A closer look at the Pussy Riot phenomenon

by Sarah Joseph

Last week, three members of the collective feminist punk band, Pussy Riot, were found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, and sentenced to two years in a Russian penal colony. As described in an earlier post, the charges arose from an impromptu punk prayer in Russia’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in which the performers called for the Virgin Mary to “put Putin away”. No person or property was harmed in the performance which was less than a minute long. The trial was widely condemned as unfair, with the judge seeming to routinely favour prosecution motions over those of the defence. One report even claims that the court was cleared after a bomb scare … except for the defendants.

The verdict and sentence triggered protests in Russia and around the world. A string of famous musicians, including Madonna, Björk, Sting, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Sir Paul McCartney have expressed support. In one farcical incident, balaclavaed supporters (emulating Pussy Riot’s distinctive colourful and anonymous outfits) were arrested in France, as they breached the law which prohibits face coverings, exposing the underlying stupidity of the law which famously targets Muslim women for wearing niqabs. The US, the European Union and a number of European governments have protested the manifest disproportionality of the sentences. Right on cue, Pussy Riot, which is a collective of about 12 to 25 women, released a new single denouncing Putin.

Pussy Riot’s new single

The reaction within Russia has not been so positive towards the band, with the majority, and especially the religious, largely offended by Pussy Riot’s acts. However, many are also unsettled by the severity of the sentence. The episode has revealed a schism between conservative Russians, its liberal intelligentsia and the radical left. The case could serve as a rallying cry for a rejuvenated opposition, or it could help split the alliance between anti-Putin radicals and conservatives evident in the protests last December.

All three of the defendants delivered extraordinarily brave closing trial statements. In a long speech, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova denounced the trial, saying that it was in fact the prosecutor rather than the defendants who were defying Christianity.

Yekaterina Samutsevich stated her beliefs as to why the prosecution came about. While the Western press has highlighted the belief that the trial is Putin’s brainchild, the role of the Orthodox Church must not be underestimated. The prosecution has long been championed by the prominent clergyman Father Vsevold Chaplin, who heads the Church’s department for relations with society, and who sneers at the “myth” of the separation of church and state. The three women have always claimed that the punk prayer was prompted by the open support for Putin of the Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill Gundyayev. Further, Samutsevich claims that Putin is cozying up to the Orthodox Church, to “make use of the aesthetic of the Orthodox religion” as he feels “the need for more persuasive, transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the pinnacle of power”, especially given “harsh failed policies” (manifested in the sinking of the submarine Kursk and major terrorist attacks on civilians) in his last term as President.

While all three defendants denied any intention to offend Orthodox Christians, the causing of “offence” is certainly part of the oeuvre of the radical performance art group Voina, from which Pussy Riot sprang. Pussy Riot is occasionally described as a Voina offshoot and two of the three defendants at least have taken part in Voina actions.

While Pussy Riot is provocative, Voina (meaning “War”) is hard core. Its more famous performances include a filmed orgy at a State biological museum (in which a pregnant Tolokinnokova took part), the filmed theft of a chicken from a supermarket by stuffing it up a member’s vagina, and the painting of a 65 metre phallus on a drawbridge (for which Voina won a prize). The throwing of live cats at McDonalds workers and the firebombing of a police van are more disturbing, given the animal cruelty and the violence. These actions are all claimed to have a political motive – for example the orgy ridiculed (now former) Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the firebombing was a “gift” to political prisoners.

The journalist and Russian analyst Vadim Nikitin observes that many of Pussy Riot’s new western fans would recoil at Voina’s activities. And, as he notes, most countries criminalise such behaviour. Indeed, two members of Voina were charged with hooliganism, though charges were dropped in October 2011.

But while Voina is “out there”, almost all of its actions are designed to shock rather than cause harm. And activist artists will inevitably explain that the things they are protesting against are far more shocking than the artwork itself. Shocking art is not new or confined to Russia, nor are debates over what is art, what is activism, and what is outright vandalism. Much of yesterday’s shocking art are today’s masterpieces. Much of that shocking art has also been co-opted and commercialised, though Voina vows that that will never happen to it (its members claim to have renounced money and to have donated their prize money from the bridge phallus to political prisoners).

So what’s it all for? Here, I turn to the closing statement of the third defendant, Maria Alyokhina. She suggests that in Russia, “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.” Further on, she laments that the Russian people “no longer have a sense of themselves as citizens. They have a sense of themselves simply as the automated masses.”

The wild Voina and the comparatively tamer Pussy Riot protest against Putin and other symbols of Russian power such as the upper echelons of the Orthodox Church and, as stated by Tolokonnikova, “the corporate state system”. They also deliberately push boundaries and test society’s tolerance, shocking people out of complacency even if only into disgust but also perhaps into curiosity and questioning. They want people to think. Pussy Riot may now be paying a higher price than Voina due to the greater accessibility of the political message of their actions. And they have found the limits of Russian tolerance for now, for which Russian authorities should be ashamed.

Society’s radical iconoclasts, like Pussy Riot and Voina, highlight and target resigned conformity and complacency. Complacency is one of the best friends of entrenched and unworthy power, and it is hardly confined to Russia. Perhaps we in the west are being complacent given heightened dissatisfaction with political elites (eg limited and uninspired political choices),  economic elites (eg continuing financial scandals which harm ordinary people more than perpetrators), media elites (eg News Ltd scandal) and religious elites (eg Catholic Church sex scandals). That dissatisfaction generated the Occupy movement, the Spanish indignados, and, maybe soon, our own Pussy Riots. And how, then, will they be tolerated?

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