International Women’s Day Special: The Professors in the Ikea Balaclavas

March 8 marked the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day celebrations in Russia. This is the fourth in a series of posts focusing on the work and plight of several different women involved in political and social activism in Russia today.

On February 21, 2013, the first anniversary, of Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” protest, TV Rain’s Maria Makeyeva interviewed Irina Karatsuba, an ecclesiastical historian and Ph.D. in cultural studies, and Elena Volkova, an expert on religion and artistic culture. Earlier in the day, Karatsuba and Volkova had been detained at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in balaclavas while attempting to lay flowers on the altar as way of showing their solidarity with the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot. They were later released from Khamovniki police precinct after questioning.

Мaria Makeyeva: What made you, two female academics, go to Christ the Savior Cathedral? I understand that police were expecting someone to show up there on the anniversary of Pussy Riot’s protest action, but it was you, two scholars, whom they found. Was this a scholarly action or a form of research? What was it?

Elena Volkova: It was, first of all, a human action. We wanted to express our solidarity with Maria [Alyokhina] and Nadezhda [Tolokonnikova] on this day, to show them that people remember and appreciated what they did a year ago, that there are people who sympathize with them, share their views, and support the [protest] action they performed in Christ the Savior Cathedral. We went there in solidarity, support, and sympathy. As scholars, we’ve spent the past year on educating people. I ran a “Pussy Riot school” on the Web, where I tried to explain [what they did], because it seemed to me that people perceived the punk prayer so aggressively simply because they didn’t know church history, the history of resistance within the church, the history of the holy fools, Biblical prophecy, and ecclesiastical counterculture. I wanted to educate people, and so as scholars we have been actively involved in outreach the whole [past] year, and we carried balaclavas in our bags.

Makeyeva: As a historian of the church, what do you think of what Pussy Riot did a year ago?

Irina Karatsuba: I think there are several important dates in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in the twentieth century. For example, the Church Council of 1917–1918, at which the Patriarchate was restored and a reform program was drafted, but none of these reforms was carried out. This continues to haunt us today. Or Metropolitan Sergei’s 1927 declaration, in which the church bowed down before an atheist state and thanked it: this is a very important milestone in the history of our church’s apostasy from Christ. Or 1943, when Comrade Stalin allowed the Church Council to convene and elect a new patriarch. He thus bound the church firmly to the atheist state, and the church firmly attached itself to it.

Makeyeva: But what about the “punk prayer”?

Karatsuba: The “punk prayer” completes this sequence. It tries to put everything in its place: render unto God what is God’s, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. And it calls on members of the church not to support Caesar, thus closing the books on a very important feature of church-state relations in the twentieth century. Moreover, the girls told the truth, and told it in such a way that everyone heard it. We experts had been writing about this for the past five years, six years, but very few people hear what experts have to say. But [Pussy Riot] were able to say it in a way that everyone heard it, and that is to their great credit.

Makeyeva: You both were expert witnesses in the Pussy Riot case.

Karatsuba: We were expert witnesses for the defense whose testimony no one wanted to hear. We sat in the stairways at the Khamovniki district court for two days along with [famous Russian novelist] Ludmila Ulitskaya, who is seventy today, God bless her, and Irina Levinskaya, who had written an expert opinion on the expert opinion [commissioned by the prosecution]. She showed how meaningless what the court-appointed experts had dashed off was.

Makeyeva: Could you say more about the balaclavas you carried in your bags for a whole year?

Volkova: We made them for an opposition rally, before the ban on covering one’s face [was introduced]. We made them from Ikea pillowcases five minutes before going to the rally.

Karatsuba: Elena came over to my house and quickly made two balaclavas from an Ikea pillowcase I had.

Volkova: Later, we put them on outside the courthouse when we went there to support the girls. And then I carried it in my bag as a talisman, as a way of maintaining my connection with the persecuted women.

Makeyeva: And where are they now?

Volkova: The guards at Christ the Savior Cathedral tore them off and didn’t give them back to us, unfortunately. The tulips they threw at our feet: we had bought brightly colored tulips by way of stylizing Pussy Riot’s bright outfits.

Makeyeva: And then what happened?

Volkova: And then for some reason one of the cleaning ladies began frantically removing flowers from the icons, apparently fearing we were going to take them from their vases and throw them on the altar. Then the police took us to the paddy wagon, where two strange men appeared. One of them asked why we did it. We talked about the historical role of the “punk prayer,” that Russia had changed after this, that it has had a huge impact on Russian history. To which he replied. . . It was Ira who engaged him in a dialogue from that point on.

