Escaping Russia's “Vulgar, Primitive” Secularism

Vladimir Putin has given another speech [ru] in defense of Russian Orthodox values, this time calling on the Church to study the lessons of the twentieth century. (One imagines that Putin has in mind Bolshevik religious oppression, which he seems to blame for the Russian Civil War.) “We must avoid a vulgar, primitive understanding of secularism,” he told the Bishops’ Council, a massive gathering of Orthodox clergy. Putin's comments are hard to divorce from several legislative efforts in the last year, which include Internet censorship and anti-gay initiatives that shield children from supposedly immoral influences.

Some activists argue that the Kremlin's recent cultural conservatism is intended to bait the liberal opposition into taking unpopular stances on issues that often stoke religious sentiments in the country's regions. The harsh prosecution of the Pussy Riot members, some say, was a Kremlin gambit to mobilize liberal protesters in support of artists too radical for Russia's political mainstream.

Vladimir Putin meets the participants of the Bishop's Council. 1 February 2103, Russian Presidential Service 3.0.

Vladimir Putin meets the participants of the Bishop's Council. 1 February 2103, Russian Presidential Service, CC 3.0.

The draft law to ban “homosexual propaganda” is a case in point. In late January, blogger Oleg Kozyrev described [ru] the anti-gay law as an attempt to distract the “Bolotnaia” protester crowd from the real issues of election fraud, political prisoners, and so on. He wants activists to holster their rage and live to fight another day:

А поэтому я очень надеюсь, что мы по минимуму позволим себя втянуть в этот законодательный троллинг. По возможности надо не вестись на эти законы – все они будут отменены со временем по признакам маразма и бессмысленности.

And that's why I really hope that we keep our involvement to a minimum in this legislative trolling. To the extent possible, we don't need to buy into these laws. They'll all be cancelled in time, on the grounds of lunacy and inanity.

Writer Boris Akunin came to the opposite conclusion, calling [ru] on liberal oppositionists to stay true to their values, though he, too, acknowledged that the Kremlin's conservative legislative campaign is intended to reduce scrutiny on “electorally disadvantageous” topics like healthcare.

Putin's speech also recycled key fragments from remarks his chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, delivered to another audience of Orthodox figures in October 2012. Posting to the LiveJournal forum “ru_politics,” blogger Yuri Shtengel appears to be the first one to have noticed [ru] the similarities between Putin's and Ivanov's statements.

Several Russian newspapers reported Shtengel's finding, though many exaggerated both the size and scope of the controversy, claiming that a whole group of bloggers had discovered Putin's “plagiarism.” Orthodox activist and strong critic of the liberal opposition Boris Yakemenko took aim [ru] at news websites for this embellishment, adding that Putin's comments about secularism were merely “a statement of the obvious”—not a contentious “revelation.” Also annoyed by the hyperbole, Shtengel published an update to his LiveJournal denying any plagiarism accusations, and clarifying that his objections relate to the content of Putin's speech.

Ultra-popular blogger Artemy Lebedev weighed in on Russia's need to avoid “vulgar, primitive secularism,” writing [ru] with intentional vulgarity:

А я вот, блять, не собираюсь уходить от вульгарного, примитивного понимания светскости. Я на хую вертел всю религиозную хуетень, в гробу видал всех попов, и срать хотел на все чувства всех верующих.

Оставьте мне вульгарную, примитивную светскость и валите нахуй.

Now listen, s**t, I'm not gonna avoid any vulgar, primitive understanding of secularism. I'd f**kin’ like to throw the whole religious s**tfest and all priests into a grave, and I'd gladly s**t on all the [religious] feelings of all believers.

Leave me my vulgar, primitive secularism and f**k off.

Lebedev's response is a good demonstration of the challenge that faces Russian oppositionists generally and secularists specifically. On the one hand, Lebedev's antics are doomed to appeal only to a narrow audience. The same uncompromising sense of humor, however, is an important ingredient in the glue that keeps together Russia's “creative class,” which is widely credited with generating the country's political turmoil last winter. Committed religious conservatives—on and offline—are free to respond to Putin's “moral erosion” worries with earnest sympathy. For firebrand secularists, gay rights activists, and others, there seems to be an almost irresistible need for irreverence. Whether it's Lebedev's obscenities or Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's cathedral gyrations, the opposition's compulsion to offend has been both a blessing and a curse.

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