Previously on Providence, I asked whether Russian President Vladimir Putin was correct to smear the West as morally degenerate (or, as he preferred, “Satanic”) as part of his ongoing ideological war against the Occident. Putin’s argument was that contact with Western soil inevitably corrodes the sacred Slavic soul, hence transforming his war of conquest in Ukraine into a morally just battle for the moral salvation of the Ukrainian people. 

One way to examine why Putin’s argument is so convincing in Russia, where belief in Orthodox Christianity remains strong, is through the lens of the attention-seeking Ukrainian-born extreme feminist group Femen, best-known today for a series of sick anti-religious stunts like invading French and German Catholic churches in a state of semi-undress before performing obscene mock-abortions of the infant Christ before the altar. 

Such literally un-Orthodox tactics – billed dubiously as acts of daring female rebellion – are deliberately calculated to offend Christians of all denominations. This makes it simple for Putin’s propagandists to portray such antinomian agitators as literal agents of the Devil, proving that extended contact with the wanton ways of the West really can corrupt previously innocent Ukrainian souls. 

Wicked Witches of the West

Femen was founded in Ukraine in 2008. Their all-female forces (they consider themselves a guerrilla band of terroristic ‘sextremists’) initially expressed valid concerns about poor native women being forced into the flourishing post-Soviet sex industry, besides quite correctly foreseeing the danger Vladimir Putin’s ever-more militaristic regime posed towards the freedom of their country. 

The specific patriarchs the man-eaters of Femen initially rebelled against were the literal patriarchs (as their national archbishops are known) of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Russian Orthodoxy has long been lavishly funded by the Kremlin and in return has lent its blessing to the State. Its leader, Patriarch Kirill, has explicitly endorsed Putin’s rule and wars alike, even saying dying fighting ‘Satanists’ in Ukraine “washes away all sins” for any Christian soldiers lucky enough to do so. 

Femen’s current priest-baiting tricks in Western Europe are not daring at all. Clearly secularist courts repeatedly fail to pass meaningful sentences against the sextremists who disrupt religious services: in 2022, the ECHR upheld one Femen agent’s act of public urination before an altar in a Paris church as a valuable expression of her inalienable right to free speech. In today’s woke West, Femen appear untouchable.

Their original antics in Ukraine were nowhere near as risk-free. In 2017, Femen sextremist Anna Allein valiantly disrupted a Russian Orthodox procession through Kiev by draping herself half-naked across a public monument to Prince Vladimir, the esteemed original converter of the Russian world to Christianity. Deriding Patriarch Kirill’s “so-called Christian values”, Femen called the (un)holy march of his priests through the city “inadmissible at the time when our defenders are dying from Russian aggression in Donbas” in the east of the country, where pro-Russian separatists were already fighting to split the region away. “The procession of the Moscow Patriarchate through the streets of Kiev is a ‘silent march’ of the Kremlin aggressor, after which heavy armored tanks may come,” Femen presciently argued. 

Yet most did not listen. Why? Perhaps because, by increasingly mixing their reasonable complaints with childish, anti-clerical tantrums, Femen unwisely made the average person in the East automatically regard them as a bunch of student-politics show-offs – or even full-blown Satanists. 

When Putin invaded Ukraine for real in February 2022, one Femen sextremist held a “therapeutic action” at Kiev’s central railway station dressed as a female Grim Reaper. Topless and holding a bloody scythe, with her face painted like a skull and a bridal veil atop her long blond hair, she had ‘DON’T PANIC’ daubed across her torso, urging residents not to flee Russia’s incoming missiles as “[being] intimidated equals [being] killed!” (so does being hit by a missile…) All that was necessary for Putin to accomplish his goal of demonizing the West was to share photos of this macabre, seemingly-deranged individual – who looked rather like a literal demon herself. 

The Misjudgements of Paris

In 2013, several of Femen’s founders fled Ukraine for Paris after being beaten up or seemingly having illegal weapons planted in their offices as a pretext for arrest. They blamed Putin’s secret agents for punishing them after one topless sextremist had accosted Patriarch Kirill with the slogan “Kill Kirill!” in protest against the recent arrest of the Russian feminist punk-protest band Pussy Riot. 

One Femen refugee to Paris, Oksana Shachko, a one-time aspirant nun turned creator of satirical anti-religious iconographic art, hanged herself in the French capital in 2018, aged 31. In 2014, she had left Femen, disillusioned by what it had become on foreign soil. “It was not the small, revolutionary, aggressive and courageous movement we created in Ukraine … it became empty,” she said, a mere degenerate parody of its original Ukrainian self. Perhaps this was inevitable. In Ukraine, Femen had encountered enemies actually worth standing up to. In France, the best they could do was to moan self-indulgently against legally impotent Catholic priests. 

Once safely harbored within the EU, Femen’s original core of moral seriousness died. Schisms grew between them and their original cross-border inspiration, Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot’s greatest act of public political disobedience came when they famously interrupted a Moscow cathedral service with a discordant ‘punk-prayer’ against Putin in 2012 before being imprisoned, an obvious inspiration for Femen’s own later sacrileges in Western churches.

Russian Dolls and Riot Girls

Pussy Riot’s 2012 punk-prayer took place in Christ the Savior Cathedral, the church Moscow’s leaders attended to broadcast their alleged religious faith before TV cameras on religious holidays. Thus, Pussy Riot hoped to make “a political gesture to address the Putin government’s merger” with Kirill’s Church. Rather than condemning Christian doctrine, they actually disparaged the Orthodox Church for deviating from it by obeying fallen earthly powers like Putin, not true heavenly authority. Called ‘Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!’, their song had competing verses, some disrespectful when addressing Putin and Patriarch Kirill, some respectful when addressing the Virgin Mary and requesting redemption from the dictator. 

Accordingly, some argued Pussy Riot were not blasphemers at all, but Dostoyevskian figures boldly resurrecting the old Russian tradition of Orthodox Holy Fools by leading subversive ‘alternative prayers’ in defiance of corrupt human authorities. In court, Pussy Riot consistently pled no malice against actual believers, claiming to be faithful Orthodox Christians themselves. In 2018, one incarnation of the group actually played a gig at a UK Christian music festival, suggesting their beliefs were genuine, not just a clever defense tactic. 

Pussy Riot subsequently refrained from using religious iconography during future protests and explicitly distanced themselves from Femen’s later actions supposedly performed ‘in their name’, as when one topless sextremist cut down a large cross in Kiev using a chainsaw, a senseless provocation Pussy Riot said created no “feelings of solidarity” between the two sisterhoods. Pussy Riot’s public assertion that they “were believers and prayed” was even called “ridiculous” and “disappointing” by the avowedly blasphemous Femen, who thought Christianity inherently sexist. 

Femen in Paris became a hollow burlesque of what they had once been in Ukraine, where they faced actual deadly danger, and also of the more truly courageous Pussy Riot in Russia. Therefore, sadly, Putin is correct: in this specific instance, contact with the West really did blacken the souls of a band of once-noble and brave Ukrainian women. But which particular devil in human form had made them all flee Westwards in the first place?