Many years ago, I lived in Russia and tried to learn the language. I lived with a Russian family, in what could be described as a Russian Gaeltacht, for three months. There was school in the morning, using a Russian method, which relied on speaking and listening with little or no written work and then, in the afternoons and evenings, the idea was to hang out in the local village.
The place was called Ruza, about 60 miles west of Moscow, not far from Borodino, the battlefield where Napoleon suffered his first defeat on his march to Moscow. This huge and bloody battle represented the beginning of the end for the Grande ArmÃ©e. The ancients in the village, never having heard of Ireland, were convinced I was German because the last foreigners they had seen were German soldiers retreating through the village, when they too were held up outside Moscow.
The family was lovely and we spent hours chatting about all sorts of stuff. Four years later, I discovered that, at the first chance, they emigrated to Israel almost overnight. I had lived with what turned out to be quite a religious Jewish family – but of course I had no idea of this at the time.
They kept this part of their identity hidden in the absurd environment that was the very last months of the Soviet Union. Yes, there was glasnost; yes, we talked politics, openness, ideas of the free market, notions of democracy, free speech, propaganda and what they hoped for Russia. But deep down, they were too nervous to reveal their religion, particularly to a stranger because, as they explained years later, I could have been a plant.
In September that year, we went on massive tractors – as did everyone in the village – to the anniversary of the Russian victory over Napoleon at Borodino. This was where I saw for the first time the emerging power of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the form of hundreds of politicised young men with flags declaring “Russia First” and “God is with us”.
The Soviet Union was collapsing all around us and, in its stead, all sorts of movements were emerging, the strongest of which was old-fashioned Russian patriotism infused with the romantic Russian nationalism for the likes of Pushkin, and Russian Christianity as embodied by the Orthodox Church.
This was a 360-degree change from the fundamental atheism of communism, its pretentions of literary modernism and its innate fear of the Russian classics.
The Orthodox Church was anathema to the communists who still ran the place. We can only imagine what its emergence must have signalled that afternoon to a cosmopolitan Jewish family with long-held plans to skip the country.
Since then, the Russian state and the Orthodox hierarchy have become increasingly intertwined. This is why the Pussy Riot trial is so fascinating. The three young women – Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – are members of a Russian punk-art collective called Pussy Riot, who decided to stage an impromptu gig in an Orthodox cathedral to protest about the support of the hierarchy for Vladimir Putin in the recent presidential election.
The song they sang was called “Our Lady, Chase Putin Out”. In a trial reminiscent of the old days, the women were tried for the crime of “hooliganism”. Russian intellectuals compare this to the show trials of old, which may be taking it a bit far, as in the old days the defendants, once found guilty, were rarely seen again.
However, with the absurd nature of the charges, and the fact that these three women appeared in court handcuffed in a glass box, there are clear echoes of the big battles of the past. These battles revolved around freedom of speech and expression, and the ability of the ruling class to accept criticism no matter how it was expressed or from what quarter.
In Russia there are plenty who believe the women are guilty of crass blasphemy in a place of worship, but it does seem a bit extreme to have a secular court of law uphold what looks like a small part of a culture war.
But this is the point: while the Moscow of Putin is an enormously decadent city where anything goes, anything that threatens his power – no matter how moderately – is clamped down on severely. Whether you are women protesters or an oligarch with political aspirations, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the hero of young Russians who want change, the message being sent out from the Kremlin is that dissent which threatens Putin will be not tolerated.
Khodorkovsky – a man I met in the late 1990s in Russia – has used his time in prison to become the single biggest moral challenge to Putin, who is terrified of his stoicism, his moral courage and his ability to endure vicious privations and yet remain calm and focused.
As a result, Khodorkovsky’s prison term was extended last year, because Putin knows that when Khodorkovsky gets out, he will have deity status among the young Russian middle class, who are keen to see Russia become a normal democracy.
Russia’s future path is important, not just to Russia, but the rest of us. It is the single biggest potential supplier of energy to Europe. It may well be a political ally of Germany in the future. In fact, an alliance between Germany and Russia might be one of the most obvious in the first half of the 21st century. Germany needs Russia’s energy and Russia needs Germany’s know-how and technology.
If the EU and the eurozone’s travails prove to be too problematic for the Germans, an alliance in the east may make sense. Obviously, not only Germany, but all of Europe, would prefer not to be overly dependent on the energy source of the Middle East which is descending progressively into chaos. Increasingly, it looks like there will be only one winner in the region – and that is likely to be Iran.
Against such a background, Russia becomes more significant. This is why the Pussy Riot trial is important, because it is indicative of the type of Russia we will all be dealing with in the years ahead. When three girls who stage what is effectively a stunt are found guilty of hooliganism and and sent to jail for two years, you know the people running that country like to get their own way.