Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Diverging Strategies on Religious and Anti-Gay Bigotry in Russia and China

For readers seeking insight into the atavistic creepiness of the institutionalized anti-LGBT bigotry of the Russian state—which is eliciting calls to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics--I offer below a reposting of an article I wrote in 2011 and updated in 2012 on Vladimir Putin’s efforts to position himself as the champion of Russian Orthodox religious conservatives (thereby provoking the Pussy Riot provocation in a Moscow church).

Putin, therefore, can rely on his ability to summon up mobs of religious reactionaries as well as rabid nationalists to defend his regime against the West-backed opposition.

In the compare-and-contrast field, the Chinese Communist Party has been rather successful in playing the nationalist card against Japan and the United States.  However, in the religion arena, its woes are rather well documented, including the long-standing adversarial relationship between the Christian house church movement and the regime.

And gay-bashing is not on the official agenda.

In striking contrast to the Russian faux pas, the Chinese state media had rolled out a gay-supportive official initiative in 2007 prior to its Olympics to promote a “smiling China” vibe and blunt U.S. criticisms of the PRC’s human rights transgressions.  

As Lily Kuo reported at Quartz, the effort continues today:

Yesterday (Aug. 13) marked Chinese Valentine’s Day, also known as the Qixi Festival. Though it’s a traditional holiday that celebrates romance dating back to the Han dynasty, it’s now becoming a rallying point for China’s small but growing gay-rights movement.  Yesterday, a gay couple kissing in Beijing was greeted by cheers.  A video of a 90-year-old grandmother (paywall) in Fuzhou province explaining her support of her gay 28-year-old grandson has been circulating the internet. State media Xinhua declared in a headline, “Chinese Valentine’s, our gay day!” (Xinhua’s Chinese edition led with a more toned down headline: “More Chinese guys [sic] openly celebrate Qixi“)

A  pro-gay stance has helped the PRC in dealing with the overseas manifestation of one of its most pressing religious headaches, Falun Gong, the esoteric syncretic qigong “spiritual practice” (to its entry-level devotees) or, according to critic Rick Ross, a cult demanding on absolute loyalty to its charismatic founder, Li Hongzhi, by its upper-level leaders.

In 1999, Jiang Zemin ordered the suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual practice movement after it displayed its ability and willingness to organize in defense of its beliefs by mustering 10,000 followers in Tiananmen Square to object to the arrest of 45 practitioners in Tianjin publically protesting negative portrayals of FLG in the official media, thereby raising the possibility that the group could serve as a Solidarity-type vehicle for political protest with a religious gloss.

The US has played a discrete and limited role in keeping this obscurantist cult chugging along outside the PRC.  Li Hongzhi has resided in the United States safely and apolitically since 1996 and Interpol has ignored a red notice the Chinese government put out requesting his detention.  In 2006, under somewhat suspicious circumstances the lead investigator for FLG’s allegations of human vivisection abuses by the Chinese government received press credentials for Hu Jintao’s official visit to the U.S. by the Bush White House and screamed imprecations at Hu during his press conference on the South Lawn.  And the FLG-affiliated Global Internet Freedom Consortium received a controversial $1.5 million grant in 2010 (the most confrontational year in many confrontational years of relations between the Obama administration and the PRC) to support its development of its Great Firewall evasion technologies Ultrasurf and Freegate. 

While we are on the subject of anti-gay bigotry, Li Hongzhi, whose universe-penetrating wisdom allegedly gives him powers of invisibility and levitation and the ability to telekinetically install the "Wheel of Law" or "Dharma Wheel"--the "Falun" of "Falun Gong"-- into the abdomen of his followers, is no fan of teh gay, as the cautiously pro-FLG Wikipedia entry  tells us:

As part of its emphasis on ethical behavior, Falun Gong's teachings prescribe a strict personal morality for practitioners, which includes abstention from smoking, drugs, gambling, premarital or extramarital sex, and homosexuality.

This stance cost Li his unlikely nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, which was withdrawn by San Francisco legislators after his views were aired.

The PRC government and its allies have exploited the FLG’s anti-gay position to marginalize the group overseas.  In 2006, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of San Francisco, as part of its battle to exclude FLG waist-drum dancers from the annual Chinese New Year parade, took out a full-page ad in the SF Chronicle asking why the “Chinese community” was being asked to support a “homophobic cult”. 

The PRC’s determinedly secularist-materialist bent (most recently reaffirmed by its decision to vilify and investigate Wang Lin, a purported qigong master who peddled his nostrums to China's wealthy, connected, and famous, as part of Xi Jingping's anti-corruption drive) and, for that matter, its gay-friendly official stance butter few parsnips for its Western liberal critics.

