Last weekend a group of young activists turned out on a Moscow street to protest against western decadence. They were a hard-faced bunch, standing defiantly in military poses and wearing uniforms bearing the logo ‘Officers of Russia: Executive Youth Wing’ as they blocked access to an exhibition by American photographer Jock Sturges that featured images of nude adolescents.
‘We are here to protect people from paedo-philic influences,’ one Officer of Russia told journalists — while another protester sprayed the offending photographs with urine. At the same time, Russia’s state–controlled airwaves filled with senators, priests and government officials denouncing the wickedness of the exhibition (which shut down immediately after the protests) and calling for the organisers to be prosecuted. The outcry came just days after the Russian government banned two popular porno-graphy sites, youporn and xhamster, also on the grounds of protecting public morality.
Putin’s Russia is fast becoming a very puritan place. Ever since returning to the presidency in 2012, Putin has pursued an increasingly religious-conservative ideology both at home and abroad, defining Russia as a moral fortress against sexual licence and decadence, porn and gay rights.
Putin’s puritanism has grown hand-in-hand with the personal influence of two key conservative ideologues: his personal confessor Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov and the mystical geopolitical thinker Alexander Dugin. Bishop Tikhon is one of Russia’s highest-profile critics of the decadence of the modern western world — and his Every-day Saints and the Other Stories was the best–selling Russian book of 2012, rivalled for sales only by Fifty Shades of Grey. Dugin is the chief ideologue of Eurasianism, an ideology which holds that Russia has a special historical destiny to save the world from the corrupt moral values of western capitalism.
The influence of the Russian Orthodox church on public life is growing fast, thanks to Kremlin patronage. The church’s preferred instrument of control is a draconian law criminalising ‘offending the feeling of religious believers’ that was passed in the wake of a protest by the feminist punk group Pussy Riot in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in 2012. Prosecutions under the law have kicked into high gear this year. In March in Stavropol, south Russia, criminal charges were brought against Viktor Krasnov after he wrote ‘God does not exist’ on the VKontakte social network, Russia’s version of Facebook. Krasnov was ordered to spend over a month undergoing examinations in a psychiatric ward before he was finally deemed sane enough to stand trial, and the case continues.
A month ago, 20-year-old blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky was arrested and sentenced to two months in jail after he posted an online video of himself playing Pokémon Go in a church. He could eventually spend five years behind bars if his action is classed as a ‘hate crime motivated by religion’. ‘I decided to catch some Pokémon in church because why not? I believe it’s both safe and not against the law,’ said Sokolovsky in his online video as he walked into Ekaterinburg’s Church of All Saints. ‘Who could be offended if you walk in a church with a smartphone in your hand?’
Apparently, the answer is: most Putin-era Russians.
Polls show that most ordinary Russians hold deeply illiberal views on social issues (for example, 21 per cent want to see homosexuals ‘liquidated’, and another 37 per cent advocate ‘separating them from society’ — while only 11 per cent believe homosexuality to be a ‘sexual orientation from birth, which merits the same rights as heterosexual orientation’). And historical polling data from the recently shuttered Levada research centre shows that Russian attitudes on gays, blacks, Jews, foreigners, capital punishment and the like have remained pretty unenlightened since the fall of the Soviet Union.
But what is new is that those prejudices — especially the hatred of westerners and intolerance of nonconformity — are now being officially reinforced not just by state-controlled media but also by a growing cacophony of religious and ultranationalist media.
Russia’s fastest-growing TV station, for instance, is Tsargrad TV, a religious–patriotic channel founded by a Kremlin–connected investment banker called Konstantin Malofeyev. Tsargrad regularly features Bishop Tikhon and Alexander Dugin commenting on world affairs.
‘In this epoch of cyborgs, hybrids, mutants, chimeras and virtual reality, mankind will be saved only by tradition,’ Dugin said in his latest lecture on Tsargrad. According to him ‘all modernism — the idea of progress, development, the so-called scientific view of the world, democracy and liberalism [is] a Satanic idea that spells a death sentence for humanity… the only defence is asserting God, the church, the empire, the congregation of the faithful, the state, and the people’s traditions.’
Dugin, once a marginal figure, has come closer to the political mainstream as Russia has veered deeper into isolation and nationalism in the wake of the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. The Tsargrad team played an important role in encouraging and fomenting the pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine. Dugin and Malofeyev have both been named in the US sanctions list for their role in the conflict — a rebellion that was spearheaded by two of Malofeyev’s former employees, Igor Strelkov and Alexander Borodai, who became defence minister and prime minster respectively of the break-away (and Russian-backed) Donetsk People’s Republic.
As economic sanctions, slumping oil prices and double-digit inflation stall Russia’s economy and threaten to bite into the Kremlin’s popularity, the regime is turning more to its fans on the religious-nationalist right for support — and adopting Orthodoxy as a kind of state ideology.
‘This is a state that cynically uses Orthodox Christianity as a surrogate ideology to prop up its authority,’ argues Brian Whitmore, author of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s influential blog The Power Vertical. ‘It’s a state where fealty to the Orthodox church, or at least publicly proclaiming fealty, becomes a surrogate for patriotism… and it’s a state where challenging the authority of the church is akin to an act of treason.’
The state-sponsored culture of prudery extends to the Kremlin’s latest recruits. Russia’s newly appointed children’s rights commissioner Anna Kuznetsova is the wife of a priest (Orthodox priests have to be married, otherwise they must become monks) and she appears to believe in a theory called telegony, which holds that every sexual partner a woman has ever had can physically and emotionally influence a child she gives birth to.
‘If a woman has several partners, there is a significant chance of a baby being born weakened due to the mixing of information,’ Kuznetsova told the Penza Medical Portal in 2009. ‘This fact has an especially strong influence on the morals of a future child.’ (She now says she has no recollection of making the remarks.) Kuznetsova has also been accused of being a member of a VKontakte group devoted to denouncing Aids as ‘the greatest fraud of the 20th century’.
In some ways it is no surprise that Russia has turned pious and moral after so many years of wickedness. In the mid-1990s — an epoch now much reviled by Russia’s new puritans — Moscow was a town where a strip club was considered a normal place to eat lunch, where bars served unlimited free drinks to young women from seven till nine before opening the doors to a predatory horde of men, where the main street of the city was lined with prostitutes and the television filled with tawdry soft porn. Russia was almost defined by an absolute, bottomless nihilism. After communism’s collapse, suddenly there were no rules, no holds barred, and everything went for those bold and ruthless enough to go out and grab as much as they could.
Now the wheel has turned full circle. In the wake of last weekend’s Sturges protest, liberal Russians posted images of another group of morally indignant officers mounting a boycott — members of the Union of German Officers blocking the door of the Jewish-owned Woolworth’s in Berlin in 1930.
Rise-of-fascism analogies are usually facile and often inappropriate. But it is true that Putin’s regime is making closer common cause with Russia’s religious, ultranationalist right. And it’s also true that the space for debate and dissent in Russia’s media is becoming vanishingly small. In that environment, with state television whipping up ever crazier conspiracy theories and loading ever more blame on external enemies, from America and the EU to the IMF and the World Anti-Doping Agency, the more dangerous the new state-sponsored puritanism becomes. Puritanism is, at base, just another word for hatred of dissent and difference. And it’s only a matter of time before difference becomes synonymous with treason.