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Last week’s verdict from a Moscow court on the fate of dissident punk band Pussy Riot seems to have divided religious commentators in unexpected ways—here’s Rod Dreher on the ordeal; for a different (and sympathetic) take, see John O’Sullivan at NRO; and of course today Tim Kelleher writes at “On the Square” with his own angle. And if you haven’t read them already, transcripts of the band members’ closing statements (courtesy n+1) have been making the rounds. While erudite in a showboat kind of way, and clearly passionately delivered, I find myself less impressed with this than others seem to be. The band members certainly aren’t the stereotypical “punk meatheads” that their stated influences seem to suggest, but the self-comparisons to Socrates and Jesus are dreadfully over the top; I suppose some of the Russian literary allusions are smart.

Mostly, I find myself agreeing with Mark Movsesian and Philip Jenkins. As they point out, one aspect of this which has been less-than-well reported is the venue in which the band chose to make its last stand. Yes, it was a cathedral, as the media relayed, and the act intentionally violated the sanctity of the building and the altar in particular. Less reported, though, is that this was not just any old cathedral. It’s a new cathedral, in fact. Rebuilt from 1990-2000, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior:

...was a central shrine both of the Orthodox faith and of Russian national pride, and for that reason, the Bolsheviks targeted it for destruction. In 1931, in a notorious act of cultural vandalism, the Soviet government dynamited the old building, leveling it to the ground, and replacing it with a public swimming pool. Not until 1990 did a new regime permit a rebuilding, funded largely by ordinary believers, and the vast new structure was consecrated in 2000. The cathedral is thus a primary memorial to the restoration of Russia’s Christianity after a savage persecution.

It’s difficult, perhaps, for Westerners to realize how bloodthirsty that government assault was. Russia in 1917 was overwhelmingly Orthodox, and in fact was undergoing a widespread religious revival. Rooting out that faith demanded forceful action by the new Bolshevik government, which had no scruples about imposing its will on the wishes of a vast majority. Government leaders like Alexandra Kollontai — the self-proclaimed Female Antichrist — illegally seized historic churches and monasteries, and used soldiers to suppress the resulting demonstration. Hundreds were killed in those actions alone.

Consequently, the cathedral’s reconstruction was more than a symbolic restoration:

In the process of dechristianization, the crowning act came in 1931 with the obliteration of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. For the Bolsheviks, it was the ultimate proof of the Death of God.

But, of course, Resurrection did come, so that a new cathedral would stand to mark a new century. The long nightmare was over.

Yet Russia’s new religious freedom is a very tender shoot, and the prospect of future turmoil has to agonize those believers who recall bygone horrors. These fears are all the more pressing when modern-day activists seem to reproduce exactly the blasphemous deeds of the past, and even in the precise places.

Venue matters, sometimes to the point of eclipsing the actual performance itself. From examining their lyrics, I don’t believe the band is fundamentally “anti-religious” (and Western liberals reveal their own biases when they attempt to pilot this discussion from legitimate complaints about a corrupt Russian justice system and overly-entangled church-state relations into a simpler narrative of religion vs. enlightenment). But the real offense—at least for outside observers with a spot of sympathy for both sides—is that these twentysomething punk rockers just couldn’t handle the symbolism they so eagerly seized upon. The connotations of that cathedral instantly granted them attention, as they knew it would. But even if they had been given more than the forty seconds it took for security to whisk them away, almost anything they could have done or sung there would have looked like chaff in comparison to the historical struggles that place and its congregants have witnessed. As a result, their sacrilege came garnished with juvenilia.

As Jenkins says, imagine if a similar situation taken place at a Central European synagogue. Or imagine, say, a band performing a vulgar anti-war song at the site of the World Trade Center. Regardless of the validity of the cause or the artistic complexity of the act itself, such actions would rightly engender calls for justice.

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