Managing the Russian Hajj



Eileen Kane is an Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College where she specializes in empires, migrations, religion and historical connections between the Russian and Ottoman empires. She’s the author of Russian Hajj: Empire and the Pilgrimage to Mecca.


The Roots, “Adrenaline!” Things Fall Apart, 1999.


The Riot of the Faithful

The fall out from the Pussy Riot scandal continues unabated. But the activities are less from Riot’s supporters, and more from their detractors. Indeed, it seems that Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” in Christ Our Savior Cathedral has stirred a hornet’s nest, and now all the little bees are angrily buzzing about, thrusting their tiny stingers into side of the so-called “enemies of the faith.” When I noted some of the activities of Orthodox activists in my last post, I assumed that their antics were more flashes in the pan. Now it’s clear that I grossly underestimated the fragility of the sensibilities of a minority of Orthodox followers. Perhaps it’s because I never thought that the religious fanaticism that I often witness in the US, let alone that among the ultra-Orthodox in Israel and elements in the Muslim world, would find expression in Russia.

It just goes to show that a stable post-Soviet identity remains elusive, and the virtually ideologically hollow multiethnic and multiconfessional model offered by the Russian government has yet to find traction. Thus, a radical adherence to Orthodoxy seems to fill that vacuum for some, and like good converts, their anxieties about the purity of their own faith is transferred on to the Orthodox Church as a whole, making anything that appears to threaten its sanctity an evildoer. The global crisis of secularism has found its Slavic voice.

How else to explain bringing a lawsuit against the Russian fashion designer Artem Lebedev for writing “god” in lowercase letters? Actually, Lebedev wrote “F*ck god,” but in justifying their lawsuit, Orthodox activists say that they were offended by the disrespect the lowercase type denotes.

Or the fact that a group of Orthodox activists have prevented the performance of Jesus Christ Superstar in Rostov by charging that the musical offends their religious sentiments. That’s right Jesus Christ Superstar. Funny, the musical has been running in Russia for 20 years, and now suddenly its offensive. The bees are buzzing indeed.

At the moment there is no law to hold Lebedev or the Rostov Philharmonic responsible for offending the faithful. But that might soon change. The Russian Duma is planning on turning the Russian codex back before 1917 by passing what essentially is a blasphemy law. The proposed law, which has support across party lines, will make “publicly insulting the religious beliefs and feelings of citizens” punishable up to a 300,000 ruble fine, 200 hours of community service, or a max of three years in prison, and “the desecration of objects and articles of religious worship and places of religious rites and ceremonies” liable to a fine between 100,000 to 500,000 rubles, 400 hours of service, and up to five years in the slammer.

Now, Michael Bohm’s idea that Russia is becoming Iran and must choose between becoming “anti-Western and theocratic or liberal-­democratic” is quite presumptuous, not to mention downright silly. But that’s the kind of hyperbole that his editorializing is known for. Nevertheless, the upsurge in concern about the sanctity of Russian Orthodoxy does suggest that something is amiss. And that something, I would argue, is that the Russian state has yet to offer its citizenry an ideology to bind the nation. The outlandish maneuvers on the part of Orthodox activists and the politicians that seek to capitalize on them are expressions of this ideological lack. The militant turn to Orthodoxy, however, is hardly a cure. In fact, such gestures in a society that is lukewarm about religion in general are likely to perpetuate the symptoms.


Unsurprisingly, the scandal in Rostov over preventing the performance of Jesus Christ Superstar has lit Runet ablaze. Here’s a run down of some responses courtesy of BesTToday. More interesting, however, is that the Russian Orthodox Church has weighed in on the issue. Daniil Azizov, a representative from the Rostov diocese told Interfax:

“We were quite surprised by the group of people who call themselves believers and wish that their opinions coincide with those of all Orthodox believers. But this is not so. It is only the personal opinion of 18-20 people who do not reflect neither the views of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Rostov diocese, or that of our parishioners. . . Twenty-years ago, when the Bible or the dioceses weren’t in wide usage, people found out about Jesus Christ through the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s a wonderful opera. There is nothing in it that should offend religious believers. . . If I had the free time, I would go see this rock opera myself.”

So there you have it. The message from the Russian Orthodox church is “Rock on Jesus, you superstar.”

Orthodoxy’s Young Street Fighting Men?

Just when you thought Pussy Riot would fade into the media ether ( removed its “Pussy Riot Affair” link from its main page, after all.), the rage continues–from all sides.  And now there’s plans to form a new Orthodox youth organization. Will it help swell the ranks of the street fighting faithful. Initial signs appear doubtful.

