THE BLOG
11/25/2013 03:48 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Pussy Riot and Sacred Spaces

When the sassy members of Pussy Riot entered Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, it was not to pray or to sit in silent meditation but to stage a sanctuary protest before the iconostasis and Royal Doors, also known as the Beautiful Gate that leads to the altar area.

In various YouTube videos of the protest one can see the women bowing and crossing themselves in the manner of ardent believers. The songs the women sing have radically different lyrics than the sung prayers that usually come from this space, and yet one clearly gets the impression that the feminist band members grew up in the Orthodox faith. In fact, there's nothing satirical in the way the women cross themselves; they cross themselves in the fervent style of old women in head scarves. The "prayer" they say also tells a different story: it was a plea to the Lord to oust Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

While Pussy Riot did not destroy or endanger church property -- there was no splattered paint, no drawn graffiti, no bombs, hand grenade explosions or tarnished icons -- the crude punk protest song delivered in the style of a prayer hit a chord with many Russians. The scene brought to mind the far more radical actions of ACT UP in December of 1989 when several dozen members of the group went into New York's Saint Patrick's cathedral and disrupted Mass with shouts of "We will not be silent" to protest the New York Archdiocese's views on AIDS and abortion. One protestor even desecrated the Eucharist as others scattered condoms about the church.

Had Pussy Riot "acted up" in a New York City or Philadelphia cathedral, it is highly likely the group would not have been arrested. Furthermore, their actions would probably not have even made the local news. To American eyes and ears, the Kremlin's reaction to the crude protest was extreme, almost as if the punk band had been involved in a plot to kill Vladimir Putin.

"It was just a song, after all," many said.

When PR members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were given prison sentences of two years for "hooliganism with religious hatred," there was considerable international protest. Many saw the punishment as outstripping the crime.

In a surprise protest, a 75 year old Orthodox priest, the Rev. Pavel Adelglim, stated publicly that the severe sentence underscored the Russian Orthodox Church's close ties with the Kremlin. Priest Adelglim wrote on his blog, "The women have unmasked the lie of the Russian Orthodox Church and its unnatural bond with the Russian Federation."

In October, 2013, it was reported that Tolokonnikova, who had been sentenced to the Gulag-style prison in Mordavia, was quietly removed to an undisclosed penal colony. The plan reportedly upset her husband, who claimed that the authorities were trying to stop the publicity surrounding his wife's prison hunger strike. Tolokonnikova herself had claimed that she had been abused by Mordovia prison guards since the first day of her imprisonment. As of mid- November this year, it was also reported that Tolokonnikova had been hospitalized for medical tests and had not yet reached her new prison destination. Both Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova are scheduled to be released in March.

The fortunate third Pussy Riot member, Katarina Samutsevich, was released earlier in a special arrangement with prosecutors.

Eager to understand the situation, I arranged to speak with Father Mark Shinn, archpriest and pastor of Saint Andrew's (Russian) Orthodox cathedral in Northern Liberties. As an Orthodox convert for little over a year and a half, it was important for me to make sense of the lengthy prison sentence for what appeared to be a rude but nevertheless benign protest. In the United States, people receive two year prison sentences for second degree manslaughter, major thefts, random felonies or domestic abuse, not for so called blasphemous acts. To the modern mind, something like a "blasphemous act" seems like one of those medieval terms taken seriously only in Islamic countries.

At some point before my visit to Father Shinn, it occurred to me what would have happened if Pussy Riot had preformed their crude act in Saint Peter's in Rome immediately after the election of Pope Francis. Given the unpredictable nature of the new pope, it is quite conceivable that, in the spirit of humility and reconciliation, he would have insisted that the band be pardoned, and then invited the women to tea or a round of vodka sharing in his Vatican office. While hundreds of Russian petitioners did send their plea to the Orthodox patriarch for a pardon, no olive branch was extended.

Arriving at Saint Andrew's, Father Shinn, who converted to Orthodoxy as a teenager, offered me a seat in the church hall. After a round of polite pleasantries, we quickly segued into Pussy Riot and the notion of what constitutes a scared space. To that end, he reminded me that in the American colonial era the first churches, namely the Congregational churches (or descendents of the Puritans), thought of the church building as having a dual purpose: they were both meeting places as well as places of prayer. The Congregational idea of a dual-purpose church building quickly filtered down into most Protestant denominations.

"Leafing through old Congregational handbooks and manuals," Father Shinn told me, "it is clear that these churches were constructed as meeting and prayer houses. This becomes clear when you watch reruns of Little House on the Prairie, where the church and school house are one and the same thing. In the 19th century and earlier, traveling magistrates held court in these combination prayer/meeting houses. There was absolutely no sense of these meeting houses as sacred space dedicated solely to the worship of God. That has been the reality for American Protestant churches for generations. The idea of a sacred space devoted solely to the worship of God did not exist."

