Pussy Riot

Russian Punk Rock

Guest: Alexander Herbert on Russian punk rock.

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Pussy Riot’s Passion

wordscementMy review, “Demystifying the media caricatures of Pussy Riot” of Masha Gessen’s Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot has been published in The World Today. Here’s an excerpt:

Pussy Riot are now global celebrities. Their cause has been featured in articles, profiles, books and films. Since the amnesty of Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina (the third member, Kat Samusevich, was given a suspended sentence on appeal) in late December, they’ve been appearing at news conferences, posing for fashion shoots and travelled to an award ceremony in Singapore. Their lives have been repackaged into simple cinematic narratives of heroic defiance to Putin’s authoritarianism.

Words will Break Cement, by the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, looks behind the women’s balaclavas to tell a human story. By delving into the fears, aspirations and doubts of Pussy Riot, Gessen demystifies their media caricatures.

Often it seems that Gessen was inside their heads. She almost was. She interviewed their families, friends and lawyers. They gave her letters and legal documents. Gessen sat through most of the trial sessions, and combed through the transcripts of those she didn’t. This is Gessen at her best. Shorn of the conspiracy theory of her inferior study of Putin, The Man Without a Face, Words will Break Cement is a refreshing, passionate and intimate portrayal of Pussy Riot.

You can read the entire review here.

Will Pussy Riot be Amnestied?

ATPR

Will Pussy Riot, several Bolotnaya participants, and all Greenpeace activists be amnestied?

So reports Izvestiia:

The president has jointly decided with human rights activists who will be amnestied for the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution. According to the decree on amnesty, which the president sent to the State Duma, the criminal cases of some 20,000 – 22,000 people will be halted. Among them are seven participants in the Bolotnaya case, participants of Pussy Riot, and Greenpeace activists. The articles for which the blogger Alexsei Navalny are charged will not be amnestied. As those in the State Duma leadership told Izvestiia, the amnesty will be enacted at the end of the year. It will take up to six months to implement.

According to the amnesty draft bill available on the Kremlin’s website, Natalia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina would fall under point 6.2 which states:

“Women who have not lost their parental rights and have minor children under 18 years old on the day of the decree goes in effect fall under the action of the decree on amnesty.”

Tolokonnikova has a 5 year old daughter and Alyokhina a 6 year old son.

Vedomosti, however, reports based on the copy of the bill it received that three articles of the criminal code are exceptions, meaning those charged or convicted will be automatically freed. Two of the three pertain to Pussy Riot, the Bolotnaya participants and the jailed Greenpeace activists:

There is an exception for three articles of the criminal code: those convicted or on trial for them will be released and exempt from punishment regardless of age, sex or social status. There is Article 212 parts 2 and 3—the participation in mass disorder and calls for it (a maximum sentence of eight years). Participants in the Bolotnaya case fall under it. Earlier a source in the Presidential Council on Human Rights said the amnesty will extend to nine defendants in the case and will not affect those accused of using violence against police and OMON (Article 318 of the code, maximum 10 year sentence).

The second exception is for Article 213—hooliganism (up to seven years. Thus freedom would come early for Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot. Also, [it includes] all Greenpeace activists who participated in the action in the Arctic: they are now charged with disorderly conduct, not piracy.

Of course, it’s too soon to celebrate.  Plus, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are due to be released in a few months anyway. They might be out before the amnesty is implemented. Still it’s some hope and given the sources for these stories, Izvestiia, which has solid Kremlin connections, and Vedomosti, which does damn good journalism, I feel more positive than negative about this.

Review: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Amid all the Navalny news yesterday, I decided to hold off posting my latest Russia! Magazine column, “Pussy Riots on Film.” This week  I review Maxim Pozdorovkin’s and Mike Lerner’s HBO documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk PrayerHere’s a trailer followed by my opening paragraphs:

About two-thirds of the way through Maxim Pozdorovkin’s and Mike Lerner’s documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the judge Marina Syrova scolds the courtroom. “People, let me remind you, this isn’t a theater.” Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Ekaterina Samutsevich were delivering their closing statements to resounding applause. Judge Syrova’s denial was really an affirmation. The trial was theater. In fact everything about Pussy Riot was theatrics, from their impromptu performances to their demeanor in court. The three young women weren’t the only performers. The defense and prosecution, Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr, the media, the adherents and detractors, and Pussy Riot’s international supporters, which included such legendary celebrities as Yoko Ono and Madonna, all played their roles in this drama. And so did Syrova. There she was on my TV screen serving as one of the antagonists in a film where three balaclava wearing feminists played the leading ladies.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is a good film. It’s an excellent primer for laymen unfamiliar with the Pussy Riot story. The documentary also gives something to those who followed the case. By allowing the narrative to unfold through the voices of its participants—Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, Samutsevich, their parents, their lawyers, Russian Orthodox patriots, etc — even the initiated viewer is treated to a good look into the personalities around the Pussy Riot phenomenon. From the disparate voices of their characters, Prozdorovkin and Lerner managed to craft a consumable narrative. Unfortunately lost in the simplicity are the real politics of Pussy Riot, especially their feminism, and the larger political context in which the group operates. In the end, Pussy Riot and their collective’s message is muted by the film’s effort to weave individual stories about Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, Samutsevich. While these three young women come across principled, poised, and provoking, in making the film mostly about them, Prozdorovkin and Lerner allow little screen time for Pussy Riot as a radical leftwing political art project. Ultimately, their “punk prayer” is framed as individual communions rather than a collective lament to the Holy Mother.

