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God Save the Tsar: Get Religion, December 31, 2012 December 31, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Corruption, Get Religion, Politics, Russian Orthodox.
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Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

So reads the second stanza of what may be the most politically incorrect poem in the English language. Interpretations of what Rudyard Kipling meant by his 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden“, written in the wake of the American annexation of the Philippines, have differed sharply. From Henry James and Mark Twain to the denizens of Lit-Crit faculties today, many have objected to the poem as racist and condescending. Others, especially as of the time of its writing (Theodore Roosevelt for example) saw in it an expression of a Christian duty to bring the light of civilizations to the darker corners of the world.

The era that produced “The White Man’s Burden” also formed the tenets of classical Angl0-American journalism. Motivated by many of the same moral imperatives that under girded Anglo-American imperialism, the liberal school of journalism sought to civilize the newspaper profession, replacing  partisan, hysterical, “yellow journalism” with an impartial, scientific, and honest retelling of the news of the day.

The mission of classical liberal journalism was summarized by the editor of the Manchester Guardian C.P. Scott in 1921. “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” While on the editorial page he said: “It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair”.

Scott’s dictum guides the writers at GetReligion. Yet this view is not universal. It is disappearing within the American newspaper guild and is all but gone in Europe. Yet not all agree that this approach to journalism is possible or ideal. Seeking balance and fairness in reporting is viewed (charitably) as being quaint, and (more commonly) as naive. It exhibits, the critics say, the same sort of condescension that makes Kipling’s poem so execrable. When truth is relative, this line goes, claiming to possess the sole truth is illusory — or an arrogant manifestation of a journalist’s “White Man’s Burden”.

This philosophical conflict can be illustrated by my critique of an article in the Observer, the Sunday edition of the Guardian. The article entitled “Church backs Vladimir Putin’s ban on Americans adopting Russian children” tells the story of the Russian Orthodox Church’s response to the passage of a law by the Duma that prevents Americans from adopting Russian orphans. Here we have a formidable caste of bogeymen — Vladimir Putin, Vsevolod Chaplin, the Russian Orthodox patriarch Cyril — playing off against orphans, Pussy Riot, and liberal democracy. What right thinking person would back KGB hacks and creepy clergy against orphans?

Before answering the question, let’s look at the article. It begins:

The Russian Orthodox church has been attacked for supporting a new law banning Americans from adopting Russian children, at the end of a year that saw it plagued by scandal and accusations of collusion with an increasingly authoritarian Kremlin.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a high-ranking priest and a spokesman for the church, said the law was “a search for a social answer to an elementary question: why should we give, and even sell, our children abroad?”

Speaking to Interfax, a state news agency, last week, Chaplin said the path to heaven would be closed to children adopted by foreigners. “They won’t get a truly Christian upbringing and that means falling away from the church and from the path to eternal life, in God’s kingdom,” he said.

This is a strong opening. It asserts church has been “plagued” by scandal and is in bed with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin before moving to a second hand quote from a church spokesman that is wonderfully awful (to Guardian readers). It then introduces a voice offering an opinion in line with the editorial slant of the story.

Critics say the church’s support for the law is the latest example of its submission to the Kremlin, in which it acts more like a government ministry than an independent spiritual body. “Everything is repeating – it’s like the 19th century, when the church lay completely under the state,” said Valery Otstavnykh, a theologist and Kremlin critic. “Everything was calm and fine until churches started getting blown up in 1917 and they all asked, ‘Why’?”

As an aside, I do not care for the word “theologist” — it is an uncommon word that is most often used in a pejorative sense. That may not be the case here as the statements of the theologist are in line with the views of the article, but it nonetheless is an ugly word.

The article then lays out the 2012 church scandals: Pussy Riot, the wandering watch, hit and run priests driving BMWs, church involvement in politics and suspect financial dealings. It then closes with a gratuitous unsubstantiated accusation and a plea by the outside commentator for the church to clean up its act.

Two weeks later, the state news agency RIA-Novosti cited an anonymous source as saying that a bordello was uncovered in a Moscow monastery.

“The church has also done a lot of good,” said Otstavnykh. “But the church as an organisation must change.”

There is no balance to this story. No facts are offered in mitigation nor voices in defense or explanation of the church’s actions. It may well be these actions are indefensible, but the reader cannot know this from this story. Throwing in the bordello line without further corroboration was improper.

The quote offered by Fr. Chaplin, who is a character about whom I have written, is taken from a Russian language story and is abbreviated in such a way by the Observer as to not allow for any nuance. The tail end of the first quote in the Observer story — “why should we give, and even sell, our children abroad?” — continues in the original with a statement by Chaplin that Russia must take care of their own at the level of the family as well as at the local, state and national levels.

I would translate the second passages as:

As he noted, the adoption of children by foreign couples in most cases means “they can not get a truly Christian education, and thus fall away from the Church and from the road to eternal life in God’s Kingdom.”

“Orthodox people should remember and take seriously the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘He who has faith and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not have faith will be condemned’.”

The shading of the Observer’s version may leave the impression that children taken from Russia will go to hell because they have been taken from Russia. However Chaplin’s meaning is they may wind up raised in homes where the Christian faith is not practiced.

Chaplin’s views about the necessity of a Christian upbringing do not find favor with the Observer. In a Twitter exchange about the article, the author of the story responded to a critic who defended Chaplin by writing:

Your attempts to justify his statement as holding any logic or good will confound me.

The author may well think that, but should she have commented in public? If this article was in the op-ed section, I would say it would be appropriate for her to make this statement. But is it appropriate for a news story?

From a journalistic perspective, the critique offered by Mr. Otstavnykh should have been matched with a defense of the church’s actions. And it also would have helped the reader to know that Mr. Otstavnykh spoke in court on behalf of the Pussy Riot defendants, saying their actions did not constitute blasphemy.

Please note I am not speaking to the issues under examination. I am commenting on the professionalism and journalistic craft exhibited by this article. As a hit piece, the story is well done. As journalism, it is junk.

While many of the ideals expressed by Kipling in “The White Man’s Burden” are passé, “By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain”, is not. There is a story to be told from Russia on the interplay of the church, state and society. Mr. Otstavnyk’s concerns the Russian Orthodox Church is returning to the days when church and state were one is an important one. Is the Orthodox Church returning to the bad old days of the Nineteenth century, updating its prayer and priorities from God Save the Tsar to God Save the President? That story needs to be told.

The story told in this article, however, is neither plain nor simple, frank nor fair. And that is a shame.

First printed in Get Religion.

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.