New Street University: Religion Is Stomatology

On May 11, 2008, students from Petersburg’s New Street University performed the action Religion Is Stomatology on the front steps of Our Lady of Kazan (Russian Orthodox) Cathedral. The action was meant to protest the Russian Orthodox Church’s increasingly aggressive claims to political influence and cultural hegemony in Russian society. These newfound hegemonic aspirations are actively cultivated by the Russian political elite, as demonstrated not only their enthusiastic support for the church’s own actions and initiatives (partly described in the press release, below), but also by their appearances at Easter night services (broadcast live on several national TV channels) and by the role accorded to church hierarchs in such state ceremonies as President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent inauguration.

Newly Inaugurated Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Patriarch Alexy II

During the action, one of the students attempted to read the poem “Religion Is Stomatology,” which we have translated, below. Meanwhile, his classmates prostrated themselves on the steps of the cathedral in a fit of religio-dental ecstasy. Various parishioners and other God-fearing types forcibly attempted to disrupt the action. Fortunately, NSU students were able to leave the scene of their “crime” unharmed by the faithful.

Religion Is Stomatology
In the beginning was the word, but only for the few,
And therefore the word was with them and them alone.
The majority was simply not allowed to open their mouths,
And therefore they didn’t know any other words.

But soon the masses started talking.
That’s when it came to light that everything that issues from the mouth is a lie.
But since shutting the mouths of the masses wouldn’t have worked anyway,
The powers that be came up with an institution for controlling mouths.

And thus, religion is stomatology.
It insists on the twice-daily observance of its cult:
In the morning after breakfast and in the evening before bedtime.
It is likewise recommended to see a specialist
Twice a year for a preventive check-up.
It assures you that you’ll come round to it in the end,
Especially if you’ve been negligent for far too long.

And it’s true that you begin to feel
That everything around you is only a vanity of vanities,
That the world outside your oral cavity
Is an illusion, that it’s not there as it were.
That you’ve totally neglected what is most precious.
(This procedure really isn’t that cheap.)
For, whatever they say,
Each of us dies alone with his
At the Last Check-Up each of us will be asked
Whether he worried about their salvation.
If he didn’t, it will already be too late to appeal to the deus in the drill.

In the beginning was the word, but only for the few,
And therefore it was with them and them alone.

When the oppressed began to speak,
They were roundly criticized for their bad breath.

Thus stomatology was invented.
Thus was the church invented,
Along with a whole host of charitable, God-fearing establishments.

And while we stand here with our mouths open wide,
They continue to work away.

Righteous Anger as a Means of Combating the Humanities

Over the course of the past several years, classes in Russian Orthodoxy have been introduced in educational institutions throughout Russia. This contradicts both the secular status of public education and the widely touted claim that religious tolerance is observed in our multiconfessional nation.

The Russian Orthodox Church has been involved in a property dispute with the Russian State University for the Humanities—some of the university’s classrooms, the church claimed, belonged to the monastery next door. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, and in April 2008 the building in question was paid a visit not only by court bailiffs, but also by a platoon of Cossacks brimming with righteous anger. If, with the advent of the modern age, the church had thought of natural scientific knowledge as its principal enemy, nowadays its righteous anger is directed towards the humanities.

It has to be stated that the Orthodox Church has for some time now acted as a subject of real estate rather than as a “subject of the spirit.” It is as if the church has given up its greater mission and settled for the role of a player in the commercial field. However, the small-scale property disputes that it has initiated now should be viewed, rather, as consonant with its spiritual and intellectual pretensions. Besides, the recent measures taken by the church—the most notable of which has been the introduction of religious education in public schools—no longer allow us to ignore the clear fact that it lays claim to cultural hegemony. In the final analysis, this hegemony is an instrument of material and economic interests—interests that might be greater in scale and longer ranging.

The secularization of ecclesiastical holdings and the separation of church from state have been steadily advanced from the Enlightenment onwards, and these processes have developed in parallel with scientific progress and the formation of democratic society throughout Europe, including Russia. Now these processes have collided with ultra-reactionary measures on the part of the established church, which once again aspires to a fusion with state power. This business project promises both institutions long-term material gain.

Thus, cultural hegemony is the flip side of the hegemony of dominant relations of production.

Our protest action is directed against the cultural and proprietary pretensions of the Russian Orthodox Church. These pretensions have short-circuited and today threaten the right of students to receive a liberal arts education as well as Russia’s chances at developing a civil society.

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