Russia Watch

When Pussies Riot

August 13, 2012

Multiple Pages
When Pussies Riot

A Russian judge is expected to deliver a verdict on Friday in the highly publicized show trial of three members of Pussy Riot, who’ve already won a cultural war of sorts by forcing broadcasters across the globe to say the word “pussy” on TV. The trio of young, unscrubbed radical lasses—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich—are accused of “hooliganism” and “inciting religious hatred” for storming the altar at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in February wearing Day-Glo balaclavas, fist-pumping and high-kicking as they performed a “punk prayer” that urged the Virgin Mary to become a feminist and help them drive Vladimir Putin from power.

Arrested in March, they’ve already spent five months behind bars. They initially faced a maximum of seven years in prison, although the prosecutor is pushing for a three-year sentence.

With a clipped, maniacal performance that by most accounts lasted less than a minute before security guards intervened, Pussy Riot has managed to split Russia in two. The trial pits patriarchy v. matriarchy, religion v. secularism, nationalists v. globalists, urban intelligentsia v. rural traditionalists, and Putin’s supporters against his already rabid detractors. It has also pried open a rusty can of worms by spurring an international debate over what exactly is sacred and what is profane.

A loosely aggregated art “collective,” Pussy Riot formed in the fall of last year in protest of what appeared to be Vladimir Putin’s inevitable return to Russia’s presidency. The three Pussies on trial—all of whom are described as middle-class and well-educated—had previously belonged to a self-described “terrorist” performance-art group called Voina (War), whose feats included painting a giant penis on a St. Petersburg bridge, shoving a raw chicken inside a human vagina at a supermarket, and having live group sex at an art museum. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova participated in the latter event while nine months pregnant and reportedly gave birth four days later.

“Beneath the superficial sparring about who’s holy and who’s a sinner is a frantic power struggle over how society should be managed.”

Since it’s cool to bash Russia now that it’s no longer communist, and it’s A-OK to incite hatred so long as it’s against pale Christians, Pussy Riot has garnered massive support amid ideologically bedraggled Westerners who value indefinable deconstructivist constructs such as “raising awareness and solidarity and getting people involved” and those who’ve been waiting 35 years to see “punk rock [have] a future as a global force for justice and freedom.” Yoko Ono, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have demanded that Putin FREE PUSSY RIOT immediately. At a Moscow concert last week, Madonna temporarily put down her sweaty boob-cones and delivered an impassioned speech on Pussy Riot’s behalf, prompting Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to inaccurately call her an “ex-wh*re” on Twitter. (Consensus is that Madonna’s still a wh*re.)

Support has apparently been scant from mainstream Russian musicians, and large swaths of the Russian heartland seem convinced that Pussy Riot are useful idiots being used by Western powers who are unhappy that Putin was reelected by what even the election-monitoring group Golos admits was a majority quotient in a crowded field. Still, a recent poll indicated that most Russians feel imprisoning Pussy Riot would be an overreaction.

Upon their arrest, two members initially denied participating in the “action” at the cathedral but now seem to take pride in their involvement. In a prepared statement at trial, Tolokonnikova said, “we had no idea that the punk performance could hurt or offend someone” and that there was “no hate, not a drop” in what they’d done. But she conceded they’d made an “ethical mistake” in choosing to stomp around in the cathedral rather than a more neutral venue.

And this is where I agree. Not only did Pussy Riot make a mistake in storming the cathedral, Putin’s regime made a mistake in charging them with an anti-religious hate crime. If there’s any crime here, it’s something simple such as trespassing. What they did was rude. I’m sure they wouldn’t like it if a gaggle of Russian Orthodox greybeards crashed one of their pajama parties and started calling them a bunch of filthy whores. Or maybe they would. These chicks are weird.

Feminism has been called “the radical notion that women are human beings,” but in its latter-day extremist incarnations it more resembles the religious fiction that women are innocent angels. It’s notable that Pussy Riot beseeched the Virgin Mary—a matriarch if ever there was one—to help them shame the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church for his political endorsement of the hyper-macho Putin, a martial-arts expert who rides motorcycles, race cars, military fighter jets, and submarines when he isn’t scuba-diving, playing ice hockey, or shooting darts at whales.

Punk rock, at least in its original manifestations, seemed innately nihilistic and iconoclastic before it morphed and ultimately ossified into a blind puppet of Cultural Marxist platitudes and began propping up everything once deemed profane (heroin addiction, slovenliness, foul language, and, um, “alternative sexuality”) as almost saintly virtues. Over the years, the slogan “Sid Vicious Died for Your Sins” seems less and less ironic. Without seeing a particle of irony, many of Pussy Riot’s supporters are calling their prosecution “outrageous,” “offensive,” and even “blasphemous.” One British scribe went so far as to claim that “a pussy riot is an absolute moral necessity.”

Predictably, neither side wants to be guilty of “hate” in all this, to which I say, “Poppycock, balderdash, and fiddlesticks!” Everyone hates, whether they admit it or not. It’s time to decriminalize and demystify what is a natural and universal human emotion. There’s nothing wrong with hating anything that threatens your well-being and sense of self.

I see both sides’ fevered hatred as a response to disillusionment and a sort of primal panic at having no tangible solutions. After the unparalleled mind-crushing totalitarianism of the Soviets, many Russians feel their government has betrayed them yet again. Beneath the superficial sparring about who’s holy and who’s a sinner is a frantic power struggle over how society should be managed.

But I’ve never been to Russia, so I asked a friend in Moscow for his thoughts. He says the public now generally sees Putin as a king rather than a president and that the country is slipping back into feudalism. He says no one under seventy years old wants a return to communism but that many people are uncomfortable with what appears to be an emerging fusion of church and state. He says that most women support Pussy Riot but most men don’t, claiming that his wisest male friend has scrutinized all the information and concluded that the group is being used as tools for Western globalist forces that are hostile to Russian nationalism.

He agrees with me that most revolutionaries are fantastic at destroying things but haven’t a clue as to how they’d rebuild them.

Still, he insists that the people want change, and in Russia change never comes without violence.

“All the people here have no hope,” he says, “but still they vote for power. In Russia, we have a proverb: You can’t understand Russia with your mind, you can only believe in it. It’s so huge that people get lost, it is fucking wide and so different and so empty. It is like the universe and if you want to manage it, you need to be a fucking sadist.”

So when change comes, it likely won’t be the answer, but at least it will be an answer.


UPDATE, 8/17/2012: The three members of Pussy Riot have been found guilty of hooliganism and have each received sentences of two years.


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