The news that members of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rock band, have been prosecuted and jailed for “performing” in Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow has been criticised by both the British and American governments as well as the Western media.
Now I hold no brief for President Putin or the Russian government but I do question whether criticism of Russia in this particular case is justified. As a lawyer, it does seem to me that what Pussy Riot did would not be legal in any country.
They sang and danced in front of the Iconostasis, one of the holiest parts of an Orthodox Church, whilst making the sign of the Cross and prostrating themselves in a parody of prayer. According to the translation given on the YouTube video (and I do not speak Russian, so I cannot confirm it) the song they sang included the words “Holy shit, Lord’s shit” as well as various references to the Orthodox Church and its Patriarch.
So by any definition the incident involved Pussy Riot shouting obscenities in a Church whilst worshippers were there, disrupting a service, shouting insults about the Orthodox Church and parodying worship.
Surely no government has the right to criticise the Russian authorities over this prosecution unless it is prepared to say that the same behaviour would be legal in its country. Certainly the conduct of Pussy Riot would not have been legal in Britain as I have pointed this out in my blog. Had Pussy Riot behaved the same way in Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s, the Central Synagogue or the Central Mosque then they would have been prosecuted for a variety of public order offences.
I am sure that the same applies to such behaviour in Notre Dame in Paris, or a cathedral or any other place of worship in Washington or Sydney: the disruption of a place of worship is simply not legal regardless of whether the disruption is done as part of a protest or not.
Protest is of course a vital right within democracy, but democracy involves a balance of rights. Worshippers in a Church or other place of worship have the right not to have their Church profaned or their worship interrupted. In the law context is everything and time and place change the nature of events. Just as a couple making love in their own bedroom is different to a couple making love on a park bench in the middle of the day, so an obscene protest song in the middle of a cathedral is different to a protest song outside a Parliament building.
In addition the point about context and balance goes beyond the simple protection of worshippers and religious believers. If an atheist organisation were holding its annual conference it would be entitled not to be disrupted by a group invading the conference and beginning to sing hymns. Protestors against abortion are entitled to protest outside abortion clinics but they are not entitled to invade them to disrupt their work. The right to protest does not give protestors carte blanche to do whatever they want in the name of protest.
In addition to the general point that the law of any civilised country would criminalise what Pussy Riot did, there is one aspect to the incident which certainly has been ignored by the British media. It goes a long way to explain why Orthodox believers in Russia were so outraged by the actions of Pussy Riot.
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is not just any cathedral; it has a very specific relevance because it is a very new building — the reconstruction of what had been the largest cathedral in Russia before the Russian Revolution. It was deliberately destroyed in 1931 as part of the persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union .
During this persecution groups such as the League of Militant Atheists often desecrated churches and engaged in parodies of religious ritual whilst singing obscene songs — something which the actions of Pussy Riot imitated.
Certainly I think that the sentence was excessive and I have no objections to protests against President Putin. But merely because there may be valid objections to Putin’s rule does not mean that every prosecution in Russia is wrong or that every protestor is necessarily right.
In the West we seem to have almost forgotten Communism and the evils it brought — but Russians have not. I notice that in court one of the Pussy Riot demonstrators wore a T-shirt bearing a clenched fist and the words “¡No Pasarán!”, a slogan of the Spanish Communist Party during the Spanish Civil War. It was a bit like appearing in a German Court wearing a T-shirt with a Nazi slogan. In those circumstances perhaps it is not surprising if Russians have taken a rather less rosy-eyed view of the incident than the Western media.
Neil Addison is a British barrister.