By RFE RL
By Claire Bigg for RFE/RL
Topuchaya’s 220 inhabitants never thought their tiny Siberian village would one day make headlines.
Yet this week, news that a Russian Orthodox cross had been vandalized in this far-flung village in the mountainous Altai region spread through Russian media like wildfire.
The incident, in which the free-standing wooden cross was toppled and hacked with what appears to have been an ax, is the fifth of its kind to hit Russia in less than two weeks.
The Moscow Patriarchate has been quick to link the attacks to what it describes as a campaign unleashed against the church by the opposition.
Vsevolod Chaplin, an influential priest who often acts as the church’s spokesman, told RFE/RL that “it’s hard to talk about isolated incidents when such acts take place in different regions and follow roughly the same scenario.”
“It’s no coincidence that certain people in Ukraine and in Russia said such acts would be organized. So a campaign is clearly under way,” Chaplin said.
Clerics blame Ukraine’s feminist group Femen for triggering the acts of vandalism after a topless activist with the group used a chainsaw to topple a cross in Kyiv in mid-August.
The stunt was intended to show solidarity with three members of the all-female Russian punk group Pussy Riot sentenced to two years in prison last month over an anti-Kremlin performance in Moscow’s largest cathedral.
Femen, famous for its provocative topless protests, has pledged to target more crosses in neighboring Russia.
The Moscow Patriarchate has repeatedly accused Russian opposition forces of waging an all-out campaign against the church that allegedly began in February with Pussy Riot’s performance.
Investigators, meanwhile, are working to determine who desecrated the cross in Topuchaya, raised several months ago in honor of gulag inmates who built the Chuisky highway along the Mongolian border in the 1930s.
A criminal case has been opened.
The incident might have gone largely unnoticed had three crosses not been chopped down on August 24 during a similar night-time attack in the southern Chelyabinsk region.
On the same night, a fourth cross was felled in the Arctic city of Arkhangelsk.
A previously unknown group of radical activists called People’s Will claimed responsibility for the incidents in Arkhangelsk and the Chelyabinsk region, citing retribution for the church’s role in the prosecution of Pussy Riot.
Many Russians, however, have serious doubts about whether the spate of cross-felling is the work of Pussy Riot sympathizers.
Nikolai Mitrokhin, a religion expert with the Research Center for East European Studies at Germany’s University of Bremen, is one of them.
He says crosses are routinely vandalized in Russia and denies there has been an uptick in attacks against the Russian Orthodox Church in recent months.
“For the past 10 years, about 12-14 attacks on Orthodox churches have been registered every year — from swastika graffiti on walls to bombing attacks,” Mitrokhin says.
“But this is just the tip of the iceberg, there are obviously many more cases. So at any time, one can collect the incidents that took place in recent months and present them as a wave of attacks.”
According to Mitrokhin, most attacks are committed by petty vandals, neo-Nazis, or mentally deranged people.
He says church critics are also known to have damaged wooden crosses in the past, albeit for reasons unrelated to high-profile political issues like the Pussy Riot trial.
“The Russian Orthodox Church is fond of planting crosses at the entrance and exit of towns, or in green areas close to springs, especially in the provinces,” Mitrokhin says.
“It’s not rare for such crosses to be torched or damaged. Sometimes teenagers are to blame, but more often it’s adults who don’t like it when the church privatizes certain places.”
In Topuchaya, too, residents find it hard to believe their remote village was chosen as a battleground for the rivalry between opposition activists and church leaders.
Village representative Galina Romanova ruled out a possible connection between the Pussy Riot case and the cross’s destruction.
Pussy Riot Denial
Some local clerics have also been wary of casting the incident as a symbolic attack against the Russian Orthodox Church.
Father Dmitri, a spokesman for the main Russian Orthodox Church in Altai’s regional capital, Barnaul, says, “people talk about a targeted campaign, an information war.”
“One can make such allegations, but on the other hand, other confessions have also recently suffered attacks. We can’t say yet who this was, why, and whom they support, what extremist movements. It’s not for us to say, we must let investigators do their work,” Dmitri says.
Pussy Riot has denied any links to the vandalism through its lawyers.
A number of Russians have suggested the felling of crosses could actually have been orchestrated by authorities to discredit the opposition and mute criticism over the jailing of the three Pussy Riot members.
“In one day in four different places, very strange,” wrote Nikolai Polozov, a lawyer for the Pussy Riot trio, on Twitter after the crosses were chopped down in Arkhangelsk and the Chelyabinsk region.
“The sawing of crosses is, of course, a campaign,” wrote prominent journalist Oleg Kashin, “and the Kremlin is likely behind this campaign.”
The claim of responsibility by People’s Will, made on Facebook, has also raised eyebrows.
People’s Will has fewer than 200 followers on the social network. That’s prompted commentators to doubt the group’s claims — that it’s a “revolutionary movement” able to deploy an armed wing on missions across Russia.