However, it is an interesting irony that China’s progressive LGBT policies and with its anti-religious policies make it more likely that conservative and homophobic religious groups will become assets of the progressive and secular West in its ongoing rivalry with the PRC.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Church, State, Party, Girdles,and Pussy Riot in Russia


[Please click on the link embedded in the title above through to the original post for many, many extremely groovy pictures and links to the Youtubes referenced below.]

The Pussy Riot sentences (and the original prosecution) were misguided and excessive.

Putin undoubtedly found the band’s 90-second exhibition of punk calisthenics in the Church of the Savior offensive and a personal insult.  The Russian Orthodox Church is a major political prop for Putin and he probably thought he could reassure the church of his steadfastness as defender of the faith as well as score political points with conservative Russians with a heavy-handed slapdown.

But now the band has become an international cause celebre and lodestar for domestic and international opponents of Putin.  

In an interesting blurring of the line between journalistic objectivity and human-rights agitprop, the armchair revolutionaries at the Guardian chose to create a video for the band’s latest release showing the women looking at turns gorgeous, defiant, and adorable.  

That, combined with criticism of the sentence from the Obama administration and other human rights worthies, may be enough to convince Putin to keep the women in the can to serve their full term.

After all, if the sentences were commuted in response to the Russian Orthodox Church’s expressions of “forgiveness” and Putin’s own political calculations, it will be seen as a victory for the band—and inspiration for copycats and excuse for foreign meddling-- and not a welcome display of mercy by the administration.

However, it remains to be seen if shifting the terms of debate to the free-speech rights of punk rock provocateurs and away from Putin’s close and unhealthy ties to the Russian Orthodox Church (which the Pussy Riot escapade was designed to highlight) will accelerate the erosion of his power.

Cultivating and exploiting the power and prestige of the Russian Orthodox Church has become a priority for Vladimir Putin.  

When, in the spring of 2012, Putin reassumed the presidency in an election that was very much not to the liking of the United States, he went to  receive the blessing of Kirill, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, a demonstration of the extremely close ties between church and Putin that have rankled critics and inspired Pussy Riot’s act of outrance.

In addition to providing a taste of the Byzantine-vintage smells and bells pageantry that is the church’s specialty, the candid footage is also an interesting psychological document as it shows Putin losing the battle to appear humble and overawed for more than a few seconds.

The ceremony took place in the Kremlin's Cathedral of the Annunciation, one of Moscow's smaller religious outfits, but the home of the private chapel of the Tsars since the days of Ivan the Terrible, a detail whose significance was presumably not lost on either Putin or Kirill.

The video is worth watching fullscreen on Youtube for its telling detail, including an awkward moment when Kirill gifts Putin with an ancient icon of the Mother of Tenderness, a depiction of the Virgin Mary of Vladimir regarded as the protector of Russia (see endnote).

Putin briskly receives the icon, presents it to his wife for appropriate obeisance, and hands it off to a henchman.  Kirill, apparently not quite able to grasp the simple idea that what's Putin's is Putin's--period--flutters around ineffectually, trying to maintain an air of continued church involvement in the ritual transfer as the treasure literally passes from his hands.
Prior to the Pussy Riot contretemps, the big event for the church/party machinery was taking another precious Marian relic, the Girdle of the Virgin Mary, on a roadshow through Russia in the last months of 2011.

A remarkable procession is currently taking place in Russia…

The Belt of the Virgin Mary, otherwise referred to as the Precious Sash, or Cincture, of Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos – the holy treasure of the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, is travelling abroad for the first time. The Belt is travelling in style. It flies in a private jet, chartered by the tour’s organizer – the influential St. Andrew Foundation, and is accompanied by six Vatopedi monks. In St. Petersburg, it was welcomed by none other than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth largest city, Governor Alexander Misharin and the region’s bishop, Metropolitan Kirill, met the relic with the guard of honor before a procession of some 15,000 people took it to the cathedral.

The numbers are stunning indeed. In St. Petersburg, estimated one million people came to venerate the Belt in three days and nights, according to the local media. People stood in line for twelve to fourteen hours to be able to kiss the silver box containing the piece of camel wool fabric believed to have been woven and worn by the Virgin Mary, and take a small band blessed on the relic. In Yekaterinburg it was 300,000, in Krasnoyarsk – 100,000.  The relic has already been to the country’s Far East – in Vladivostok, and the Far North – in Norilsk, beyond the Arctic Circle. Volgograd and Stavropol in the South are in the days to come. And it is hard to imagine what kind of crowds will gather in Moscow when, by the end of November, the relic arrives in the capital before leaving Russia for good.

