Twenty-five years before he broke with the Moscow Patriarchy, Sergei Baranov saw a strange man in black robes drive up in a beat up old truck and enter the only church in town. To the thirteen-year-old boy, this was an odd sight. Curiosity got the best of him within a few years he fell in love with the Church. “I’d skip school on high holidays and come to the church. I become more and more involved and eventually entered seminary,” he told me in the kitchen of the apartment he shares with his mother. “It inspired love in me and, eventually, without the church I didn’t recognize myself.”
Today Tambov is known as “the city of churches” in tourist brochures. Glistening bell towers and colorful onion domes dot the skyline. The same city that just one generation ago had a single house of worship now has a fully landscaped monastery complex along its central boulevard. Baranov remembers watching the priests restore the sole church with their own hands.
His entire ecclesiastic career unfolded during these changes. While he clashed with Church administrators over the years, he kept his criticism out of the public eye. But after members of the band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison for their self-described “punk prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February 2012, Baranov broke with the church and has become the rare voice from within, falling out with the institution he has served his entire adult life.
“It has changed very much for the worse, especially since Patriarch Kirill has come to power,” he said, referring to the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church who took over for his predecessor Patriarch Alexy II in February, 2009. “Maybe Alexy had the cleverness to keep some distance from politics, but Keril’s turned the church into a commercial enterprise. He’s become a politician,” said Baranov, his voice brittle with emotion.
For Baranov, the Pussy Riot case was a breaking point. “Even with the Pussy Riot arrests, even with the trial, even after the verdict, I had no plans to leave,” he said, “But after the Patriarch failed to pardon them on Forgiveness Sunday, a traditional celebration of mercy, I had to resign. To remain in the church is to condone this action.”
In recent years, the Patriarch often appears in public with military and government officials. Critics argue this is a cynical relationship, with the Church conferring legitimacy in exchange for financial support from the regime. Defenders argue there had traditionally been a close relationship between Church and State in Russia before the atheist Communists took power.
Kirill’s critics often point out his cozy relationship with Russia’s secular leadership. For example, he compared Putin’s rule as a “miracle of God” during Putin’s successful 2012 presidential campaign.
In the months since his announcement, Baranov says has paid a price: “My email is hacked, I receive constant death threats and who knows what will happen,” he said between cigarettes, a habit he had dropped for fifteen years and picked up again the day after resigning his position.
What makes Baranov unique is that he is not a part of the middle-class uprisings in Moscow. He says no on one in the political opposition has contacted him since his resignation. “They are purely political,” he explained, “but I am only 20% political in my thinking.”
The regions are far more socially conservative than the urban centers in Russia and it is no surprise that the actions of a feminist, anti-homophobia punk band wouldn’t resonate in a conservative country. Today, Russians embrace stability and there is little sympathy for the avant-garde. According to the Levada Center’s polling, just 14 percent of Russians said the sentence was excessive while 43 percent thought the sentence was too lenient.
To most people, the band’s actions were hooliganism and disrespectful toward the faith, but Baranov had a different reaction. “When I first watched the video a few days after the action, I was shocked, I was amazed. What is this?! I said. My first instinct was to Google the text. And when I read it, I realized this was a political action.”
The action was five women donning colorful face masks, jumping and screeching out a punk rock anthem that lasted less than a minute before they were detained. The performance itself was certainly shocking on an alter usually reserved for the solemn chants and rituals of the Orthodox Church. But the lyrics were what caught Baranov’s ear:
“Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Be a feminist, we pray thee, Be a feminist, we pray thee. Bless our festering bastard-boss. Let black cars parade the Cross. The Missionary's in class for cash. Meet him there, and pay his stash. Patriarch Gundy believes in Putin. Better believe in God, you vermin! Fight for rights, forget the rite – Join our protest, Holy Virgin.”
It was called a “punk prayer” and while the imagery was violent and raw, it was not anti Christian. Baranov compared the reaction to Pussy Riot’s stunt to the vandalism of Yury Piotrovsky, a 62-year-old emigrant living in Munich, who poured ink on icons in the same cathedral a few days after the verdict. “This to me that was a wholly different act,” said Baranov, defending the lyrics of the band’s song as a redemptive call, not a blasphemous one. “Seeing [Piotrovsky’s] damage hurts the heart. But no one cared about the ink, while Pussy Riot became martyrs.”
A groundskeeper in Tambov who looked after a recently restored Church at the cemetery took a more theological tact. “He is a humanist, which is fine,” he said of Baranov, “But by definition that puts the interest of mankind first – and that doesn’t fit well with our church.”
The translation of "Punk Prayer" comes from The Guardian.