Black priestly dress, golden epaulets
Patriarch Gundyav believes in Putin,
Better if he, bitch, believed in God
These lines of the song written by the punk-feminist group ‘Pussy Riot’ encapsulate the fascist turn of current Russian affairs. The West learnt about ‘Pussy Riot’ almost instantly after their first (and the last) performance of the song in the number one Russian Orthodox patriarchate cathedral in Moscow. Following the tradition of supporting social freedoms, a few months later a series of Western voices fervently protested against the two year prison sentence given to the three singers but (judging by the responses in Western mass-media) failed to recognize the significance of their performance which targeted the very core of Russian politics. “When we say “Lenin” – we mean “the Party” wrote Mayakovsky, now one may write “When we say “United Russia” (the ruling party) – we mean “the ROC” (Russian Orthodox Church).
The transformation of the ROC into the central instrument of state propaganda began soon after the end of the Gorbachev era. Gorbachev, introducing various civil freedoms including glasnost, began the process of adding to the constitution an article about the freedom of faith and religious organizations. Just like the rest of the country, the ROC, breathing freely at last, had a short but very memorable period of spiritual revival. The most active, dedicated, and open minded members of the church seized the opportunity to engage with the outer world and came to the forefront. By their efforts the ROC began transforming itself from a semi-prohibited voiceless Church into an open Church seen by many as a stronghold of universal ethical and moral values and as an ally in the process of perestroika with which it shared many of those values.
The situation changed soon after Yeltsin occupied the president’s chair. The driving force of the Church revival during perestroika – the left wing of the ROC (“left” here means open minded, progressive and compassionate, a stance entirely consistent with authentic tradition) was promptly pushed away by the fundamentalists and nationalists. They reduced Orthodoxy from a universal faith to an ethnic religion with all the ugly features of such a reduction: nationalism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, theological reductionism. The outstanding speed of that regression can be explained by the documents uncovered in the KGB archives during Gorbachev’s time. According to them, the majority of the ROC leadership were KGB agents, including, based on listed codenames and activities, the future Patriarch Kirill. The publication of these discoveries sent a shockwave through society. The Moscow Patriarchate never addressed the issue officially. Later the issue was swept under the carpet.
The tradition of a collaboration of KGB and the ROC began in 1943, when Stalin together with the head of NKVD (predecessor of KGB/ FSB) Beria restored the ROC after almost thirty years of prosecution which can be compared, in its bloodiness, to the prosecution of the early Christians. From that point the ROC was quietly used for influencing the situation inside the USSR and abroad. In exchange it was allowed to conduct the rituals but prohibited from its vocation to be “the salt and the yeast of the world”, the catalyst of world transformation.
The next president after Yeltsin, the ex-head of FSB, Putin, faced not only economic but also ideological challenges. The ex-socialist country was ravished after Yeltsin’s cabinet threw it into wild capitalism. The notorious venture of “privatization” ripped off the majority of citizens while making a small group of oligarchs outrageously rich. After the short excitement of perestroika the spirit of the nation dropped low. During Soviet times Russia held onto a Communist myth, during Gorbachev’s time – onto a liberty myth and during Yeltsin’s time – onto a myth of economic opportunities. Putin had to do something not only about the economy falling apart but about the restoration of a national myth as well. The previous myths were compromised and thus not trusted by the people so Putin turned to Orthodoxy and the ROC. If nothing else, he had many comrades there.
It is hard to imagine a more unlikely source of current ideology for Putin’s state government than Orthodoxy in its original form, with its elevated moral ideal of human equality and dignity. However, the ROC had a huge value for the president: it possessed a much needed air of stability and legitimacy. Orthodoxy has been the traditional religion of Russia since 988 and Russian tsars were anointed and crowned by the ROC, the Byzantine idea of the God-sanctioned nature of the monarchy was widely popular. By making a very public union with the ROC Putin appeared to be the heir of Russian tsars and emperors. His intentions were well understood. From now on the ROC leadership would use various methods for strengthening his image referring to him as the guarantor of stability, prosperity, and unity of the country. The fact that the ROC became a trumpet of state propaganda became undeniable immediately before the crucial presidential elections of March 2012, when Patriarch Kirill made a public statement in which he referred to the 1990-s as “a time comparable with the Napoleonic war, Hitler’s aggression or the Civil War after the 1917 Revolution; with economic and human suffering comparable to the 1941-45 War. It was a time of complete chaos, including ideological. The existence both of our nation and our country was at stake. I must say very straightforwardly, without thinking about political propaganda, that this crooked part of our history was straightened out by you personally, Valadimir Vladimirovich.” It is noteworthy that just two years before the time condemned by him Metropolitan (the future Patriarch) Kirill can also be found publically glorifying perestroika which “offered the concepts of universal human values and respect for the person”.
