Another Perspective

Blasphemous Chic

For Pussy Riot, and for Western intellectuals, desecration counts as freedom of expression.

By 8.22.12

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Vladimir Putin has been widely criticized for throwing that trio of Pussy Riot punk rockers into a Moscow prison. Maybe prison was too severe, but there is another side to this story. But as a friend said, it is difficult to express that other side "without invoking ideas that have been systematically discredited by our own intellectual class: Blasphemy, vulgarity, profanity, nihilism, sexual exhibitionism, tastelessness."

Back in February, the Pussy Rioters entered Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, in disguise, regarding it as a venue well suited to their peculiar brand of nihilism.

Here are a few of their lines (and I'll allow that they may have made more sense in the original Russian):

All parishioners crawl to bow,
The phantom of liberty is in heaven,
Gay-pride sent to Siberia in chains

The head of the KGB, their chief saint,
Leads protesters to prison under escort
In order not to offend His Holiness

Women must give birth and love

S--t, s--t, the Lord's s--t!…

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist
Become a feminist, become a feminist

Clearly the goal was to give offense, and if that happened in a cathedral, without anyone's permission, well, by our debased standards, that raised it to the level of art.

On its front page, the New York Times was indignant about their imprisonment because the punks' "rights" had been violated. Their cause became "a cause célèbre championed by artists around the world." The Washington Post dignified the group as an "artistic collective," and the State Department expressed concern about "the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia."

It never seems to have occurred to our diplomats that what the punks did might itself have had a negative impact on the freedom of expression in Russia, just as the indulgence in public nudity would tend to have a negative impact on the cause of nudism.

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior commemorated the retreat of Napoleon from Moscow in 1812. But there were many construction delays and it wasn't consecrated until 1883. Tchaikovsky's famous overture received its first performance there.

Stalin proceeded to demolish the cathedral in 1931. A monument to socialism known as the Palace of the Soviets, topped by a statue of Lenin, was meant to replace it. But the money ran out, and in the Khrushchev era the hole in the ground was turned into an open air swimming pool.

The cathedral's faithful reconstruction, starting in 1990 and completed in 2000, was both an achievement, and, to me, an inspiration. There haven't been many such moments in the modern world. A million Muscovites contributed funds.

And this is the place that the Pussy Riot punk rockers chose to desecrate with their "freedom of expression."

The smirking, self-satisfied demeanor of the group at the time of their sentencing told us that they expected nothing but praise for their blasphemy. And from the international press, that is what they have received.

One of the punks was ecstatic after their sentencing because they had "brought the revolution closer." I think she meant the overthrow of the Russian regime. I wonder if they have any idea what might replace it. Similarly, one wonders if the revolutionists of 1917 knew what they were doing and what would come after them.

What passes for "art" in the Western world today is often nothing but a cover for nihilism. You can be sure the punks wouldn't have dared to try any such "stunt" in a mosque. They wouldn't have lived to tell the tale. Only Christianity is regarded as an appropriate target today.

I don't know what the Muscovites' opinion of Putin is today but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that a majority supports him. Clearly the Russian leadership and the Russian Orthodox Church are moving closer together and they won't be entertaining the "separation of Church and state" any time soon. Or, one hopes, an understanding of "freedom of expression" that turns out to more closely resemble profanity and desecration.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).