From AFP, the socio-political angle:

Clerics said they hoped the relic would help more Russian women become mothers as the influential Russian Orthodox Church is actively promoting motherhood to help the government curtail a population decline.

Church officials in several cities plan to take the relic to pregnancy centres that counsel women contemplating an abortion, the Russian Orthodox Church said.

“This event is of huge significance especially when it comes to strengthening people’s faith,” Father Kirill, a spokesman for the Saint Petersburg diocese, told AFP.

“And the fact that this is such a singular relic helping women is especially important for our city and our country, where the demographic situation leaves much to be desired.”

Russian leaders have called the shrinking population a matter of national security.

The country’s latest census released earlier this year showed that the country’s population had shrunk by 2.2 million people since 2002 and now stands at 142.9 million.

There are also photos of Putin and Medvedev solemnly observing the reliquary.   Putin chose to appear in his Action Man uniform (no tie, unbuttoned collar), inviting the question of whether his expression is one of stunned reverence or sullen challenge to a potential rival.
All joking aside, Vladimir Putin  has jettisoned the official atheism of the KGB and has established the Russian state as a vigorous promoter of the Russian Orthodox Church--and vice versa, as Michael Binyon wrote for The Humanist in 2008:

Putin … is fervently and ostentatiously observant in his religious beliefs. As a result, the Russian Orthodox Church, now richer and more powerful than at any time for almost a century, has been at the centre of all state ceremonies, is a strong supporter of Putin’s policies and has resumed its traditional role as the spiritual arm of the Russian state. Restored churches can be seen everywhere. There are now some 28,000 parish churches in Russia, 732 monasteries and convents and thousands of priests training in seminaries. Putin delivers speeches at major religious festivals; in return the Patriarch acts as his agent in extending his control over all sectors of society. Church and Communist Party have become almost interchangeable.

After Christmas service in January of 2012, Putin appeared before reporters to talk at length about the circumstances of his secret baptism as an infant.  He related that his mother brought him to the church without the knowledge of his father, “a member of the Communist Party and a loyal and uncompromising man”.

Promoting the Russian Orthodox Church is not merely Putin’s personal initiative.

As reported by Ministry Values in 2010, ex-President Medvedev was equally forthright about playing the religious card:
An icon of Jesus hidden in a Kremlin gate used by Soviet leaders but bricked over in the 1930s during communist times was restored on Saturday to public view.

Russian President Medvedev,  on the day that marks the Virgin Mary being taken into heaven, said the "Saviour Smolensky" icon, which depicts Jesus holding open the New Testament, with Russian saints below him, will provide moral support to Russia. 

"Now that we've got the icon back, our country secures an additional defense." 

The Russian Orthodox Church is now firmly embedded in a conservative political and economic matrix courtesy of Putin’s cronies and protectors.

The “influential St. Andrew Foundation” cited in the Novosti report—the outfit that sent the private jet to pick up the belt—is a religious foundation run by Vladimir Yakunin, a member of Putin’s inner circle and reputedly a veteran of the KGB’s First Directorate.  He is also president of the gigantic state-owned Russian Railways.

Presumably, Yakunin is there to lock up the support of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy for Putin and whatever subsequent strongman craves well-financed, pervasive, and activist backing from the conservative church.  

In 2010, European CEO breathlessly pegged him as “the man to watch” as a potential successor to Putin:

This ex-KBG spook is discreet, bright and endowed with a potentially huge powerbase. Vladimir Yakunin has a neighbouring lake-side dacha with prime minister (and former president) Putin. He’s often mentioned in the same breath as other successors to his all-powerful boss…

He’s patently bright and has certainly proved himself able and willing to move with the times. After the Soviet Union collapsed he moved into banking and business before being appointed as deputy transport minister in 2000. Many ex-KGB personnel were able to take advantage of new industry licences and Yakunin, along with some physicist friends, were no exception. In time they established Bank Russia, which later financed Putin’s re-election campaign in 2004.

Yet it would be a mistake to label this discreetly influential man as just another power-hungry party apparatchik or ex-KGB “siloviki”, the unflattering term given to describe the network of ex and current state-security officers. He has a fascination with Russia’s religious legacy and has helped launch a foundation that encourages reconciliation of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Yakunin’s “fascination with Russia’s religious legacy”, and his evolution from amoral KGB apparatchik to creepy, "values"-promoting bigot is reflected in remarks like this:

The head of the Council of Trustees of the St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation and JSC Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin, believes tolerance to homosexuality is harmful. 

