What Does the ‘Traditional Family’ Have To Do with Pussy Riot?

It feels as if coverage of Pussy Riot’s sham trial, which ended on Friday with a guilty verdict and a two-year prison camp sentence, has almost reached saturation. The internet is fairly heaving with articles and blogs dissecting the trial, Putin’s leadership, the absence of freedom of speech, the corrupt Russian judiciary, and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Three members of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk band, were arrested in March for an extremely brief performance in Moscow’s main cathedral that featured an anti-Putin song. Their conviction on charges of “hooliganism driven by religious hatred” concluded a widely-publicized trial marked by high drama; each day the young women were handcuffed and forced to sit in a glass cage while prosecuting attorneys condemned the women for a point of view, as opposed to an actual crime: “feminism is a mortal sin.” 

Sin isn’t generally included in the legal lexicon but this trial, as many have noted, was all about the Church and had very little to do with civil rights and equality before the law. Pussy Riot’s feminism and expressions of frustration at the political stasis in Russia (aided, in their view, by the Orthodox Church), was branded by the Church—and the supposed victims who were injured by the performance—as deviant acts that offended their feelings and violated their religious rights.

The Pussy Riot hearing in Russia was essentially a showdown between a government privileging traditional values against a movement demanding individual human rights. And while this highly theatrical trial drew the world’s eye, the Russian church and state have been pushing this same retrograde agenda in international law and policy with little fanfare or scrutiny.

Anti-Traditional, Revolutionary, and Anti-Christian

Much of the international coverage of the trial has focused on the shifting role of the Church, which has moved from ecclesia non grata during the Soviet era to its current role, under KGB-connected Patriarch Kirill I, as Putin’s unofficial bulldog, defending the faith and the state from dangerous dissent. 

What is less well known is the Church’s efforts (along with the state’s) to mute dissenters outside of Russia and impose its version of religious values and rights in secular settings.

Last year at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Russian government proposed developing a resolution that would allow “traditional values” to trump human rights. This is a controversial topic to bring up in a UN human rights setting—especially when one considers that issues like female genital mutilation, marital rape, so-called “honor” killings and forced and early child marriage have all been justified on the basis of traditional values. The ensuing Council debate was contentious.

Traditional values are very narrowly writ and include support for the “traditional family,” prioritizing family rights over individual rights, and disavowing “behaviors” considered by proponents to be morally reprehensible. These ideas are not confined to Russia. Indeed, Russia is one of many countries supported by international conservative and religious groups that are increasingly asserting that the fundamental unit of society is not the individual but the family, with help from the church.

These traditional values, as proposed in the initial draft for the Human Rights Council by Prof. Vladimir Kartashkin of the Russian Federation, must supersede international human rights law.

If there were any ambiguity about Russia’s intention, it was clarified by Natalia Narochnitskaya, a former Russian diplomat to the UN in New York, during a 2011 UN seminar dedicated to the traditional values resolution. According to coverage by the International Service for Human Rights, Narochnitskaya argued that “human rights are generally manipulated for political ends and the worst violators of human rights have been ‘anti-traditional, revolutionary, and anti-Christian.’”

This matches up squarely with the accusations levied against Pussy Riot.

The closing statements of Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were insightful:

We respect religion in general and the Orthodox faith in particular. This is why we are especially infuriated when Christian philosophy, which is full of light, is used in such a dirty fashion. It makes us sick to see such beautiful ideas forced to their knees.

This distortion of religion for political gains is, of course, familiar to American readers. Protection from perceived religious persecution is the driving force behind many legal objections levied against Obama administration projects; most famously during the health care reform debate, which was framed as attacks against traditional values in violation of First Amendment rights.

A Strategic Pro-Family Alliance

Last year, as the UN debated the traditional values resolution, and litigation against the health care reform bill was in full swing, Patriarch Kirill’s proxy, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Relations, visited Washington DC. The trip was remarkable not only as the Russian Orthodox Church’s first meeting with conservative evangelicals, but for its explicit goal to forge an alliance of Christians in defense of traditional values.

While Hilarion showed a certain amount of open-mindedness in reaching out to non-Orthodox Christians, including Janice Crouse of Concerned Women of America and Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, it was limited: “dialogue between a believer and a person void of principles is impossible. Between the two rests a misunderstanding that is neither religious nor ideological, but psychological and almost biological.”

The idea that someone with different principles suffers from psychological afflictions was a frequent theme during the Pussy Riot trial. As Masha Lipton of The New Yorker noted, during the trial all three Pussy Riot members were found to be suffering from so-called psychological disorders, marked by phrases like: “a proactive approach to life,” “a drive for self-fulfillment,” “stubbornly defending their opinion,” “inflated self-esteem,” “inclination to opposition behavior,” and “propensity for protest reactions.”

A few months after the DC trip, both Hilarion and Kirill endorsed a regional meeting in Moscow hosted by the US-organized World Congress of Families, an international conservative network dedicated to defending traditional values and the “natural family.” In his comments, Hilarion echoed the goals from the DC trip, advocating for “a strategic alliance of Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and traditional Protestants, of all those who defend the true Christian values.”

The online debate as to whether the Pussy Riot trial was a triumph or a disaster for the Russian state will likely continue for some time. In the UN however, the influence of a traditional values-promoting Russia has met its limits.

The week before the Pussy Riot members were convicted of blasphemy by the Russian judiciary the Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council eviscerated Russia’s traditional values resolution. Not only did it not recognize universal traditional rights, it went further “Negative impacts of traditional values arise not only in non-Western countries. The Special Rapporteur on violence against women warned against Orientalising’ cultures and traditions, and noted that traditional and cultural values in Western countries propagate harmful practices.” But then again, Pussy Riot always knew that.

kaneg@ipas.org'

Gillian Kane is a freelance writer living in New York City.