The women entered Russia's biggest cathedral, a shrine to both the country's dominant religion and its brand of politics, and put on colorful balaclavas. They stood in front of the gold altar doors and began jumping and dancing. They sang and lip-synced words to a song, Punk Prayer, which they recorded with a video camera. • They were ushered out by security within 40 seconds. They later used the short footage for a music video for the song. • What Pussy Riot did here Feb. 21 is not in dispute. What followed, however — the arrest of three members, the words of condemnation from the church and the government, the jailing of two members — has become the center of a tense worldwide debate about Russia's future and the state of its two-decade-old democracy. • Madonna, Paul McCartney and Sting urged the Russian government to release the imprisoned Pussy Riot members. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill called the performance blasphemous. President Vladimir Putin said Pussy Riot undermined Russia's moral foundations. A Russian deputy prime minister called Madonna a whore.
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This story — which connects a little-known "band," the Russian government and Russia's church — is of particular interest to me.
I grew up in the Russian Orthodox Church and remember well the two-hour-plus services, the Slavonic church language and the weird food that made my clothes smell. I can explain why the Orthodox cross has three crossbars instead of one (to better represent the crucifixion) and why Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, not Dec. 25 (they use a different, older calendar).
In college, I learned Russian history and politics, studied abroad in the former Eastern bloc Czech Republic, and for a time, dreamed of a State Department posting to Moscow. Now I'm in Russia's capital as part of a monthlong journalism exchange organized by the U.S. State Department, the International Center for Journalists and the Moscow Union of Journalists.
On a recent icy Sunday morning, I persuaded three of my colleagues to join me for services at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the site of the Pussy Riot performance.
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The church looks like it has been part of Moscow for ages. In fact, it's less than 12 years old. The original church, built over 44 years to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon in 1812, was demolished by Josef Stalin in 1931 during a campaign to root out religion in Russia. Stalin wanted to replace the church with a 1,400-foot-tall Palace of the Soviets, but construction stopped during World War II, and eventually, the site was converted into a massive open-air pool.
On this day, a few police officers stand around the rebuilt grounds as Russian grandmothers (babushki) shuffle toward the church wearing old furs and thick gloves. Their bags are inspected by security and they pass through a metal detector.
The smell of incense and flickering candles greets the devoted. Christ the Saviour is the seat of Patriarch Kirill, the equivalent for Catholics to the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. Thousands come to see Christ the Saviour daily, to pray and to give offerings.
Pussy Riot's pilgrimage had another purpose.
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By any objective account, the band's actual performance that day was a failure. One member was tossed out of the church with her guitar before the group could even begin. The other four continued, but only for a short while.
Pussy Riot, which has at least 10 members, is more political performance art than musical group. They have not produced a commercially recorded album and have made a total of six songs and five videos. The music is bad, but that's not really the point.
Pussy Riot spliced together the moments of footage at Christ the Saviour with other video and images to complete the video for Punk Prayer. (A Russian court this month ordered that websites must remove clips of the video, which has been viewed 2.5 million times).
The song ridicules both Putin and the church, arguing that both are corrupt in service of each other. Kirill, for instance, has called Putin's leadership a "miracle of God."
Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Be a feminist, we pray thee,
Be a feminist, we pray thee.
Bless our festering bastard-boss.
At another point, the song uses Kirill's given name, Gundyaev.
Patriarch Gundy believes in Putin.
Better believe in God, you vermin!
Fight for rights, forget the rite —
Join our protest, Holy Virgin.
Three of the five members — those who could be identified — were arrested and convicted of performing an act of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in prison. The conviction of one member, the one with the guitar, was tossed out because she did not perform in the church.
Pussy Riot's jailing became a cause celebre for musical performers, activists and professional protesters, who equated the case to political persecution. Groups organized protests in New York City and outside the Russian embassy in London.
The response was different in Russia. A poll conducted by the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation — which is reported to have links to the Kremlin — found that 53 percent of Russians said the punishment was fair, while 27 percent said it was not.
