Beyond Secular Critique? The Trial Speech of Yegor Zhukov

by Dmitry Uzlaner

Yegor Zhukov

The wave of political protests sparked by irregularities during the 2018 mayoral election in Moscow led to a number of arrests of activists and protesters. One of them, a student, Yegor Zhukov, was tried and convicted at the beginning of December 2019 and sentenced to three years of probation. This case, among other things, attracted the attention of the public with a powerful speech delivered by the defendant on December 4—the day before the verdict was announced.

I will not reproduce this speech here, it has already been translated into English and is easily accessible. Instead, I’ll pay attention to the theological and religious background of what was said. Yegor Zhukov, explaining the motives of his political activity, began to talk about traditional values, of which Russia claims to be “the last defender.” In addition to the “patriotism” and “the institution of the family” that are constantly mentioned, he named Christian faith and the Christian ethics that follows from this faith as the main traditional value. In Yegor Zhukov’s theology, Christian ethics implies two main values: responsibility (“Christianity is based on the story of a man who has decided to put the suffering of the whole world on his shoulders, the story of a man who has taken responsibility in the greatest possible sense of the word”) and love (“‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. This is the main phrase of the Christian religion”). According to Yegor Zhukov, these two Christian values motivate him in his social and political activities. He then asked the question: “How does the current Russian state, which proudly defends Christian values and hence the values, that were mentioned above, actually protects them?” His conclusion is disappointing: the policy of the Russian state is a policy of “atomization” and “de-humanization.” As Yegor Zhukov said: “We have become a nation that has forgotten how to take responsibility. We have become a nation that has forgotten how to love.”

What is remarkable about this speech from a religious, theological point of view? Why is it attracting so much attention? At least because it breaks the usual political logic and combines two seemingly incompatible discourses. In today’s confrontation between the authorities and the democratic opposition, there are two dominant discourses. One is a pro-governmental one. It is a discourse of Orthodox tradition, traditional values, moral foundations that the regime protects against those who want to overthrow them. In this logic, the Christian tradition is a sacralization and legitimization of the existing status quo, a justification of why this domestic policy is being pursued in Russia and not some other one. The second discourse is the one of opposition. This discourse is aimed at criticizing the regime. This is a discourse of secular liberalism, human rights, and the consequent rejection of Christianity and traditional values as something that hinders human development and prevents Russian society from developing.

Yegor Zhukov’s speech refashioned the usual logic of these two discourses. It addresses the Christian tradition not as an object of critique, but as the foundation and legitimization of this critique. The Christian tradition becomes a desacralization and delegitimization of the existing socio-political status quo.

What does this intersection of discourses show?

First of all, the fact that the Christian tradition is not one-dimensional, that it is broader than the pro-governmental ideological interpretation that is offered to the Russian society as something that has no alternative. Christian tradition cannot be an exclusively obedient tool for ideological manipulation.

Secondly, the fact that Christianity cannot be reduced to patriotism and family values. That Christianity is, among other things, also responsibility and love. And that the responsibility and love so important to Christianity cannot be combined with the politics of “atomization” and “de-humanization,” even if the latter are covered by patriotism and concern for the “institution of the family.”

Third, the fact that Christianity does not belong exclusively to professional believers: patriarchs, bishops, priests, who alone can dispose of this tradition as desired by the authorities, religious or secular. That this is a tradition in which everyone can draw resources to criticize injustices, which can motivate creative activity—including social and political activity.

Fourth, the fact that Christianity is a bad basis for ideology. Christianity can not only stabilize the political regime, but also actively undermine it. The real challenge to ideology is not those who attack it in the forehead – such an attack is already initially inscribed in the ideological structure as the figure of the enemy, who must be fought against. And not those who are cynical about this ideology—on the contrary, cynicism is the key to the survival of ideology, which allows it not to fall under the weight of its own seriousness. The real challenge to ideology is one who takes it seriously, who tries to live up to the proposed ideals and who is not ready to turn a blind eye to the contradictions that exist between ideology and life. Those who seriously talk about Christianity as the foundation of contemporary Russian reality cannot help but see denial of Christian tradition by the practices of “atomization” and “de-humanization,” mentioned by Yegor Zhukov.

Everything above seems obvious and even trivial. However, this banality is only visible. In particular, it is necessary to pay attention to how rare—at least for Russia—is such a fusion of critique and Christianity.

In my memory, only the group “Pussy Riot” in 2012 tried to do a similar operation: to unite the protest with Christianity in a strange post-secular hybrid of “punk prayer.” Ekaterina Samutsevich, one of the members of the group, said about this intersection of Christianity and protest most clearly in her final speech at the trial:

In our presentation, we dared, without a patriarchal blessing, to combine the visual image of Orthodox culture with the culture of protest, leading intelligent people to the thought that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch, and Putin, but it can also be on the side of civil insurrection and the oppositional mood within Russia.[1]

It is indicative that such a religious reading of “punk prayer” was quickly replaced by standard interpretations: freedom-loving feminists against patriarchal society, free-thinking artists against religious obscurantism, political oppositionists against the authoritarian regime. It must be said that such standard interpretations, which eventually triumphed (not least due to the Western media), were very helpful to the regime: it appeared as a defender of the traditional Christian way of life, which was challenged by the radicals who dared to dance in the middle of the church, thus insulting the devout believers. The “punk prayer” as a religious expression, as a prayer, as an appeal to the Virgin for justice was completely forgotten.[2]

The rarity of such intersection is not accidental. It follows—at least in Russia—from the basic attitude of contemporary progressive consciousness, from its “secular bias.” It is a belief that critique can only be secular, only arising from secular reason, opposed to blind faith and religious prejudices[3]. It is a canonized image of a secular hero, a progressive critic who fights for democracy, freedom and human rights, and who is opposed by a reactionary who holds fast to traditional values, adheres to Christian tradition. Hence, the condescending attitude to religion and theology so characteristic of progressive consciousness as to what is possible to tolerate—as one of the basic human rights—but that in no case can be taken seriously and to what in no case can be appealed in any serious way.

Such a secular bias narrows down the repertoire of critique, dehydrates it and reduces it to banal and easily countered arguments. This is the kind of critique that the reactionary forces have learned how to cope with and even use it to their advantage. For example, in the case of “punk prayer”, the reaction was as follows: some liberals believe that dancing in the church is possible, but we do not, and therefore adopt a range of laws aimed at protecting the feelings of believers and preventing such blasphemous excesses (as well as any other excesses—social, political etc.).

As a result, the multidimensional Christian tradition, instead of being a basis for critique and overcoming the practices of “atomization” and “de-humanization”, is at the service of these practices themselves. The critical potential of Christianity is ignored, bracketed, and is neglected, only occasionally slipping through in speeches like the one that was delivered by Yegor Zhukov before he was convicted.

[1] Translated from Russian by April French.

[2] You can read more about this here: Uzlaner, Dmitry and Stoeckl, Kristina (2019) From Pussy Riot’s ‘punk prayer’ to Matilda: Orthodox believers, critique, and religious freedom in Russia, Journal of Contemporary Religion 34(3): 427-445.

[3]  Asad, Talal, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood, eds. 2009. Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech. Berkeley, CA: Townsend Center for the Humanities.

Dmitry Uzlaner is Associate Professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, Editor-in-Chief of State, Religion and Church in Russia and Worldwide, and a senior researcher in the “Post-secular Conflicts” project at the University of Innsbruck.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.