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From Russia with love: GetReligion March 24, 2012 March 25, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Free Speech, Get Religion, Politics, Press criticism, Religion Reporting, Russian Orthodox.
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An article from the Moscow correspondent of the New York Times has left me perplexed. On one level the story entitled “Punk riffs take on God and Putin” is a silly piece of journalism. What do I mean by silly? I’m not quite sure myself. The tone of the story is half post-modernist supercilious sneer half celebrity profile for Peoplemagazine. Now these are subjective assessments of mine and I find the style in which this article was written not to my taste. But taste is neither here nor there.

It is the journalism on display that has me perplexed. There is no balance, no sense of history to this story as well as an excess of adjectives. The heroes and villains are one dimensional characters. And at bottom, the story displays a worldview that affirms the Pussy Riot’s intellectual condescension towards the aspirations of the respectable — Russia’s church and her people.

Stylistically, this story is silly — journalistically, this story falls short — morally, this story is a wreck. Follow me through and see if you see what I see.

MOSCOW — In the month since it performed an unsanctioned “punk prayer service” at Christ the Savior Cathedral, entreating the Virgin Mary to liberate Russia from Vladimir V. Putin, the feminist punk band Pussy Riot has stirred up a storm about the role of the church, art and women in Russian society.

The group has been accused of blasphemy; three of the women are in pre-trial detention and could face up to seven years in prison.

Video of their performance, which went viral on YouTube, shows five Pussy Riot members in trademark masks dancing, arms flailing, in front of the altar of the cathedral, a vast structure rebuilt in the 1990s on the site of a cathedral that was blown up on Stalin’s orders in 1931.

The cathedral, where Patriarch Kirill I celebrates Christmas and Easter services attended by Mr. Putin and Dmitri A. Medvedev, the departing president, has become a symbol of the ties between church and state in the post-Soviet era.

The story then moves to a recitation of local reactions, noting that “top officials in the Russian Orthodox Church have called for the band’s members to be strictly punished — at times tempering this demand by saying that they do not insist on a long jail sentence.” Soft and hard statements are offered with “Russian Orthodox nationalists” calling for the group to be “flogged” while “other Orthodox activists have condemned such calls as shameful.” However, no names or examples are offered. The first voice to appear is that of:

The Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior Orthodox cleric known for his own outrageous statements on a range of topics, reiterated on Monday that there were no grounds for leniency and “that this text and this video are extremist materials, and their dissemination constitutes an extremist activity.”

The members of Pussy Riot “have declared war on Orthodox people, and there will be a war,” he told the Interfax news agency. “If the blasphemers are not punished, God will punish them in eternity and here through people.”

The group’s attorneys follow with their contention the charges have not been proved, and at that point the article notes that the:

scandal has had the interesting side effect of breaking a taboo around the word Pussy (Poosi in the Russian transliteration), as the band is usually referred to in short. It has been mouthed without embarrassment by commentators, officials and Russian Orthodox priests. Pravmir, an Orthodox news Web site, has translated the meaning of Pussy Riot as “uprising of the uterus.”

The story then offers details of the incident that led to the girls’ arrest noting the performance included the refrain about Orthodox bishops:

“The K.G.B. chief is their chief saint, he leads protesters to prison under convoy,” reads one verse in a version published on several Web sites. “In order to not offend His Holiness, women must give birth and love.” The chorus is in the form of an appeal to the Virgin Mary. “O Birthgiver of God,” sings the band, using Russian Orthodox liturgical language for addressing the Virgin Mary — “get rid of Putin, get rid of Putin, get rid of Putin.”

One of the groups members, the Times notes has been:

criticized especially harshly for participating in a 2008 orgy at a biology museum, in which she is shown having sex with her husband just days before giving birth. She has been condemned as desecrating motherhood and harming her child — now an adorable braided blonde who made a taped appeal for her mother’s release.