The response to the Patriarch’s electoral campaign was something quite unexpected. First ‘Pussy Riot’ in the cathedral called (in a very traditional Orthodox fashion) the union of Putin and Patriarch together with their Orthodox supporters “Shit of God”. Then the fabricated results of the elections and return of Putin to the presidential position caused the increasing waves of civil protests which reached a pinnacle on 6th of May 2012, on the now famous Swamp Square.
The war of the state government against the protest movement took not only the already familiar form of searches, arrests, threats, and court processes but also a new form of propaganda in which religious and nationalistic themes played a very prominent role. Now Putin was presented as the only guarantee of not slipping into chaos and also the savior, preserver and defender of Orthodoxy. The parallels with a Russian tsar are very deliberate here, or, more correctly, with the Russian idea of a tsar with its prominent mystical (and fully heretical) connotations – the tsar as the viceroy of Christ. The part of the quote of Apostle Paul “For there is no power but of God” was interpreted as “the current government is the only legitimate one and to protest against it is to rebel against God” i.e. to join in with Satan, this interpretation was pushed into the mass-media. Thus the pseudo-theological basis for the notion of the opposition being the enemy of God and the Russian people was laid down. Various historical themes of “strong, rulers approved by God” were also pulled out, the slogan of tsarist Russia “Orthodoxy, Monarchy, Nationality” curiously neighboring with the theme of glorification of Stalin as the restorer of the ROC.
The state rapidly produced a series of Goebbels-like propaganda “documentaries” about supposed collaboration of the (uncompromising) left opposition and the West for the purpose of destroying Russia. On the ground of one of those documentaries titled ‘The Anatomy of Protest’, the state began a process against several leaders of Left Front. The ROC propagandists contributed to the accusation of plotting against the state the accusation of plotting to destroy the Church which in their interpretation from became the symbol of Russian unity against the outer enemy. To add weight to the accusation, the heretical doctrine that nationality determines ones faith de facto was introduced. It was made clear that anyone who disagrees with the general line of the ROC is the enemy of Russia.
Nothing betrays the fascist character of the Russian state more than this absurdity: arrests on the basis of a fabricated and dramatized television documentary, widely broadcast absurd court processes (with heavy armed guards, police dogs, hand cuffs as compulsory props) in which the judge frankly exhibits surprise when a defendant bothers to respond to an accusation logically, sentences given on the basis of exerts from medieval Church law, condemnations of the left for soviet era massacres of the ROC and simultaneous celebrations of anniversaries of the GULAG camps where thousands of ROC members had perished, veneration of the new martyrs and glorifying their executioners, and so on. This absurdity however is well calculated and works as a smoke screen for other elements of the state ideology.
A fascist state differs from other totalitarian regimes by its ideology based on a super-idea: a messianic leader combined with the idea of ethnic identity and a special mission. The theme of a special mission of Russian people in the world is prominent in the ROC propaganda. Its interpretation varies from the task of “preservation of Orthodoxy – the great spiritual power of Slavic peoples” (Patriarch Kirill) to the notion, very common in the Orthodox fundamentalist circles, of the Russian people as the new chosen nation, particularly close to and beloved by God and opposed to the “degenerate West”.
Outwardly Putin’s cabinet does not seem to support this super-idea but it does not do anything to contradict it either. On the contrary: extreme nationalists and fascists are safe in Russia as long as they remain subordinate to United Russia. The participants of ‘Russian Marches’ carrying banners with swastikas and making Nazi salutes are a good example, together with rather comic “God’s Banner Bearers” with their trade mark black shirts, with the slogan “Orthodoxy or Death” written under three skulls (each with the knives between their teeth), engaging in bizarre public rituals like poking the photos of naked homosexuals with sharp objects or burning the portraits of Western pop-singers accompanied by Orthodox hymns and prayers (a common technique of giving Christian credibility to an antichristian deed). Broadly speaking, Putin is careful to reserve the promulgation of the messianic-nationalistic idea to the ROC and extremist movements playing the nationalist card on their territory and by their hands when he needs it.
Fascism generates unity by creating hatred for a common enemy both within and without. In the Russian case such enemies are the West and its collaborators, the Judas-like left opponents of the regime. State propaganda depicts the West as morally corrupt and filled with very questionable sexual practices; particular attention has been given to the mistreatment of children including their sexual abuse as an accepted western practice and the abuse of adopted Russian children abroad in particular. The opposition is depicted as equally morally corrupted, with a stress on its “inherited from the Bolsheviks” passionate hatred for Russia and all things Russian. There is even a new term for this depravity, Russophobia. Therefore the major target of propaganda, the uncompromising left opposition, is labeled as “communists” and “Trotskyites” and the atrocities conducted by the communists after 1917 are promised to reoccur inevitably if the left opposition comes to the power. It is fair to say that the state has made a very substantial effort to depict the opposition to be as evil as possible, using very diverse means such as “revealing” articles, faked documentaries, smear campaigns, TV shows, armies of internet trolls and bloggers with sophisticated means of controlling the internet. It is important to note that those few ROC clergy and lay Orthodox Christians who publicly expressed their disagreement with the ROC leadership were slandered, harassed, silenced or driven to leave the country by the joint efforts of FSB and the ROC leadership just like the non-Orthodox members of the left opposition.
