Pussy Riot, punk and holy fools

Image of Harry Eyres

Soon after my arrival at the singularly unpleasant Domodedovo airport, I found myself talking to an experienced Moscow hand about the punk band Pussy Riot. He had little time for the western liberal approach sympathetic to the jailed artistes espoused by such figures as Madonna; “What do you expect is going to happen if you break the law by desecrating a holy place? This is a deeply conservative society.”

The punk band chose the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour as the venue for their protest for a reason: they were protesting, in part, against the alliance between Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church. There is a rather brilliant analysis of this holy or unholy alliance in the closing statement to the Moscow Khamovniki district court given by the oldest and quietest of the Pussy Riot three, Yekaterina Samutsevich, who was set free by a Moscow court last week while her two bandmates were ordered to serve the rest of their two-year sentences. Samutsevich argues that Putin has cleverly managed to cloak his regime in the prestige of a church that, during the Soviet era, was a symbol of opposition but that also both historically and theologically stands above democracy, in its associations with the Tsarist past and its claims to divine revelation.

But it might be a mistake to assume that Pussy Riot’s protest was hostile to religion, as the Orthodox hierarchy and the Russian judiciary – the singers were found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” – and elements of the western liberal intelligentsia all seem to believe. Anyone who bothers to read the women’s closing statements to the court – and they are well worth reading – will find that they are peppered with references to the New Testament.

Their argument is rather that the official version of religion headed up by the current Orthodox hierarchy, in league with Putin, is a pseudo-religion, just as Putin’s regime is a pseudo-democracy. The members of Pussy Riot are appealing to a democratic, anarchic strain within Orthodoxy exemplified by the figure of the holy fool (yurodivy in Russian). The connection between punk antics and holy foolery is made explicitly by the youngest of the women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, but doesn’t seem to have been picked up by many commentators.

The holy fool, or fool for Christ, is a key figure not just in Orthodox religion but in Russian culture. Holy fools are disruptive; they go around half-naked, act as Robin Hoods, taking from the rich and giving to the poor; and, as Sergey Ivanov writes in Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond (2006), they “provoke outrage by [their] deliberate unruliness”.

Perhaps the most famous and remarkable was Basil the Blessed (after whom Moscow’s most anarchic cathedral is named), who was born a serf and gained renown as a holy fool in the time of Ivan the Terrible. He rebuked the tyrant for not paying attention in church and for his cruel persecution of the innocent; Ivan rewarded him not by decapitating him or roasting him on a spit but by acting as pall-bearer at his funeral.

The figure of the holy fool appears repeatedly in the novels of Dostoevsky. There are “true” holy fools, such as Elder Zosima, the inspired preacher in The Brothers Karamazov, and Bishop Tikhon in The Devils; there are also false holy fools, such as Semyon in the same novel. But the most fascinating holy fool of all may be Prince Myshkin, the hero of The Idiot, who is never explicitly named as such. Myshkin represents Dostoevsky’s attempt to portray “a positively beautiful man”; naive to the point of gullibility, emotionally empathetic and open, Myshkin ends up ruining the lives of the two women he loves. Perhaps Dostoevsky’s point is that in a thoroughly corrupt society even attempts to do good are bound to come to grief.

My favourite holy fool of the Soviet era is the eccentric pianist Maria Yudina. The composer Shostakovich, who was a fellow piano student at the Moscow conservatory, found her both compelling and annoying. About the excellence of her piano-playing there was no dispute. But she infuriated him with her erratic behaviour and constant demands for money, which would be immediately given away to the poor.

What Shostakovich didn’t acknowledge was that Yudina was not just a pianist but also a holy fool. She made no secret of her religious fervour, at a time when all religion was banned. In fact, she played in public wearing a prominent cross. At various times she suffered for this, but she was tolerated by Stalin, because he adored her piano playing. In return, Yudina, in the best holy fool tradition, lectured and berated the tyrant on his monstrous injustices and persecutions.

On my recent trip to Moscow, I visited both the Kremlin, with its striking combination of state palaces and golden-domed cathedrals, and the riotously exuberant cathedral of St Basil, that amazing fairytale house of painted chapels, which rises above the parade ground of Red Square. State and religious authority have long rubbed shoulders in Russia, but at its best the anarchic potential in Orthodoxy has reminded tyrants of their potential to be human.


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