"I think traditional family values and childbearing should not be substituted with some notorious imitations invented by the homosexual propaganda which could be only arbitrarily called attributes of a democratic society," he said at the opening ceremony of the 15th World Russian People's Council held on Wednesday in Moscow. 

Yakunin told that he wanted to address this issue in his speech delivered at the Berlin forum last year, but he was warned that "this country will hardly understand you; and you may have troubles here." 

"Nothing of the kind. There was not a single protest made and not a single person left the room because I mentioned that the propaganda of homosexuality was the same pollutant for the social environment as other pollutants were for the natural one," he said. 

This ruble-fueled synergy between the reactionary church and Putin’s authoritarian political movement does not go down well with many of Russia’s younger, Westernized, and liberal-democratic leaning citizens, or Putin’s enemies of every stripe.

The Russian Orthodox Church and its impeccably-groomed and lushly caparisoned patriarch, Kirill, have come in for major slagging in the anti-Putin media for hypocrisy and partisanship.

Kirill’s miraculous financial well-being, exemplified by his ownership or beneficial use of a luxury flat in St. Petersburg (which came to light through successful litigation about dust from construction in a neighboring unit, which, according to the judgment, caused damage of 20 million rubles to the fastidious Patriarch’s belongings and valuable religious texts), has become a piñata for opponents.

Kirill confessed that a generous follower had gifted him with a $30,000 Bregeuet watch, but insisted that he never wore the ostentatious bling.  Unfortunately an incriminating photograph—on the patriarch’s own website!-- revealed him taking a meeting in 2009 with Russian Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov while wearing the watch. 

In a clumsy exercise in damage control, church officials pulled the photograph, Photoshopped it to obscure the infamous timepiece, and re-posted.

 While removing the watch, they neglected to obscure its reflection on the highly-polished table. 

In a subtle stunt worlds away from the crude agitprop of Pussy Riot, someone re-photoshopped the image—removing Kirill and leaving nothing but the floating watch and its reflection.
Some might call the image a perfect symbol of the Russian Orthodox Church’s lust for material wealth and power and the evaporation of its integrity and spiritual essence--leaving a void for the likes of Putin and Pussy Riot to fill.

Endnote:  It is difficult to resist a wander through Russian Orthodox Church history.
One can safely assume that Putin did not receive the original Mother of Tenderness icon--a.k.a. Our Lady of Vladimir, a national treasure now residing in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow--but one of the many ancient, venerable, and artistically distinguished copies surviving in Russia.

I don't think it's too risky to lean on Wikipedia as a source for information on the icon:

The Theotokos of Vladimir (Greek: Θεοτόκος του Βλαντιμίρ), also known as Our Lady of Vladimir or Virgin of Vladimir (Russian: Владимирская Икона Божией Матери) and "The Vladimir Madonna" - is one of the most venerated Orthodox icons and a typical example of Eleusa Byzantine iconography. The Theotokos (Greek word for Virgin Mary, literally meaning "Birth-Giver of God") is regarded as the holy protectress of Russia. The icon is displayed in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Her feast day is June 3. Even more than most famous icons, the original has been copied repeatedly for centuries. Many copies now have considerable artistic and religious significance of their own. The icon is a version of the Eleusa (tenderness) type, with the Christ child snuggling up to his mother's cheek.

About 1131 the Greek Patriarch Luke Chrysoberges of Constantinople sent the icon as a gift to Grand Duke Yury Dolgoruky of Kiev. The image was kept in the Mezhyhirskyi Monastery until Dolgoruky's son Andrey Bogolyubskiy brought it to his favourite city, Vladimir, in 1155.[1] ...

In 1395, during Tamerlane's invasion, the image was taken from Vladimir to the new capital, Moscow. ...Vasili I of Moscow spent a night crying over the icon, and Tamerlane's armies retreated the same day. The Muscovites refused to return the icon to Vladimir and placed it in the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Moscow Kremlin. The intercession of the Theotokos through the image was credited also with saving Moscow from Tatar hordes in 1451 and 1480.

... In December 1941, as the Germans approached Moscow, Joseph Stalin allegedly ordered that the icon be placed in an airplane and flown around the besieged capital. Several days later, the German army started to retreat.[2]

I might add that there are rumors that another Marian icon, Our Lady of Kazan, was paraded around the fortifications of Leningrad during the epic siege.

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