Naturally, this image of the enemy helped to stir aggression. One example of this tendency is the black shirted “Orthodox brigades” formed “to defend holy places from the enemy” and also to watch whether “citizens show due respect for Orthodoxy”. The other anti-homosexual and anti-anything that is not a part of the ultraconservative system demonstrations and pickets belong to the same kind of fascism in Orthodox camouflage.
Because of the urgent need to withstand the degenerate Western morals both the ROC and the state government spokesmen called for the return to ultraconservative gender roles. The superiority of non-working mothers, especially the mothers of many children, over working professional women is highlighted. At the same time the official mass-media denounces the degenerate nature of modern art.
The state government shows a particular liking for public spectacles similar to ancient Rome, treating the public to live broadcasts of the court process of opposition prisoners (recently Putin offered to pardon the opposition figure Navalny, sentenced to five years in prison, “if he repents”, repeating his own words previously addressed to ‘Pussy Riot’ – a Nero-like gesture). Despite demonstrating the absurdity and total incoherence of the justice system these broadcasts certainly serve their purpose, to induce fear, and provide a good addition to the news about attacks, severe beating, kidnapping, arrests, torture and even murder of opposition members.
Naturally, the fascist regime is the most merciless to those who recognize the true nature of its evil and adamantly oppose it. The Russian opposition is very diverse; the parties and movements’ names are often confusing and often not much help in understanding their purposes and political goals. The opposition can be divided into those who are prepared to make agreements or compromise with the current state government and those who are not. In the former camp are various liberals, democrats, Kremlin clowns like Zhirinovsky with his liberal-democratic party, Zuganov with his tamed Communist Party, and so on. They create much noise but are of no real use to the resistance. Most importantly, the common people are simply sick of them as one can become sick of seeing the same faces talking for years and not causing any real change. The uncompromising opposition consists of the left (Left Front, social democrats, anarchists, antifascists) and also social movements like “Archnadzor” which is desperately trying to save the historical architecture of Moscow and other cities from complete destruction by corrupt state officials and their new capitalist masters, various ecological groups, human rights organizations, some independent liberals and ordinary citizens whose protest stems from desperation with the current state of affairs. This coalition of opposition forces is the real driving force of the resistance; Left Front being among the most uncompromising is subject to the most severe prosecution.
The precursor to Left Front was the Russian Social Forum (RSF), the participants of which were the activists of various progressive social movements, left and NGO’s attempted to work out a sound alternative to the embrace of global capitalism pushed by the neo-liberals. A key group of contributors to the RSF proposed the creation of an inclusive left organization oriented to active action. Left Front came into existence in 2005. Anyone who shared the values of socialism, democracy, and internationalism could join in; its members were not required to give up their membership in political parties, further more members had the right to refuse to participate in any of LF affairs if it contradicts their own party rules or beliefs (a point which allowed Christians, Jews and Muslims to work within Left Front). The ultimate purpose of the organization was to build socialism in Russia, the immediate task to support any action or any movement which contributes to that purpose directly or indirectly. Thus, Left Front members are notorious for being seen everywhere, from joining the pickets of cultural (Archnadzor) and ecological activists, for organizing huge political protests (anti- government marches ‘Day of Wrath’, ‘Anticapitalism’, ‘March of Millions’) or opposing the nationalist-fascist ‘Russian March’ demonstrations. On a more quiet level, Left Front also organized its own education camps and established working relationship with trade unions and workers struggles. The Russian writer and the leader of the party with the rather eccentric name ‘nationalist-Bolshevik’, Eduard Limonov, predicted in 2005 the imminent death of the new-born Left Front because an “organizations of organizations” cannot live long. However, eight years later the baby is not only alive but substantially grown up. It is instructive to follow the ideological development of its leader, Sergey Udaltsov, who in his earlier years was a registered candidate from the so-called ‘Stalinist block’ but over time developed beyond his sectarian beginnings. The program of Left Front, ‘Left at power’, looks forward to develop a “socialism without the mistakes made in the USSR” in comparison with the backward looking attempts of the state and other parties to rehabilitate Stalin and the glories of then Stalinist era.. An important point of the program is freedom of faith and separation of the state and the church. This point of view was in fact repeatedly expressed by the previous Patriarch of the ROC, Alexy II, who considered the freedom of the ROC from the state to be a fundamental condition for its mission in the world.
