For the entire week, the little boy had been telling his classmates that on one evening, he was going to the taken by his family to the circus. Come the day, he was almost beside himself with expectation of the happiness he would feel. As the family left the house neighbours noticed that they were unusually well-dressed for the evening’s treat. It was as if they going to the theatre and not headed for the more informal atmosphere which circus-goers usually enjoyed.
Next day his friends gathered around him. “How was the circus?” they asked, expecting to be thrilled by the descriptions soon to come.
“I didn’t go to the circus,” mumbled the little boy in embarrassment. “I was baptised instead.”
The above account is a true story told to me by one of the then classmates of the little boy. It was the 1970s and the Soviet Union did not encourage religion. Orthodox priests were few and they usually practised in secret. The baptism would have taken place in some Leningrad apartment, as would Sunday services. In those days it took true faith and bravery to keep alive the traditions, after the murder of so many church members in the decades before. The buildings of the Orthodox Church had been either demolished or turned into warehouses and museums. In short, the Church was part of the underground.
Things are different now. After the fall of Communism, the Orthodox Church started to rebuild. This I saw with my own eyes in the 1990s. The people coming to priests literally knew nothing of Christian morality. To my ears the questions asked were often child-like but those asking them were in their forties and fifties. It was all rather disorientating.
The Church steadily grew. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was rebuilt in Moscow after the original had been dynamited on Stalin’s orders. It was at this rebuilt cathedral, now the principle church of the Russian Orthodox community, that the female punk band Pussy Riot performed an illegal concert (as reported in the Guardian) two weeks before the Russian Presidential elections which saw Putin returned to the presidency. A “Punk Prayer” was performed whose lyrics included the repeated chant of “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, drive Putin out!” Soon afterwards the girls were arrested and the Patriarch of the Church, Pope Kirill called for maximum sentence of seven years to be brought against the offenders.
What disturbed my Russian friends more was the reaction of most people. It was reported in a poll that over seventy percent of Russians backed Patriarch Kirill’s call for harsh treatment. Although now the BBC says the Church is willing to be more merciful towards two of the women who are mothers, initially the calls were made for the children to be taken into state care.
It is reported that Patriarch Kirill is bitter about the calls for clemency made by some; believe me when I report that is as nothing to the sense of bitterness and betrayal felt now by those who risked persecution as they kept the Orthodox Church alive during the dark days of Soviet rule. As one such person said to me “These bastards who are calling for the girls to go to jail, where were they before?”
Members of the group Pussy Riot go on trial on April 24th and are remanded in custody until then