Of course, one has only to consider how the average Hollywood film confuses the notion of what constitutes a sacred space. Very often, when Christian religious services are pictured in movies, there are glaring mismatches: a large bible on an altar while the presiding (Protestant) minister makes the sign of the cross or uses holy water. Or: a Protestant minister preaching to a congregation before a statue of the Virgin Mary. Sometimes Hollywood will even call a Protestant service a Mass, or have a decidedly southern Baptist congregation genuflect before entering a pew. These hybrid Hollywood movie religious services contain so many Catholic and Protestant cross elements it is clear that nobody knows what they're doing. Illustrating further, Father Shinn mentions a Robert Redford film, The Bear Field War, where the filmmakers had a community meeting take place in a Catholic church, but before the meeting begins a woman gets up and lights a candle as if it is the beginning of a religious service.

In both Orthodoxy and (most of) Catholicism, a church is considered a temple of God, not a place for the traveling magistrate, a puppet show, a rock band or groups of money changers. In ancient Judaism, the temple (or sacred space) had an inner court where sacrifices and cleansings were offered. There were also a series of curtains where only priests could go to offer prayers and incense, then the Holy of Holies, divided by yet another curtain (and corresponding to the average Orthodox church) where the Arks of the Covenant lay and where only the High Priest could pass.

Unfortunately, since the close of the Second Vatican Council, many modern Catholic churches reflect conventional Spartan Protestant church interiors. In some cases the interiors of these churches are devoid of sacred images and iconography so that their identification as "Catholic" seems remote at best. Many of these churches have become, at least by default, Congregational style meeting places.

The special history of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral must also be understood when gauging the anger of the average Russian at Pussy Riot's antics.

The idea to build the original cathedral came from Emperor Alexander I when he wanted to commemorate Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. Father Shinn explained: "Napoleon entered Russia with 485,000 men on Christmas Day, 1812, but when he left the country he left with 43,000 men. Less than 10 percent survived the invasion. During that time, the French desecrated Russia's churches. They used Russian church sanctuaries as stables; they had parties with prostitutes on altars."

To celebrate Napoleon's retreat, the first cathedral was built by donations from the people. The state offered no support. The composer Tchaikovsky even got into the act and planned to perform his 1812 Overture when the church was completed. Work on the first church was halted because problems with the design included an emphasis on neoclassicism and Freemasonic symbols. Originally constructed on Sparrow Hill, the highest point in Moscow, Alexander's successor, Nicholas I, especially objected to the Freemasonic symbols and employed a new architect, Konstantin Thon. After the new design, construction commenced. By the time the scaffolding was removed in 1860, and the church consecrated in 1883, it was known as the tallest Orthodox Church in the world, at 338 feet.

Although the church survived the beginnings of the Russian Revolution, on orders from Joseph Stalin on December 5, 1931, it was slated for demolition but first it would be robbed of all valuable artifacts--icons, vestments, chalices, and the 20 tons of gold on the domes that authorities deemed to be of "excellent quality." It took two dynamite blasts to demolish the church and at least a year to completely clear the site of debris. The plan was to replace the cathedral with a huge tower, Palace of the Soviets, which would be topped off with a statue of Lenin, but flooding problems from the nearby Moskva River and a lack of funds prevented the completion of the memorial. Nikita Khrushev would later open a public swimming pool on the site.

"When the Soviet Union fell," Father Shinn said, "it was agreed that Russia would rebuild the church. The old Soviet economy had collapsed, replaced by robber barons, yet with the tenacity of the Jewish mayor of Moscow, work on the new building went on 24 hours a day with shifts around the clock and the use of spotlights. The result was a better church, a symbol of the rebirth of the Church after 70 years of atheism and the Revolution. "

One can almost say that the cathedral was built with blood, sweat and tears, and that its reopening after the deadly years of Communism was nothing less than a miracle. Nobody expected to see Communism fall in the 20th century or even witness the rebirth of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

While Father Shinn can hardly be summed up as a heartless hard liner, during our conversation he wanted me to understand that almost everybody in Russia--he emphasized the word everybody-- was horrified at Pussy Riot's disrespectful act in such a symbolic place.

"Even to people who were not church goers," he said, pausing for emphasis, "even for these people the disrespect showed by Pussy Riot brought back horrible memories. Non-believers, or atheists, were also horrified," he adds. "They understood almost 'genetically' that this is something not acceptable. You do not desecrate holy places."

Russian non-believers and even atheists were horrified at the punk band's protest? Is this classified information? I wondered why this fact didn't make it to the copy room of The New York Times and the nation's wire services.

Shortly after Pussy Riot's cathedral stunt, a new law was instituted making it a criminal offense to offend the religious sensitivities of any Russian religion. "The penalties became more severe if the desecration takes place within as opposed to without," Father Shinn said, adding that the two cultures, American and Russian, just don't understand one another. "Americans do not understand the reverence for sacred places, while Russians cannot understand the American callousness towards houses of worship."

As to prove this point, not long after my conversation with Fr. Shinn, I researched a Sacred Space II seminar in Pasadena, California, where representatives from many Protestant denominations and liberal Jewish synagogues discussed the idea of sacred spaces. Among the many questions discussed during the conference were questions like: Do you want your scared space to feel like a home, or do you want it to be transcendent?

But Dr. William Dyrness, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller, Theological School, summed up his response at the conference, as follows: "Protestantism doesn't include a belief in sacred space, because all space is sacred."

So, there we have it. If all spaces are sacred, then Pussy Riot did nothing wrong, but, if some places are more sacred than others, then we might be said to have a real problem.