Currently Sergey Udaltsov is under arrest together with a group of protestors who participated in the ‘March of Millions’ on 6th May 2012 (which ended in Swamp Square) against the presidential inauguration of Vladimir Putin. Udaltsov, one of the major organizers of the march, and his comrade Leonid Razvozzhayevv are also accused of participating in an international plot against the state on the ground of the made for television documentary ‘The Anatomy of Protest’ released several months after the Swamp demonstration. ‘The documentary claims that Udaltsov and Razvozzhayevv were hired by Georgian officials to stir violence and overthrow the current Russian government; the purpose of which is to prove that the whole Russian opposition and protest movement are financed from abroad. For the sake of giving more weight to the accusation the FSB kidnapped Razvozzhayevv on Ukrainian territory, tortured him and obtained his “confession” which he later renounced. Udaltsov was then immediately arrested.
Other Swamp prisoners are accused of creating a public mass-disorder and a riot. Video records show the police brutally beating the demonstrators while the confrontation between peaceful demonstration and the police was deliberately provoked by state agents. The Swamp process openly shows that it is not those agents of the state who assault the people but their victims who are arrested, imprisoned, and remain imprisoned without verdict or sentence for more than a year now. These prisoners were chosen to represent all layers of Russian society and belong to the spectrum of opposition parties and many to no political organization at all. They (including Udaltsov and Razvozzhaev who were singled out) committed no crime but engaged in non-violent political protests guaranteed under the constitution. Several have serious chronic illnesses (e.g., partial blindness, schizophrenia) which are denied any consideration in their conditions of detainment. The message from the regime is; what has happened to them can happen to anyone. Anyone who disagrees and sticks out will share the protesters’ fate.
The Swamp protest united those who could not continue watching the destruction of their country by the state. Both the government and the ROC leadership call for preservation of history and at the same time rewrite Russian history to suite their myth. They speak about the respect for the victim of repressions and yet they exclude Stalin’s persecutions from the new school textbooks. They speak about the superiority of Russian culture and destroy that very culture, demolishing historical sites to clear the space for new profitable and ugly projects. They praise the natural beauty of Russian land and destroy its national parks and nature reserves making them into building sites for the residences of Putin, Patriarch Kirill and other oligarchs. They speak about their care for the people and the country while they destroy the achievements of health care, education, and fundamental science inherited from the Soviet era. Lastly, they boast about their Orthodox Christianity while they profane and twist it into a mere instrument of their immoral deeds. The religion that they offer to the people is nothing more than a primitive and perverted state cult. How far must one pervert Christianity to make the great Russian saint, St Seraphim of Sarov “the patron” of the production of nuclear weapons of mass destruction?
It is clear that virtually all aspects of life in Russia became infected with the spiritual and material parasites of which she must release herself if she wants to survive. The Left Front, being inclusive and non-bending to the state government at the same time is a very promising nucleus around which the true resistance can crystallize and grow. The system liberals cannot serve this purpose because of their many past compromises with the state (e.g., Navalny recently accepted the necessary votes for his candidature for the Moscow mayoral elections from Putin’s ‘United Russia’ party; the liberal opposition appear to have forgotten about the Swamp prisoners after the (temporary) release of Navalny) and because the most they are capable of is performing a cosmetic surgery on the face of capitalism.
As the primary target of the present repressions, Left Front has suffered the severe destruction of its vertical structure. Now it has to rebuild it and, most importantly, build the horizontal structure which will support it, organizing the net of resistance. Among the many challenges ahead will be overcoming the prejudice of many against the apparently discredited words “left” and “socialism”. The latest news about “more evidence gathered against Sergey Udaltsov and his comrades” make it increasingly clear that the state government is set to destroy Left Front completely, temporarily making Navalny the centre of the opposition and using the game of his imprisonment and immediate release as a cover, with the further aim to finish with the left opposition movement entirely.
The Russian state shows the unmistakable features of a new incarnation of fascism. It is not yet into everyone’s face but it is expanding day by day. By the very logic of its being a fascist state cannot sustain itself without aggression against its proclaimed inner and outer enemies therefore the day inevitably will come when the aggression of this new Russian fascism will spill beyond its borders. While it is the task of the Russian people to bring down the fascist regime there is much that can be done by the left and progressive social movements outside of Russia to support and assist them. A strong parallel here is the role of the international campaign against the Apartheid regime in South Africa in enabling the ANC to resist and eventually to topple that regime. This is a struggle which calls for united action from all socialists and all those who value peace and social justice, both within and without the Russian federation, if it is to succeed.
24th of July 2013