Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Vladimir Putin attends a church service to mark the start of his term as Russia’s President in May.

RIA NOVOSTI/Reuters

Remember when Russia was ruled by godless communists who persecuted believers? How times have changed: In the latest Moscow show trial, three punk rockers who sang a protest song in a church face prison time for insulting religion. The one constant between then and now is a state hostile to free minds and free speech.

The prosecution of the singers from the all-female band Pussy Riot represents a new low in political repression in post-Soviet Russia. But it is also a cautionary tale about the entanglement of church and state.

On Feb. 21, in the midst of Vladimir Putin's campaign to reclaim the presidency, Pussy Riot brought its guerrilla theatre to Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Wearing their trademark colourful short dresses and balaclavas, the young women ran out in front of the altar and began a song-and-dance act that opened with a "punk prayer chant."

Story continues below advertisement

"Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, deliver us from Putin."

Subsequent lyrics – only a small portion of which were audible before the group was hustled away – denounced the close ties between the church and the regime: "The head of the KGB is their patron saint."

Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich were convicted of "hate-motivated hooliganism" and sentenced to two years in prison. The trio were held without bail, even though two of them have small children. There was no jury, and the judge showed blatant bias against the defence throughout the trial.

This case is clearly political, and is part of a larger crackdown on discontent. Yet it is also no accident that the group's performance in the cathedral – and not, say, an earlier protest in which they sang a vulgarity-laced anti-Putin song in Red Square – was singled out. Turning dissent into sacrilege, the indictment accused the women of malicious intent to "demean the feelings and beliefs" of Orthodox Christians; in his closing argument, the prosecutor asserted that their lyrics "blasphemed against God."

What makes this all the more surreal is the fact that Russia's present rulers, from Mr. Putin on down, are heirs to an atheist state under which faith was repressed and stigmatized. After the fall of the Soviet Union, religious freedom briefly flourished. Then, with a neo-authoritarian revival, religion began to replace communism as the ideology of state power. (Pussy Riot's alleged offences also include "belittling the spiritual foundations of the state.")

While the Russian constitution ostensibly affirms the separation of church and state, current law singles out the "special" place of Orthodox Christianity. Politicians routinely affirm their piety – Mr. Putin claims, hilariously, to have been a cross-wearing believer in his KGB days – and attend church services that are broadcast on state television.

Church leaders, meanwhile, pay tribute just as ostentatiously to Russia's rulers. During last spring's farcical presidential campaign, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian church, urged the faithful to vote for Mr. Putin and shun protest rallies. Church leaders have not only praised the authoritarian Russian state as a model of social harmony but endorsed repressive acts, from bans on gay pride events to curbs on "offensive" expression.

Story continues below advertisement

In 2005, the church pushed for the prosecution of museum staffers who organized an art exhibition critical of religion – and for dismissal of charges against nationalist goons who vandalized the exhibits. (The museum workers were convicted of "inciting hatred" and heavily fined.) Today, church spokesmen have demanded punishment for the Pussy Riot singers.

In a July poll, only 20 per cent of Russians familiar with the criminal case approved of the church's stand. Yet a disturbing 37 per cent felt the women deserved at least some prison time. More alarming, more than a quarter said Russians should not be able to criticize the church.

All this might seem irrelevant to America, whose religious pluralism couldn't be more different from Russia's history of state religion and state atheism. Yet, when some conservatives speak of a "Christian nation" and decry the "fiction" of church-state separation, Russia should be a warning. In his 1983 "Evil Empire" speech, former U.S. president Ronald Reagan contrasted communism's rejection of God with the faith-based "human quest for freedom."

Thirty years later in Russia, communism is gone, and God is back – and freedom is squelched in His name, too.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies