I was wondering whether anyone knew anything about that cross that Femen cut down. Is it an Orthodox cross, or the cross of a minority Christian group? Was it a public monument? Reuters called it a “Christian cross,” which is the silliest thing I have heard. But according to RT, The Sun, and a handful of other places, it was, in fact, an Orthodox monument. You are probably thinking “to a white American feminist, this makes no difference” and you are probably right. But it matters! Both Pussy Riot and Femen are concerned with a “conspiracy between church and state” (a curious phrase to use outside of the U.S., and if not an issue of translation then maybe you should consider why they chose to use it), but American feminists who don’t know anything about Eastern European or Russian religious history might abuse this.
Y’all probably know that (to simplify a lot), under Soviet control, religion was hugely suppressed in Russia. This was stratified a lot: more peasant communities, remote areas, and places that weren’t heavily abused for industrial projects or movement work were able to maintain relative religious autonomy. But, in general, the Orthodox church was repressed (or “oppressed”) under Communism. The anti-church struggle looked different across Soviet history, but was maybe most famous and “brutal” under Krushchev in the 1950s. From the 1920s through the 1960s in particular, thousands and thousands of churches were closed, dismantled, vandalized, and destroyed by the state. Priests and church laborers were executed en masse. There are some important main ideas that you should keep in mind: (1) the church, along with the family unit, was considered the biggest contender for a domestic power struggle with the state and this is why it was targeted, (2) “infiltrating” the family and the church was considered a crucial step toward social reorganization and more unilateral social control, and (3) anti-Orthodox rhetoric was primarily a device to construct and divide a category of “backwardness” and “progress,” a rhetorical device which was classed, stratified, and which remains (to some extent) in public memory.
This church/state struggle played out more than anything on the bodies and lives of women. The state realized that earning and maintaining the allegiance of women was the only way they could manage to reorganize social divisions in their favor: women were viewed as the glue that held the family together. They were seen as a danger, in some ways, prioritizing a family unit over collective and state models. The state also thought that women were peasants’ main tie to churches, that they were most in control of a family’s religious practices and that weakening that bond would loosen the nation’s allegiance to religion (and thus weaken the church’s power). So they sought to convince women that the church was a sexist patriarch that did not care about women, that the church was an overbearing and uncaring patriarch as much a Czar, and that collectivization processes would be most beneficial to mothering processes and make their lives better. This might have been true! I’m sure lots of women were liberated by this rhetoric! But it’s rhetoric, and that’s the history that Femen and Pussy Riot are operating out of.
One poster, undated but probably from no later than 1950, listed a series of Bible passages that were “anti-woman” and concluded with:
Woman! Go to the Soviets, to the factory committees, to the unions, listen to lectures, study, read newspapers, enroll in the workers faculties, the technical schools, colleges. Know: you’re foolish to search the heavens. Remember: how did you live in the past? The working woman is a comrade, throw away your belief in the priests and god.
I can’t remind you enough: this is not about faith or dogma or really political models as much as it is about state control.
In Ukraine, it’s a little more complicated. Soviet occupation is remembered as, well, a brutal “occupation” (which it was), and there is a powerful post-Soviet association between the religious scourges and occupation. The anti-church campaigns in the rest of Eastern Europe and Central Asia were pretty mixed and weird: in areas with large Muslim populations, (remote areas that weren’t as publicly targeted as the cities), propaganda campaigns against the Orthodox church didn’t really make any sense to anyone. In Ukraine, which was (and still is) a majority Orthodox nation, there were similar mixed results. Minority religious groups—Jewish and Catholic groups in particular, but also a Muslim minority—saw basically the same oppressive treatment from the Soviet Union’s occupation that they had gotten under a Tsarist regime. But one of the Soviet occupation’s first goals in Ukraine was to target and dismantle the Orthodox church and its dominance, and this was a shock to the nation. One of the USSR’s very, very first actions in Ukraine was a mass public execution of church leaders and church members. (When Ukraine gained its “independence” from occupation, they established a National church, and much of Ukrainian history for the next few decades was characterized by politics and upheavals within the church and with the state, with Soviet forces supporting this new National church in order to try to destroy the re-building Orthodox church, but ultimately they decided to “liquidate” religious organizations again in the 1930s. By the 1960s, Soviet control of religious institutions in this area had loosened somewhat. It’s a little convoluted, but worth noting.) The important things to understand is that the Orthodox church in Ukraine held a pre-Soviet control which was targeted by occupying Soviet forces, and that the attack on the church (and religious people in general) is inextricable in public memory from the violent occupation and “repressive” decades.