The article then closes with a comment from a feminist writer who states the performance has nothing to do with feminism. In defense of the way this story was framed, the International Herald Tribune printed this as part of a series on women after it first appeared in the Times. So perhaps the audience of this story were readers of People, who would respond appropriately to the bit about the “adorable braided blonde” who pleads for the release of her mother, and the lede sentence that promises a discussion on “the role of the church, art and women in Russian society.”

But this discussion never happens. Perhaps the closing comment that this is not feminism supplied the discussion, but it is otherwise absent from the story. Another omission is the nature of the crime. One need look outside the Times to find the women are being charged with “hooliganism“, not blasphemy. Their past public performances have led to their being charged with disorderly conduct and being let off with a fine, but the Cathedral incident on Shrove Tuesday has prompted public prosecutors to up the ante from a misdemeanor to a felony.

And what does the Times mean when it says the newly constructed cathedral, built on the spot where the old cathedral had stood until it was dynamited in 1931 by Lazar Kaganovich on the orders of Stalin, is a “symbol of the ties between church and state in the post-Soviet era.” Does this imply the church is a tool of President Putin? There is no explanation of this comment, nor voices speaking to this contention. Christ Our Savior Cathedral, Moscow

In the introduction to Fr. Chaplin, what does the Times mean by saying he is “known for his own outrageous statements on a range of topics”? These “outrageous” statements are not cited nor has the dialogue between the church and Pussy Riot taking place through Twitter and the media been explored.

The article also implies that Fr. Chaplin wants to see the girls imprisoned. However, he has stated that he wants them to be punished, but not jailed.

As an aside, I met Fr. Chaplin at the World Council of Churches meeting in 2005 in Porto Allegre, Brazil. And yes, he is a character. I sat with him while an official from a liberal American denomination was giving a speech and Fr. Chaplain played the cantankerous Russian — muttering under his breath, “heretic”, “schismatic”, “infidel”, “Bolshevik” every so often.

While the article does mention that senior Orthodox clergy were disturbed by the incidence due to memories of the Soviet past, it does not explain why such memories would provoke such a sharp reaction. Nor does the charge made by Pussy Riot against against the Orthodox bishops of being stooges of the KGB get a hearing.

The Russian Orthodox Church was nearly wiped out in the Stalinist era. The state sponsored persecution of the Orthodox Church began with the sort of spectacle undertaken by Pussy Riot in Moscow’s principle cathedral in the 1920′s eventually led to the arrest of 168,300 priests, monks and nuns in the purges of 1937-1938 (of these over 100,000 were shot). Some of those who survived, did so through collaboration with the regime. The extent of this collaboration was such that the 2008 the Keston Institute report that outed Patriarch Alexy II as a KGB agent was not that much of a surprise.

Stylistically I did not care for the story. As journalism, I believe it failed to live up to its lede. It did not offer a discussion of the “role of the church, art and women in Russian society;” or a balanced or thorough account of the issues. But the cheer-leading for Pussy Riot displayed a failing of sensibility.

Russian society is going through the painful process of rebuilding itself in the wake of the Soviet era. But this process is not fast enough for Pussy Riot, and the New York Times, which believes that by insulting the church — a symbol of Putin’s state in the Times‘ and Pussy Riot’s view — a short cut to social change will be found. They seek “perfection as the crow flies” in Michael Oakeshott’s phrase.

By pleading for tolerance for the actions of Pussy Riot, the Times seeks to elevate certain liberal ideas and constituencies above public criticism rather than trusting that they will eventually emerge victorious on their merits in open public debate. Framing the story as it does, the Times endorses the irrationalism of Pussy Riot against a villainous Russian government and a stodgy Orthodox Church. I’m not quite settled in my thoughts, however.

Am I taking a shovel to a souffle, beating with a cudgel this story from Moscow? Is too much being read into this article, or is there too little to read? Should the Times step back a bit, or can we trust it to pick the winners and losers in stories from far away about which we know very little? What say you GetReligion readers?

First published in GetReligion.

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