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HOUSE OF THE WEEK

Monday, 20 August 2012

Meet The Priest Who Beat Pussy Riot


Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin
Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin speaks during a rally in support of Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill in Moscow on July 22, 2012.
Long before the punk band Pussy Riot was formed last fall, Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior clergyman of the Orthodox Church, had made himself an icon for conservative Russian values, sort of like what you might get if Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robinson squeezed into the cassock of an Orthodox priest. In 2010, while campaigning for a nationwide “dress code,” he proclaimed that women who wear revealing outfits are guilty of inciting rape.
 He later lobbied for legislation to ban Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita, and suggested that all Russian intellectuals should be condemned for the “sin of Russophobia.” Such pronouncements always made plenty of noise in the Russian press but, outside the tiny demographic of czarists and Orthodox fundamentalists, they were usually dismissed as the ramblings of a radical on the fringes of the Russian culture wars. That was, at least, until the case against Pussy Riot revealed how far the government has shifted in Chaplin’s direction.
Their crime was embodied in a piece of performance art called “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away.” It involved four of the band members dancing around near the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral and posting a video of it online. The prosecutors charged three of the Pussy Rioters with a felony hate crime — “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility” — even though the young women insisted that their motives were purely political. 
In her verdict, Marina Syrova, the presiding judge of a secular court in a secular nation, used language akin to the edicts of a religious tribunal. She described Pussy Riot’s “demonic twitching” near the altar, their tight clothing and the incorrect way they crossed themselves, all of which “offended the sensibilities of Orthodox believers.”
 Citing the opinion of a psychologist (who did not show up to testify), the judge’s verdict also described the defendants’ “mixed disturbances of personality,” such as their “active position in life,” their “determination to self-develop,” their self-confidence and a “tendency to express their opinions categorically.” All of these were named in justification of their “isolation from society.”
Father Chaplin, who heads the Orthodox Church’s department for relations with society, was one of the leading cheerleaders for the prosecution from the start. 
In April, about a month after Pussy Riot was arrested, he said the group represented a campaign of “literally satanic rage” which the Russian opposition movement had unleashed against the Church. He called on all believers to fight this “heresy,” including through the use of force, “so that there be no more temptation to equate Christianity with pacifism.” As it turned out, the faithful had no need to fight the heretics, because the machinery of the state was persuaded to do it for them.
A few days before the verdict against Pussy Riot was announced, Chaplin met with me at his base of operation in the center of Moscow – the poetically named Cathedral of Saint Nicholas Under the Three Hills. He blustered: “The religious neutrality of the state is a fiction. It has no basis in reality.” Sniffing deeply from an inhaler he uses for asthma, he went on to describe the separation between church and state as a “myth” of the 20th Century that would be vanquished in the 21st. “I think the West made a mistake when it tried to completely separate these spheres,” he said. “They are completely inseparable. The same people act in the sphere of politics and the sphere of religion.”
As if to prove the point, Chaplin’s secretary knocked on the door and brought in a thick stack of letters from the orthodox faithful to the Kremlin. It was one of his daily chores, Chaplin explained, to lobby Putin’s office on behalf of church members — sort of like U.S. congressmen might lobby on behalf of their constituents.
 Chaplin would place his signature like an official imprimatur on the letters and send them on to the government bureaucracy. The Kremlin, he says, is usually “quite responsive to our requests.” The letters, however, have little to do with religion, and in effect, they put the Orthodox Church in the role of a government bureaucracy. One of them complained that a clinic had been built too close to a residential building. Another said that the balcony of one house was ruining the view from another.
I asked him about the Pussy Riot case. Had the Church written similar letters to the Kremlin to make sure they were thrown in jail? “Absolutely not,” Chaplin said. “That would be amoral.”
But even if the priests and congregants hadn’t written any letters, senior clergymen had made no secret of their desire to see Pussy Riot sent to prison. On Aug. 2, while the trial was in full swing, Father Dmitri Smirnov invited one of the lawyers working with the prosecution, Larissa Pavlova, as a guest on his talk show. 
A corpulent cleric with a long white beard, Smirnov is the Church’s liaison with the Russian army, police and security services (including the investigators who built the case against Pussy Riot) and he told Pavlova that only a guilty verdict would prevent copycat heretics. “This was a political, anti-state action committed in a Christian state,” he said, apparently ignoring the fact  that Russia is a secular state under its constitution.
More alarming, however, is the fact that the state has begun to forget this as well. On Feb. 8, a month before Putin was re-elected to a third term as Russia’s president, he made the unprecedented statement that the separation between church and state is a “primitive notion,” which both institutions should abandon in favor of “partnership, mutual help and support.” 
That is what inspired Pussy Riot to hold its protest in the Cathedral two weeks later. It was with the intention of “provoking a dialogue,” says one of the members of Pussy Riot who has not yet been jailed. “We wanted make this issue part of the public debate,” she says, giving only her nickname, Mother. And that goal has clearly been achieved.
The case of Pussy Riot has brought the church’s role in the affairs of the state to the center of the national discourse. But so far there has been no evidence that Chaplin is on the side of the majority. In a survey released on Aug. 14 by the state-run pollster VTsIOM, 75% of respondents said the church should stay out of politics. But that has made little difference to some of the senior clergy and their allies in the government. 
When he had finished signing his letters to the Kremlin, Chaplin took a phone call from a senior official who had just returned from the London Olympics. After some warm congratulations for Russia’s place at the medals’ table, Chaplin began to lobby for various legislation, which he said the parliamentary committee on culture must turn to as soon as it returns from the summer holiday. Hanging up the phone, he turned to me with a smile and said, “It’s important to keep them moving, you know.” And they seem to be moving in his direction as the wall between church and state breaks down.


Edited By Cen Fox Post Team
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