I don’t know when that now-severed cross was erected, but it was likely since the 1990s. The cross was, in fact, a public memorial to the [largely Orthodox] religious groups who were executed under the first Soviet occupation.
Post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine looked a little bit different from each other. Ukrainian religious politics were characterized by schisms within and between Orthodox sects and National religious groups (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church). There was actual fighting, the new independent president supported an independent National Orthodox church, and each group was fighting to have control of the nation’s churches (a lot of which had remained unused since before the second World War and re-opened). All of this is still going on, and was significant during the Orange Revolution.
In Russia, there was a much more explicit post-Soviet state-sanctioned religious revival. Under Gorbachev’s glasnost, an “opening” of religious freedom became entrenched. There are a million historians and political theorists who argue about the reasons behind glasnost. Most notably, transparency was hoped to save the regime. Most of all, it was thought that criticizing the failures of past regimes would promote more faith in the current regime,* and one of the population’s (alleged) most serious grudges was against Stalin and Krushchev’s religious persecutions. To Gorbachev, opening and reinvesting in these institutions would prop up the supremacy of a “reformed” Soviet government. Another important influence on glasnost was international policy, though. The United States government is almost always unwilling to open relationships with nations that limit two things: markets and Christianity. The post-Soviet reinvestment in Orthodoxy was, to some degree, the result of American meddling. (And, in fact, Gorbachev actually opened Russia’s borders to foreign missionaries around this time.) (Just like, you know, capitalism.)
*there is a name for this? similar to China’s Mandate of Heaven? But I can’t remember.
Right, so, let me simplify things to an absurd degree: Gorbachev started letting people have religion again, then the wall fell, then a decade or so passed and people started rampantly and actively and publicly Do Religion again. Somewhere in there, the Orthodox religion (as well as a few others) was officially protected as historically important to Russian culture, as part of a movement to re-establish a Russian nationalism. Then Putin rolled around. Putin is Orthodox, and he supported a whole bunch of political reforms which re-established state control and sanctioning of “the church.” (This includes religion and prayer in schools.) Putin’s church-state relationship revival had everything to do with re-wresting control of the churches, and it also had everything to do with “diplomacy” and control of the peripheral states. (Putin has a very superficial public image of diplomatic relationships with Muslim and Buddhist groups, in particular. No coincidence that these groups represent the demographics of the most fraught areas of the continent—the Caucuses, Manchuria, etc.) So when we talk about Putin’s “conspiracy between church and state” we need to think about these things. Putin uses his own religion to re-assert an Orthodox hegemony which ultimately upholds the state. This isn’t about faith, this is about hegemony. This is about state dominance.
American feminists, especially white American f*eminists, support Pussy Riot and read their church protests without any nuance of these histories. Listen, Pussy Riot is not making a statement against the church as a patriarchal institution, as it were. But that’s really the only way American feminists seem to be able to understand, uh, anything. American liberal (especially leftist, and especially feminist) discourse approaches this “church and state” binary in a way that (typically) deifies the state itself over a “patriarchal” or “backwards” religious unit. That’s a heuristic which just doesn’t apply in Putin’s Russia. Pussy Riot are criticizing state actions and church complicity in state actions, and that’s a very different approach which is historically situated.
I admit that I am slightly more skeptical of Femen’s approach. Remember, these are the same (mostly white) ladies who protested the Olympics for supporting “bloody Islamist regimes” which “treat women like third-class citizens.” I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume a nuance, here. But my initial reaction was “Femen would cut down a cross even if it wasn’t Orthodox” and, yeah, these distinctions matter. And remember how she wrote on her body in English? Do you think this wasn’t prepared for an English-speaking audience as much as anything?
Mostly I just wanted to make sure that feminists circulating these mostly-contextless images had something to work with. Because to so many of y’all, cutting down a cross is cutting down a cross is cutting down a cross. (Let’s get inverted cross tattoos lol.) But not a lot of people (when I started writing this, anyway) were asking these questions about context. This just demonstrates a few things to me—both Femen and Pussy Riot are very, very smart and very, very good at organizing and very, very good at manipulating the fact that American feminists are very, very stupid and very, very powerful. I’ve never been mad at Pussy Riot, and I hope nobody is interpreting the very good criticism of white f*eminists’ Pussy Riot-worship as a wholesale dismissal of the group. But I also hope that no one is interpreting these organizations’ criticisms of Church institutions through the same lens they might interpret, say, American resistance to Protestant and/or Evangelical bullshit.