When Vladimir Putin announced to international media outlets that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich of Pussy Riot “shouldn’t be judged so harshly” and that he hoped the court decision will be “well-founded,” it became clear the women would receive a guilty sentence that would be the most of the least: just long enough to be onerous and just short enough to (hopefully) turn worldwide focus away from their plight.
There are two specific things about the events which have unfolded around Pussy Riot’s arrest that fascinate, provoke and inspire me, and which have been under-examined in reportage I’ve read:
1. The “attack” on Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral was only significant in so far as it supplied the staging and mise-en-scene for the music video which the group created–the one that, according to Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr Verzilov, got the members arrested. (Both versions of the footage here.) The trio was charged with “hooliganism” in name only; in reality, they had proven alarmingly effective counter-cultural advertisers, and were being prosecuted for it.
Although it’s easy to argue that every stage of this conflict (from provocation to show trial to “Free Pussy Riot” web platforms to this blog post) played out in the realm of the virtual, Pussy Riot must be lauded for their courage in allowing this virtual battle to inflict itself upon their own plane of immanence. History proves that this, and only this is the way activism “makes a difference.”
Moreover, in her lucid and brilliantly-engineered closing statement, Yekaterina Samutsevich pointedly connected Putin’s co-option of the Orthodox Church and the national media to Russia’s quotidian plane of immanence, as well:
That Christ the Savior Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of the authorities was clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former [KGB] colleague Kirill Gundyayev took over as leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Savior Cathedral began to be openly used as a flashy backdrop for the politics of the security forces, which are the main source of political power in Russia.
Implementing this thoroughly interesting political project has required considerable quantities of professional lighting and video equipment, air time on national television for hours-long live broadcasts, and numerous background shoots for morally and ethically edifying news stories, where the Patriarch’s well-constructed speeches would in fact be presented, thus helping the faithful make the correct political choice during a difficult time for Putin preceding the election. Moreover, the filming must be continuous; the necessary images must be burned into the memory and constantly updated; they must create the impression of something natural, constant, and compulsory.
Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” violated the integrity of the media image that the authorities had spent such a long time generating and maintaining, and revealed its falsity. In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture, thus suggesting that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch, and Putin, but that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia.
We can read here the clear influence of Guy Debord’s theory on Pussy Riot–indeed, Maria Alyokhina gives him a shout-out in her closing statement.
2. The charges themselves as well as the disapproval voiced against Pussy Riot are tinged with unmistakable gender bias, when not misogyny. Unsurprisingly, the Western press has called little attention to this. Major news outlets in the United States are naturally eager to report on the women as a.) anti-Putin activists and b.) colorfully-clad, winsome young women (just count the number of glamor shots of conventionally beautiful Tolokonnikova alone) but bulk at explaining the group’s larger and more systemic critique of patriarchy.
Witness the barely-veiled misogyny (and the prejudice against Judaism and Islam) in Putin’s less-reported follow-up comment that, had the women performed this act in “Israel” or “some sacred Muslim place,” well, “there are some pretty strong guys there, you know[…]we would not even have time to protect them.” Implicit here is the conviction that it might have been better if the three women had indeed been violently attacked by men–obviously they were ungrateful for the restraint Russian police had shown by not “giving them what they deserved.”
The offenses they were charged with (violating “conceivable and inconceivable rules,” emphatic vulgarity, “deliberately provocative” gesturing, parody and their clothing, “inappropriate in a church”) and the disapproving psychological evaluations they received (“proactive approach to life,” “a drive for self-fulfillment,” “stubbornly defending their opinion,” “inflated self-esteem,” “inclination to opposition behavior,” and “propensity for protest reactions”) are to my mind saturated in historic discrimination against women who dare to make a claim to power. Whores, shrews, slatterns, hysterics, bitches: these are the stereotypes latent here in the language of psychologist, judge, and prosecution.
Wisely, Pussy Riot didn’t make this maddening injustice the center of their closing statements. They had already accomplished the most forceful feminist act of the past several months by becoming for however short a time the sine qua non of vital leftist contestation. For the past several weeks, these women have demonstrated that, in contrast to the narratives put forward by “identity politics” disaffecteds, feminism does not detract from the wider struggle against state oppression, religious hypocrisy and capitalist hegemony, but is in fact a universal synecdoche for it. Importantly, the same can be said of artistic expression. This is at the heart of Maria Alyokhina’s closing statement…:
There is [currently in Russia] no “individual approach,” no study of culture, of philosophy, of basic knowledge about civic society. Officially, these subjects do exist, but they are still taught according to the Soviet model. And as a result, we see the marginalization of contemporary art in the public consciousness, a lack of motivation for philosophical thought, and gender stereotyping. The concept of the human being as a citizen gets swept away into a distant corner.
Today’s educational institutions teach people, from childhood, to live as automatons. Not to pose the crucial questions consistent with their age. They inculcate cruelty and intolerance of nonconformity. Beginning in childhood, we forget our freedom.
An artistic situation can and, in my opinion, must contain its own internal conflict.
…as well as Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s closing statement:
Pussy Riot’s performances can either be called dissident art or political action that engages art forms. Either way, our performances are a kind of civic activity amidst the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties. The young people who have been flayed by the systematic eradication of freedoms perpetrated through the aughts have now risen against the state. We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [the holy foolishness] of punk.