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Christ the Saviour can hold 10,000 people, though on the Sunday of my visit a few thousand people seemed to pack most of the church. Without pews, people jostled for a place near the center of the sanctuary, where rows of priests, bishops and deacons had set up something of a runway. The choir's songs bounced off the icons from high above.
The crowd craned their necks for an opportunity to see Kirill, who was leading the consecration of a bishop, Feodor, from the Russian state of Chuvashia. "Axios!" Kirill cried three times, followed by the same refrain from the choir. Part of tradition, the word is Greek and means worthy.
The crowd bowed when Kirill waved a censer in the air, releasing incense toward the church's gold domes.
The revival of the Russian Orthodox Church has been one of the central stories of post-Soviet Russia. When Putin gave a public address here in Moscow — the equivalent of our State of the Union — Patriarch Kirill sat front row, center. In his speech, Putin said Russia "has a dire lack of spiritual ties" and that moral values in the country are lacking.
The church, which at one time had as few as 500 active churches during Stalin's time, has more than 27,000 parishes in Russia now. Some 70 percent of Russians consider themselves Russian Orthodox, according to public opinion polls, though many do not regularly attend services.
In recent years the church has opened religious schools and installed chaplains in the Russian military, firsts for the country. It has created 30 new dioceses and rebuilt or renovated churches across Russia and Ukraine.
On this Sunday, the VIP box to the right of the altar included several prominent politicians, including Chuvashia's president, Mikhail Ignatyev. Official church photographers took photos of Ignatyev and his delegation, who held a vantage point over the other parishioners.
I watched the liturgy for more than two hours, all standing, through a series of processions, chants and songs. At one point, my colleague fell asleep on a bench near the church. When we left, the service may have been about two-thirds over.
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In the bars, at the dinner tables or at the newspaper office where I'm working, most Russians laugh when I bring up the church and Pussy Riot — almost the way I laugh when they ask if I only eat at McDonald's.
Yes, it was a big deal, they say. But not that big of a deal. And not so much anymore.
In some ways the conversations act as confirmation of the Russian opinion poll. At a dinner table in St. Petersburg, a young Russian businessman tells me something that I've heard several times in my weeks here: Pussy Riot's performance was a well-orchestrated international publicity stunt.
The group, my friend Andrei says, walked into Christ the Saviour knowing what they were about to do and the stir it would cause. The plan, he and others say, was to create an international incident, to find a way for Americans and outsiders to ridicule Russia.
I spoke with Archpriest Georgy Roschin — deputy head of the Russian Orthodox Church Synodal Department for Church and Society Relations and the newly appointed representative of the World Russian People's Council to the United Nations — about the Russian Orthodox Church and Pussy Riot.
He said the church has no more influence or power over government than the churches of the United States. The church wants to be involved, and to have a say, but ultimately the decisions are left to the secular government.
"We are interacting in the spheres where we can see our efforts (those of government and the church) put together," Roschin said.
On Pussy Riot, Roschin said the performance broke the law. "They got what they got," Roschin said. "It's an illegal thing. When you break this law, you get prosecuted, according to the law. We see the same thing happening in Germany and in the United States.
"Some people are trying to cover up their hooligan behavior by trying to bring them to the level of politically persecuted for political reason," Roschin said. "It is not true."
In Tambov, a town about the size of Tampa 300 miles southeast of Moscow, a Russian Orthodox deacon arrived at a different conclusion. Sergei Baranov publicly asked to be defrocked over the Pussy Riot conviction, saying he had lost faith in the Orthodox church.
"No one approves (of) what the girls did," Baranov wrote in a post on Facebook. "But many believe that the punishment was excessive. In my opinion, the church should have forgiven the girls during the days of forgiveness. Murderers and pedophiles get minimal prison terms, while a 40-second-long buffoonery fetched two years in a standard-security colony."
The church responded by saying Baranov was a troubled member of the clergy, who had been warned for singing vulgar songs, preaching from the altar drunk and showing an "irreverent attitude to the priestly garments."
His wish to leave the clergy was granted.
Times staff researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report, which included information from Interfax. The translation of "Punk Prayer" comes from the Guardian. Contact Aaron Sharockman at firstname.lastname@example.org.