested in challenging the political system while public sector employees are likely to demand market reforms.

Pussy Riot's protest sparked a wave of outrage in Western countries. It can only be hoped that the next two years in their lives won't prevent them from resuming their protest afterwards. Europeans should however be aware of the institutional importance of the Orthodox Church. In order for Russia's people to stimulate a widespread movement of political change, a significant proportion of its society has to articulate demands. As the lesson of older European revolutions can tell us, further liberalisation of the Russian economy and an accompanying higher spirit of enterprise are requirements for initial mass movements to emerge.

Last modified on Friday, 07 September 2012 09:46
Simon Schmidt

Simon Schmidt holds a BA in International Business and is an alumnus of the International MA program of Political Science with respect to Russia and Eurasia of the European University at St. Petersburg. His main interests are Russian-EU relations and energy, security and economic developments in post-Soviet Eurasia. He currently lives and works in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

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