Almost a hundred years ago, the Russian revolution saw a transformation in the status of women. Yet in the country of Kollontai, who foretold a land free of both marriage and prostitution, where sexual relations were as simple as sipping a glass of water and women could not be bought, and of Armand, who oversaw the introduction of mass canteens, laundrettes, factory creches, and nursery schools to eradicate gender differences in domestic labour, the position of women has suffered a dramatic contraction.
As Russian society descended into chaos in the early 90s with soviet era industries sold off for pennies, the influx of Western currency saw young women in demand for the sexual services that they could provide. In the 90s “The Hungry Duck”, one of Moscow’s most notorious nightclubs thrived on young Russian women hoping to pick up a rich Westerners or newly minted member of Russia’s emerging kleptocracy. The soviet era dining halls and communal childcare facilities evaporated while municipal heating systems faltered and women were thrown back on their own resources to get by, finding that the sale of sexual services could give them cash in a country no longer paying wages.
Russian women became a profitable export. The Russian “mail order bride” became a phenomenon in a world opened up by the fall of the iron curtain, cheap airdeals and internet communication, as women sought wealthy matches abroad. Much of this covered up a developing trade in sex trafficking where women were either lured by promises of greater prostitution earnings in the West, or tricked when seeking legitimate employment. Russian pornography is some of the most violent available; over 50% of child porn available online originates in Russia, including snuff films where children are raped and tortured until death.
In the midst of this newly emergent post-soviet morality, the Orthodox Church – suppressed under the soviet system – became revived as a citadel of power, its influence continually growing. Only Orthodox clergy can provide spiritual guidance to the military, religious instruction in the Orthodox faith has been introduced into schools and last year it approved clergy to enter into politics. The Orthodox church is also called upon to provide the moral guidance necessary to push through a government agenda, including an increase in the birthrate through support for a law restricting abortion; state bans on Gay Pride marches and homosexual propaganda are applauded by the clergy, while Orthodox fundamentalists attacks on gay pride marches result in the arrests of march participants. The merger of church and state exemplified in the Patriarch Kirill, an ex-KGB agent, with an estimated personal wealth in excess of $4bn, endorsing Putin for the presidency complete with prayers for success in government.
On Wednesday, Madonna performed in Moscow as part of her MDNA tour. Following on from “Human Desire” a defiant track demanding the right to free expression, she donned a balaclava to perform “Like a Virgin” before revealing “Pussy Riot” written on marker pen on her back. At the St Petersburg gig, she expressed support for the city’s embattled LGBT population, despite a priest encouraging the faithful to call in bomb threats to the venue. As the trial of the three young women facing up to seven years in gaol for the Russian equivalent of Breach of the Peace reached its conclusion the following day, the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia tweeted “With age, every former whore tries to lecture everyone on morality” adding “Either take off your cross or put on your knickers”
So let us take off our crosses
And leave them in a tin
Let our weakness become virtue
Instead of sin
Culture is becoming a major battleground in the fight against state and church totalitarianism. When Orthodox fundamentalists vandalized an art exhibition at the Moscow Andrei Sakharov Center causing $15K damage, the lawsuit against the vandals turned into a prosecution of the exhibition’s promoters fining them $3K The Russian Orthodox church re-printed the Tsarist version of Pushkin’s “The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda”, in which the greedy priest does not feature claiming that this version better reflected Pushkin’s intentions – his uncensored work only published posthumously.
If culture has become the terrain of war, the guerrillas fighting the integration of church and state have turned to the artistic equivalent of AK47s, with Voina facing prosecution for public group sex designed to mock Dmitry Medvedev‘s calls for an increase in the birth rate, the release of thousands of cockroaches at the Sakharov trial, a depiction of a giant phallus viewable from the windows of the Federal Security Service, and their demonstration of how to acquire food without resorting to prostitution (NSFW …really NSFW!). Amongst this, Pussy Riot’s calls for the Virgin Mary to become a feminist, and suggestions of Putin’s bladder weakness in the face of the protest movements gripping Russia seem tame by comparison. And yet they face being gaoled for up to seven years.
But perhaps it is the former whores who are best placed to lecture others on morality, for they have after all seen its absence.
The church calls for women to dress modestly as its contribution to ending the epidemic of rape, rather than challenging the rape culture which holds Assange and Ched Evans as persecuted victims, while teen victims of gang-rape by relatives of local officials are dismissed as consensual encounters – she was, presumably, just another slut. Abortion is restricted as the church calls them “immoral, yet their “morality” leads to abortion being the cause of death for one in four pregnant women.
Both Voina and Pussy Riot challenge the Russian Orthodoxy from within, and in rejecting their “morality” they create a new one, based on wo/man based values rather than those of the local sky-pixie and its Patriarch.