The Patriarch & Putin Have a Pussy Riot

By Tim Kelleher

March may typically come in like a lion and go out like a lamb, but for Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church (MP), the lion has bounded into April, teeth sharp and stomach growling.

Three headaches have the potential to develop into something much more damaging to those living in Russia and the former Soviet republics, as well as to the wider world of the Orthodox communion.

We begin with the ingloriously named, Pussy Riot, an activist group who recently staged its most controversial act of political performance "art" to date, in the bosom of Russian Orthodoxy -- Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square.

The action took the form of what one member called "a prayer," (aka, a song called, "Holy Sh#t!"); lyrics include, "Mother of God, get rid of Putin!"

According to reports from the Russian capital, it's virtually impossible to go out in public with any chance of avoiding the topic, not only of what happened, but what should happen next. Handicappers see things as fairly evenly split -- between those calling for vigorous prosecution and those appealing for lenience.

After a period of silence, Patriarch Kirill at last declared himself among the former, joining prominent Jewish and Muslim leaders. In doing so, he effectively became their face. He also became the lightening rod for those who regard such severity as an almost inexplicable squandering of a precious "teachable moment."

A mere glance at the video of the incident makes clear that aesthetic virtue is not the charge filed against the group. They are, instead, accused of "hooliganism." That's not as funny as it may sound. The reality is, each faces a sentence of up to seven years in prison -- even though no property was damaged, nor anyone injured or demonstrably threatened -- as the statute requires.

Yet, prosecution to the fullest extent of the law seems to be what the Patriarch is prepared to accept. Against so tweaked a backdrop, in his spotless koukoulion and snow-white beard, he looks painfully more Cecil B. DeMille than St. Seraphim of Sarov -- a caricature of the wrathful prophet rather than a living exhortation to forgiveness and Gospel joy.

Christ The Savior Cathedral sits in intimate proximity to the Kremlin. By choosing it as their venue, the activists were pointing to a widely shared concern that the ROC is providing Mr. Putin the kind of cover and support it alone can furnish -- and he urgently needs -- to ride out the backlash against last month's election, and return to the project of rebuilding an imperial Russia.

Adding to this unflattering image is the recent court case filed on the Patriarch's behalf against a co-tenant of a luxury Moscow apartment building. The defendant, Yuri Shevchenko, is a medical doctor, former Health Minister, and fellow priest.

Responding to the complaint that renovations by Shevchenko to his apartment caused damage to the Patriarch's, the court ruled in Kirill's favor, to the tune of 20 million rubles (approximately $750,000).

The unfortunate perception of a bishop conducting himself a la Donald Trump is further burdened by the fact that the person who filed on Kirill's behalf is one Lidia Leonova -- a long-time acquaintance who apparently shares this address with him. As one might expect, there's been more than a little speculation regarding the nature of the relationship.

Kirill has countered, locating these events within a wider assault on the Church. Undoubtedly, the Church in Russia, as elsewhere, is, and ever has been, under attack. With Good Friday just over a week away on the Julian calendar observed in Moscow -- the reminder of that is fresh. However, part of the reminder is that on that day, the interests of the religious and political establishments converged, and found their respective satisfaction through the darkest cooperation.

Fair or not, Kirill's relationship with the government often looks like a partnership -- if not of cause, then at least of utility. Neither inspires. This is especially relevant given the profound wound of the Soviet era that has yet to heal.

And, while the activists of Christ The Savior might agree, it is hardly a fringe point of view. This brings us to the third weighty moment in Kirill's long month, and what may be the most significant context within which to appreciate it.

On March 23rd, the new leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), Sviatoslav Shevchuk, issued the statement that no genuine cooperation between the two churches is possible unless and until the ROC makes a clean breast of its relationship with the Soviet regime, and apologizes for its confiscation of property after the war.

It is no secret that the UGCC has long felt its ecclesial integrity undermined by Rome's refusal to acknowledge officially its Major Archbishop as Patriarch. It has been a frustrating act of trust on the part of the UGCC, exercised in deference to the theological and political complexities the Vatican has felt obliged to balance to realize the overarching goal of reunion with the Orthodox churches. A few more months like March, however, could make that refusal difficult to justify much longer.

Finally, within the communion of Orthodox churches, one increasingly hears the charge that the MP is bent on dominance -- determined to transform its claim as Third Rome from ecclesiastical hypothesis to political and juridical fact. None of this is particularly helpful at a time when Christian unity is so sorely required.

As the Letter of Peter warns, March is not alone in adopting the leonine form. "Be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith."

Patriarch Kirill needs and deserves our prayers. May God grant him many happy, holy years.

Tim Kelleher is the new media editor for First Things.

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