The Russian Orthodox Church, notorious for its protracted struggle to introduce religious education in public schools, has now become entangled in a property dispute with the Russian State University for the Humanities (Moscow). Some of the university’s classrooms, the church claimed, belonged to the monastery next door. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff when the dispute went to trial, and in April 2008 not only did court bailiffs show up at the university building to reclaim the church’s alleged property, but they were reinforced by a platoon of righteously angry Cossacks. Whereas, with the advent of the modern age, the church imagined the natural sciences as its principal foe, nowadays its righteous anger is directed against the humanities.
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 petty 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 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.
Having taken on the role of a subject acting in the interests of students, the Street University could not help but react to this expansionism. Our protest action “Religion Is Stomatology” took place on May 11 on the steps of Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral. The action included the recitation of a poem, a performance, and the handing out of leaflets. The action was 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.
The action was anti-clerical in character. It also aimed to fulfill one of the SU’s declared goals-to return the public to a public space that has shrunken precipitously. The layout of the square in front of the cathedral and the architecture of the cathedral itself have lent themselves to political action since the time of Plekhanov. In February 1917, striking textile workers marched from the Vyborg Side to Kazan Cathedral, where they were attacked by Cossacks (who had always been hated by Petersburgers). Situated on the city’s central consumerist boulevard, the habitat of the beau monde and the demi-monde, the territory of the class enemy, this cathedral and this square thus became famous as a starting point of the revolution. In the nineties (which are now denounced on every possible occasion) the steps of Kazan Cathedral likewise served as a democratic meeting place for the most various groups; the place become a kind of agora. Nowadays, a fence surrounds the cathedral and square. As this example shows us, the space of the city comes more and more to resemble a network of tunnels for circulating atomized individuals from one shopping center to another, and thus it excludes the very possibility of carrying out collective actions, marches, and meetings on a purely physical level.
We are not raising a lament over the destruction of old palaces.
We are creating a new mapping of urban space that is not conditioned by the topography of consumerism’s new palaces.