MOSCOW—Yesterday afternoon, two women—a mother and her 38-year-old daughter—were found stabbed to death in the southeastern city of Kazan. By the time the news reached Moscow this morning, it arrived with a new bit of information: someone had scrawled “Free Pussy Riot” on the hallway wall. In blood.
It’s not clear who did this—or, more significantly, why—but two weeks after the three young women of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in jail for singing a “punk prayer” in the main church of the capital, the story continues to roil Russian society. And “pussy” continues to appear in Russian headlines.
On the morning the sentence was to be handed down, members of the topless feminist group FEMEN in Kiev, Ukraine took a chainsaw to a giant wooden cross commemorating the victims of Stalin’s repressions. Soon, copycats were popping up across Russia. The latest cross was felled by Pussy Riots supporters in the subarctic city of Arkhangelsk. This prompted outrage from the Orthodox community, with the Church’s sharp-tongued spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin darkly prophesying that “those who fell crosses today may move on to murder in the future.”
Sure enough, four days later, two women turned up dead with “Free Pussy Riot” scrawled on the wall, as Kremlin loyalists trilled their I-told-you-so’s. (“If you still think that breaking the norms of behavior in a church doesn’t change anything, I recommend you read the latest news,” one of them tweeted.) As if this weren’t enough, shortly after the double-murder swamped the headlines, news broke of a man who had been stabbed to death in St. Petersburg. Whoever killed him left a religious icon on his head.
All of this has put Team Pussy Riot on the defensive, with the women’s lawyers trying to distance themselves from the violence. They have labeled the blood graffiti “a case for a psychiatrist” and called the Archangelsk cross-fellers “two mentally-retarded youths.”
The faithful, however, have felt compelled to respond in kind. Shortly after the Pussy Riot verdict, there were reports of them attacking people wearing “Free Pussy Riot” t-shirts. One young man, a veteran of the second Chechen War and head of the “Holy Rus” organization, announced that he would form bands of Orthodox “volunteers” to patrol Russia for crimes against sacred artifacts and priests.
In truth, Pussy Riot only heightened the cultural tensions underlying Russian society. In the last few years, criticism has mounted against an Orthodox Church that is increasingly lavish (the Church’s press service recently admitted to airbrushing a $30,000 Breguet watch of the patriarch’s wrist), increasingly unapologetic (Chaplin called the patriarch’s sumptuous lifestyle his “cross”), increasingly brazen (a woman thought to be Patriarch Kirill’s lover is suing to take over the apartment of a famous cardiologist dying of cancer) and increasingly seen as a Kremlin franchise. This winter, as anti-Kremlin protests broke out in Moscow, the patriarch called on people to go to church instead, and later enthusiastically endorsed Vladimir Putin ahead of the March presidential election. The people who took to the streets demanding fair elections have, with the help of Pussy Riot, come to see the Church as their enemy, too.
On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Putin’s popularity depends, in part, on his support for the Church. (Support that’s not just rhetorical: He returned religious art to the Church from state museums and, the day before his most recent inauguration, he inaugurated a chapel that would pray for his health around the clock.) The Church’s militantly anti-Western, anti-liberal rhetoric appeals to Putin’s natural base of support, most of it in smaller, poorer cities. This population, if they’ve heard of Pussy Riot at all, is conservative, religious, and nationalistic, and finds the ideas of the opposition deeply alien. It is also a fairly huge population.
Given the increasing economic and political tensions in the country, these two Russias were bound to come to blows. And, as usual, religion has provided an easy, steadily burning fuse.