The Russian Orthodox Church is warning of an organized antireligious campaign under way against Christians in Russia, after vandals in two widely separated regions took chainsaws to four large wooden crosses over the weekend.
Church spokespeople maintain the damage was done by people who are either in sympathy or in league with the Pussy Riot collective, three of whose members were sentenced to two years in a penal colony earlier this month for profaning an Orthodox altar with an obscenity-laced "punk prayer" that called upon the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Vladimir Putin.
The four crosses were chopped down by unknown persons who left police no clues to their motives or identity. One was a large wooden crucifix erected to the memory of Soviet-era political prisoners in the far northern region of Archangelsk. Russian media reported three more wooden crosses were destroyed in Chelyabinsk region over the weekend, which is thousands of miles away in western Siberia.
A local priest in Archangelsk, Hegumen Feodosy, told the state-run Russia Today network that the destruction of the cross, just across the street from his church, was the latest in a series of arson and vandal attacks on religious symbols in his locality and around Russia.
"This comes in the context of all these incidents in recent months across the country, all this anti-church hysteria waged against our diocese, against the church authority, against everything sacred," he told RT.
But Pyotr Verzilov, a Pussy Riot activist and husband of one of the imprisoned women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, told journalists the group has no connection with the latest episodes of vandalism and doesn't approve of them. Two members of the group, which is a radical feminist "performance art" collective, reportedly fled Russia last week to escape police efforts to arrest them in connection with the Feb. 21 "punk prayer" in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
Two weeks ago, in Kiev, members of a Ukrainian feminist "performance art" collective, Femen, chainsawed a large wooden Orthodox cross as an explicit protest against the Pussy Riot verdict. The Femen women argued they were cutting down the symbol of "a corrupt church" whose actions prop up the "dictatorship" of Mr. Putin.
"What we're seeing here are copycat acts, people who take a signal from what Pussy Riot did, and it could be very dangerous," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.
"Having said that, however, it should be noted that the church leaders are not being entirely forthcoming here. They have a vested interest in portraying themselves as victims, especially since they failed so miserably in the Pussy Riot struggle," he says.
Church officials began seriously complaining of a wave of sacrilegious assaults early this year, citing the Pussy Riot affair and other acts of vandalism to suggest a wider conspiracy to undermine the church's prestige and authority in Russian society.
Pro-church commentators have been quick to argue that the weekend attacks on crosses, which are a fundamental symbol of Christianity, look like an unambiguous assault on religious believers and cannot be mistaken for a "political protest" as the women of Pussy Riot claimed they were carrying out.
"These actions clearly speak of the moral values of those who are attacking the church," Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a leading church spokesman, told the independent Interfax agency. "With these symbolic actions they are seeking to impose their will on the majority of the population," he added.
At an April rally in Moscow of about 50,000 people called to defend the church from its enemies, Patriarch Kirill warned that individual acts of blasphemy and sacrilege presented a profound threat to social order.
"We are under attack by persecutors," Kirill said at the time. "The danger is in the very fact that blasphemy, derision of the sacred is put forth as a lawful expression of human freedom which must be protected in a modern society."
Some critics argue the main problem is not the acts of vandalism and profanity – however reprehensible they may be – but that the church has overstepped the bounds of secular society and is seeking to regain its traditional role as ideological gatekeeper of the Russian state.
In recent years, the church has been criticized for backing criminal prosecutions of artists and gallery directors who display allegedly blasphemous art works, for attempting to prescribe how Russian women ought to dress in public, and for being excessive in its demands for the return of historic church lands and artifacts that were nationalized and handed over to Russian state museums in Soviet times.
Several scandals have rocked the church in recent months, including blog-fueled revelations about the lavish lifestyles and wealth of Patriarch Kirill and other top clergy. This month, Russian media reported a still largely unexplained story about a senior priest at a leading Moscow church who, allegedly drunk and driving an expensive sports car with foreign diplomatic plates, plowed into two other cars, causing massive damage and several injuries.
During the presidential election campaign last winter, Patriarch Kirill publicly described candidate Putin as "a miracle from God," which many critics – including the women of Pussy Riot – took as a violation of Russia's strictly secular constitution and a sign of a growing political nexus between church and state.
"This is not a simple or one-sided issue," says Mr. Mukhin. "Now the church is trying to persuade everyone that there is a great monster menacing the church and society. Yes, vandalism is a threat, but the behavior and public actions of the church are agitating society and are part of the problem."