Still, there’s been a burst of Orthodox militancy of late. Here’s a list of recent events: A call for Orthodox believers to form patrol squads to tag along with police to combat “enemies of the faith” (Thankfully, the police declined). The outspoken Father Vsevolod Chaplin blesses the measure, saying that “It’s a step in right direction.” A group of Orthodox activists descends on G-Spot, a museum of erotic art in Moscow, with bricks in hand and threaten its curator, Alexander Donskoi. A similar group of Orthodox, accompanied by a NTV camera crew, no less, burst into Teatr.doc to disrupt a so-called “Eyewitness theater” where a panel of witnesses to the Pussy Riot trial were giving their impressions.

Then there are reports that Alexandr Sidyakin, the United Russia deputy who came up with the law upping the fines on protests, is working on a blasphemy law based on the German and Austrian codices. He later denied that any such law is in the works.

For their part, the so-called “enemies of faith” have not remained silent. On 17 August, the bare-chested activists of FEMEN cut down a cross in central Kiev to protest Pussy Riot’s two year prison sentence. Then ten days later, a previously unknown group, Narodnaya Volia, or People’s Will, the namesake of the 19th century Russian terrorist group, took a chainsaw to three crosses in village of Smelovsky in Chelyabinsk Province and another in the district of Varavino-Faktoriya in Arkhangelsk. According to Narodnaya Volia’s statement:

“The cutting down of the Russia Orthodox Church crosses in the village of Smelovsky, Verkhneuralsky District of the Chelyabinsk Region and in the city district Varavino-Faktoriya in Arkhangelsk is part of our operation against the Russian Orthodox Church called Krestopoval and was carried out by the military wing of our Movement, the flight combat units Neizvestnyye [the Unknown]. . . Russian Orthodox Church signs are a response to the statement on the creation of Orthodox militia, the Russian Orthodox Church’s reprisal of the Russian girls from Pussy Riot, and the insult by Archpriest Dimitrii Smirnov of the prominent Russian revolutionary movement leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. . . We demand the immediate release of the Pussy Riot members. Attacks against the Russian Orthodox Church will continue until our demands are fully met.”

Then there is this week’s Russian tabloid sensation: two women were found murdered in Kazan with “Free Pussy Riot” written on the wall in their blood.  RuNet was immediately ablaze with all kinds of conspiracy theories (Why didn’t initial reports mention the blood tinged “Free Pussy Riot”? The cops must have planted it . . . ) and cries of provocation from Pussy Riot supporters, and their denunciation by Pussy Riot foes (Archpriest Smirnov: “The blood of the murdered women of Kazan is on the conscious of Pussy Riot’s supporters”). The cops immediately dismissed any real connection to Pussy Riot and passed it off as the work of a crazy person.

The police were right: the killer turned himself in and revealed that his Charley Mansonesque scrawl was meant to throw off the cops.

Sill, the discourse on Pussy Riot gained new intensity.

And now Vedomosti reports that there are plans to create the All-Russian Association of Orthodox Youth. Interesting timing. Actually, the idea seems that have been in the works as Putin was asked about it at this year’s Seliger summer bash. He supported the idea as long as it didn’t become “a new quasi-Orthodox Komsomol.” Wouldn’t that be ironic if it did?

The Pussy Riot Affair only gave the idea of a Orthodox youth organization more purpose. According to Vadim Kvyatkovskii, the meeting’s coordinator, Pussy Riot showed that missionary efforts among youth require intensification. Surveys have shown that youth tend to support Pussy Riot more and often have negative views of the Orthodox Church. That said, Pussy Riot bogey-women have the potential to draw religiously inclined youth into defending the faith. During the trial, the church affiliated group Georgievtsy increased its membership from 400 to 600. Even United Russia’s youth wing, Molodaya gvardiia is looking to get into the act. It’s leader, Maksim Rudnev, said that there is room to work with Kvyatkovskii’s new Orthodox youth organization.

But perhaps its too soon to lump Kvyatkovskii’s group in with the Orthodox fanatics. Pussy Riot may spark new earnest, but not militant urgency. One sign of this is that Kvyatkovskii has ruled out the idea of his new youth group joining the Orthodox patrols. When asked about his position on the matter in an interview on, he responded:

Militias are a form of united citizens, but no more. In general, I don’t know of a single such voluntary patrol really existing. I know that where were several PR efforts, but I am not confident that this most effective way to unite youth. For example, we have young guys actively participating in helping Krymsk. This experience showed them that such volunteer groups now have much more demand. We aren’t very close with the tendencies toward some conservatism. On the contrary, we talk about the openness of the church and our activities, and we are prepared to make steps towards any interested people. Therefore we are not close or interested in the idea of a street patrol as some kind of watchdog.

It seems that in the search for new militants, Russian Orthodoxy’s street fighting men will have to look elsewhere.

Picture: Ridus

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