A New Icon to Whom Liberals Can Pray
The Russian Protestant response to P*Riot
M o s c o w – Russian Protestants are united in condemning the two-year prison sentence dished out to the punk group “P*Riot”. Yet the church fathers are motivated not only by humanitarian concerns – they also have no desire to supply the group with a global stage. (It is incidentally permissible to reject the vulgar name the world’s most famous “girl band” has picked out for us to use when referring to them. Both they and the Ukrainian group FEMEN have utilised nudity and scandal to achieve notice in the public arena.)
The Charismatic Sergey Ryakhovsky, Bishop of the major “Associated Russian Union of Christians of
Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE), told the news agency “Protestant”: “One should have sentenced the ladies to a half year picking up refuse around ‘Christ the Saviour’ cathedral. But this
sentence has transformed them into an ‘icon’ to which certain liberal forces will pray.” He also expressed a deep desire that the Moscow Patriarchate might put in a good word in favour of
pardoning the “girls”.
Baptist pastor Leonid Kartavenko, a cohort of the evangelical businessman Alexander Semchenko, added: “The ladies’ behaviour can only be condemned. Yet the harshness of the penalty has created a scandal and presents the band with the undeserved aura of martyrs and prisoners of conscience. To whom is this of any use?”
These leading Protestants regard the imprisoned as adversaries – by no means as allies in the struggle for separation between Orthodoxy and the state. They regard the brief concert on 21 February as an attack by liberal-secularist circles on the traditional family values upheld jointly by Protestants and the Orthodox. Ryakhovsky alluded to sinister masterminds in the background and assured: “I do not hesitate to call these people enemies of the Russian people and church.”
The loyal news agency „Interfax“ was quick to report questionable news from Germany claiming that imitators of P*Riot who had disrupted a service in Cologne Cathedral on 19 August were facing sentences of up to three years in prison.
The evangelist Yuri Sipko chose once again to swim against the current. Since completing his term as president of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB) in March 2010, he has transitioned to labelling government leaders a self-enriching band of “hypocrites and liars”. His vocabulary is not unlike that of the well-known dissident Alexey Navalny. In the news agency “Portal-Credo” on 23 August, Sipko described the band members as prisoners of conscience. It was not they who needed to repent, but rather the Moscow Patriarchate. They had justifiably protested against the “symphony” of church and state. The ladies “did not want to live in a loo”, he concluded. “The forest (the motherland) is in flames. Poisonous smoke is engulfing more-and-more territory. Survival is becoming impossible; people are fleeing. Yet these girls refused to wriggle free and instead screamed: ‘SOS!´.” But no other leading Protestants would attribute such lofty motives to the group; “Much ado about nothing” is the prevalent Protestant reaction.
Protestants are not easily disturbed at present – Vladimir Putin is not exactly an unknown entity. The Evangelical-Christian Sergey Andreyev has been active successfully as the mayor of a major Russian city (Tolyatti) since March. Russia has joined the WTO; the simplified Russian-American visa regulations scheduled for implementation on 9 September are also no indication of a worsening East-West political climate. Pastor Vitaly Vlasenko, the RUECB’s Director for External Church Affairs, assures: „The economies of the East and West are so strongly intertwined that I can no longer envision Russia uncoupling itself from the West.” Yet the world powers Russia and China have no intention of joining Western alliances (EU and NATO) as junior partners. One will need to make do on a global scale for the time being without that kind of major rapprochement.
Protestant circles remain equally relaxed about new legislation limiting the work of Russian NGOs scheduled to come into force in November. Humanitarian, religious and educational organisations have been explicitly exempted from the upcoming regulations. Yet they do affect secular associations created to support religious ones. The “Slavic Legal Centre” defends Protestant bodies in most court cases and reaps strong appreciation from nearly all Protestant circles. It is also the Moscow branch of Washington’s “American Center for Law and Justice” (ACLC) founded by TV preacher Pat Robertson. Yet the SLC will know how to go about defending its interests: Its director, the Baptist Anatoly Pchelintsev, is a shrewd, one-time military prosecutor. (His co-director, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, is the brother of ROSKhVE’s bishop.)
Russia is probably facing a new bureaucratic nightmare. Politically-active NGOs will be attempting to take cover under the umbrellas of humanitarian and religious organisations. A similar battle occurred in 1997 when all religious organisations were required to re-register. But today it remains possible for even the smallest religious organisations to achieve registration – the process has simply become more expensive and laborious. Also in this present instance, those being targeted will most likely find means for carving loopholes into the new legislation.
The campaign for human rights
The West’s campaign for human rights within Russia suffers from a major handicap. Bishop Ryakhovsky makes his assessment amply clear: There is no selfless longing for noble human ideals lurking behind this Western push – only the very concrete political and economic interests of a superpower and its West European cohorts. The Western campaign for P*Riot is generally interpreted as an attempt to weaken the Russian position on Syria. The catchword is “encirclement”.
The East European fear of Western-sponsored NGO’s is not unfounded. Even „Wikipedia“ reports that billionaire George Soros contributed $42 mill. to organizations intent upon toppling Eduard Shevardnadze as president of Georgia in 2003. Soros had contributed previously to similar efforts in Serbia. In more than a few Russian minds, the trauma of Western collaboration during Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” has not been overcome. Of course, the democracies of the West would also not take kindly to sweeping “subversive” activities engineered by foreign agencies.
The political dissonance between East and West is caused partly by the conflicting criteria for judging political systems. One result is the fact that the prevalent verdicts on the politicians Gorbachev and Yeltsin are diametrically opposite in East and West. The West campaigns for the human rights of the individual; the East concentrates on more basic issues. A further example involves Alexander Lukashenko, the long-term president of Belarus. Among the Protestant rank-and-file across Eastern Europe, the Belarusians are envied for their society’s order and stability.
A Belarusian working at Harvard University recently described the issue accurately. In “Belarus Digest” on 1 August Volha Charnysh wrote: “People in (failed) post-Soviet countries are looking (for) leaders who can restore law and order. Stability for them comes before democracy and freedom of speech. Unlike a typical Western European, many citizens of post-Soviet states have actually been to Belarus. . . . They hear that the President takes care of the pensioners and the working class. It is not that the visitors are unaware of the political prisoners or have not heard about rigged elections, but they accept (that as) the price paid for law and order. . . . Moldovan economist Galina Selari called Belarus ‘the only post-Soviet country where the state fulfils its functions´. Ultimately, a president (needs to) be loved by the domestic, not by the foreign electorate.”
The peoples of post-Soviet countries continue to long for governments who take the tasks of labour, shelter, medicine and education seriously - and do not simply line their own pockets. The remaining issues come in second.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 28 August 2012
This is an independent journalistic release funded by “Presbyterian News Service”, Louisville/USA, “www.pcusa.org”. It is informational in character and does not express any official position of PNS. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #12-21, 1.229 words, 7.997 keystrokes and spaces.