Karatsuba: He said that it wasn’t history that had changed, but something in our brains. “That’s okay,” he said, “we treat such alterations at the Serbsky Institute [for Forensic Psychiatry].”

Makeyeva: You mean they introduced themselves as specialists from the Serbsky Institute?

Karatsuba: They didn’t introduce themselves at all. It was just a remark he made.

Makeyeva: Were they in plain clothes?

Karatsuba: Yes, we decided we were going to be taken to the Serbsky Institute for treatment, but for now we haven’t been taken there.

Makeyeva: And then what happened?

Volkova: Then we were taken to the Khamovniki police precinct, where we spoke with a young name from Center “E,” the Center for Combating Extremism, who introduced himself as Ilya. He asked me different questions. As a teacher, it takes me approximately an hour to answer a question. I gave him a lecture on the history of the church, on the history of the holy fool tradition.

Karatsuba: I stood behind the door and listened with delight. Lena expressed herself one hundred percent: it was an amazing lecture.

Volkova: He asked questions and took notes. He asked me what the symphony between church and state was, and wrote down various dates and concepts. I think he liked it. He said he was in charge of religion at Center “E.” I told him he needed to get a religious studies education and advised him to enroll at the Russian State University for the Humanities. He said, “Can you give me the names of people to talk to [there]?” And with that he gave himself away, because this was clearly the question an investigator would ask: Whom did you meet with? What is your connection? What is this faction you mentioned?

Makeyeva: Irina, did you talk with this same young man?

Karatsuba: Yes. I didn’t really want to talk to him, and so our conversation didn’t really gel. He kept pestering me with questions. If I was so devout, he asked, why didn’t I go with those girls to prison? To which I replied that it reminded me of Ivan the Terrible’s logic from the correspondence with Prince Kurbsky: if you’re so righteous, why didn’t accept a martyr’s death at the hands of me, the wicked king, and ascend to heaven?” To which he replied, “And whose side are you? Ivan the Terrible’s or Kurbsky’s?” “I’m on Gagarin’s side,” I said. He sighed and said, “Our conversation hasn’t panned out.”

Makeyeva: And with that they just let you go?

Karatsuba: [Former Pussy Riot lawyer] Violetta Volkova, God bless her, arrived and quickly set the entire Khamovniki precinct straight. The police really wanted our fingerprints, but she said we didn’t have to let them fingerprint us.

Volkova: And that we shouldn’t have talked to the man from Center “E”—we didn’t know that. But it’s okay: we educated and enlightened him a little.

Makeyeva: So Violetta Volkova helped you?

Volkova: Yes, and Mark Feygin. They heard about it on the news and came and found us themselves. Violetta Volkova was the first to arrive. She had two warrants allowing her to act as our attorney, and we followed her advice.

Karatsuba: We wrote statements saying we refused to be fingerprinted, and we were released. Things could develop in different ways: they might summon us again; they might not. We’ll see.

Makeyeva: Irina, you mentioned that both you and Elena are Orthodox. Is this an active part of your lives? Do you go to church and confess?

Volkova: Yes, it’s an active part of our lives. We’ve been in the church for many years, and besides that we are teachers. Irina taught history for many years, including church history. My specialty is the Bible, Christianity, and literature. We taught for thirty years at Moscow State University, which we recently left.

Makeyeva: Why did you leave?

Volkova: There were many reasons, including the fact that they had begun telling us whom to invite and whom not to invite, what to say and what not to say.

Makeyeva: Whom to invite where?

Volkova: To speak at the university.

Makeyeva: This had nothing to do with Pussy Riot?

Volkova: No, it was before that, in 2011. We are not just Orthodox believers, people who practice Orthodoxy. For many years, I organized the Sunday school at one church, and I taught seminarians, who came to Moscow and attended my lectures on Christianity and English poetry. I have had many priests as students, and we were very active in the church for many years. It’s another matter that in the past year we realized that the church has completely turned away from Christian principles and values. Our hopes were very slight, so we stepped up our criticism of the church. When the “punk prayer” happened, we realized that the girls had sung about what we as experts had been saying for many years. People didn’t listen to us, but they heard what [Pussy Riot] said. We were really glad that someone had finally been able to make themselves heard. So we support them by all means, and as a believer, I am certain that it was Christ who sent them to Christ the Savior Cathedral, that they are God’s children, who came from God and said what needed to be said.

Police escort university professors Yelena Volkova and Irina Karatsuba after detaining them inside the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow

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Filed under activism, critical thought, feminism, gay rights, film and video, interviews, protests, Russian society

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