Read on . . .

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s Unread Statement

Russian feminist punk-rock band Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolok

Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was denied parole on Friday. No surprise. This is not to say that the court session was without drama. In fact, it appears that Judge Lidiia Yakovleva of the Zubovo-Polyansky District Court in Mordovia suffered from a bout of schizophrenia. The court ran eerily by-the-book until, well, it didn’t.

From the beginning, Masha Gessen described the court proceedings as running “well and even very well.”

At first, it seemed to me that I was on a taping of “Court Hour,” joked Irina Khrunova [Tolokonnikova’s lawyer] . . . ‘The bailiffs please hand me the documents,’ doesn’t happen in real life. In real life who presents the documents hands them [to the judge].” Judge Yakoleva conducted herself as if this was a show trial, in the educative-demonstrative sense, not in the other meaning. Like a judge on television, except that, perhaps, in America.

According to Gessen, the whole thing was surreal. The court’s press secretary brought journalists extra chairs. The court staff was polite and proper as opposed to the usual provincial rudeness. All of this had a “mystical effect,” wrote Gessen, “at some point the court’s participants, and the spectators behind them started to suddenly believe they were in a real court where decisions aren’t predetermined.” During testimony period, Gessen described a scene where the defense lawyers and prisoner representatives discoursed without interruption. “It was as if [the judge] disappeared.”

Then Judge Yakovleva’s other personality suddenly kicked in.

Then something strange happened although no one could avoid noticing it was all strange from the beginning. Yakovleva declared a break so she could familiarize herself with the documents Khrunova presented. What was strange about this was that no one asked her for a break. Was she taking courtesy to a new level?

After ten minutes the judge came back a different person. She didn’t hide her impatience and began to shout at the court participants. Her hands trembled. She gave the floor to the prosecutor, who testified against parole, but didn’t give it to anyone after. She announced that the court would retire to render a decision. At first, Khrunova, after quickly saying something the fleeing judge about having another statement, stood speechless. Cameras snapped pictures from tripods and spectators whispered to each other. “What is this?” They led Tolokonnikova away, and then Khrunova started shouting about fifteen years and about procedure.

Voina tweeted this last bit: “This is the first time I’ve seen this in fifteen years of practice,” Khrunova about the fleeing judge who refused the defense the last word.”


Later Khurnova told reporters that the judge’s action was a “serious violation of the Criminal Procedure Code because the verdict can be considered illegal.”

Tolokonnikova had prepared a statement to read before the court, but the judge, who suddenly left, refused to hear it. Tolokonnikova was ultimately denied parole because she hadn’t sufficiently “repented.”

Below is Tolokonnikova’s unread statement. Russian Reader provided the English translation:

Has the convict started down the road to rehabilitation?” This is the question asked when a request for parole is reviewed. I would also like us to ask the following question today: What is this “road to rehabilitation”?

I am absolutely convinced that the only correct road is one on which a person is honest with others and with herself. I have stayed on this road and will not stray from it wherever life takes me. I insisted on this road while I was still on the outside, and I didn’t retreat from it in the Moscow pretrial detention facility. Nothing, not even the camps of Mordovia, where the Soviet-era authorities liked to send political prisoners, can teach me to betray the principle of honesty.

So I have not admitted and will not admit the guilt imputed to me by the Khamovniki district court’s verdict, which was illegal and rendered with an indecent number of procedural violations. At the moment, I am in the process of appealing this verdict in the higher courts. By coercing me into admitting guilt for the sake of parole, the correctional system is pushing me to incriminate myself, and, therefore, to lie. Is the ability to lie a sign that a person has started down the road to rehabilitation?

It states in my sentence that I am a feminist and, therefore, must feel hatred towards religion. Yes, after a year and two months in prison, I am still a feminist, and I am still opposed to the people in charge of the state, but then as now there is no hatred in me. The dozens of women prisoners with whom I attend the Orthodox Church at Penal Colony No. 14 cannot see this hatred, either.

What else do I do in the colony? I work: soon after I arrived at Penal Colony No. 14, they put me behind a sewing machine, and now I am a sewing machine operator. Some believe that making political-art actions is easy, that it requires no deliberation or preparation. Based on my years of experience in actionism, I can say that carrying out an action and thinking through the artistic end-product is laborious and often exhausting work. So I know how to work and I love to work. I’m no stranger to the Protestant work ethic. Physically, I don’t find it hard to be a seamstress. And that is what I am. I do everything required of me. But, of course, I cannot help thinking about things while I’m at the sewing machine (including the road to rehabilitation) and, therefore, asking myself questions. For example: why can convicts not be given a choice as to the socially useful work they perform while serving their sentences? [Why can they not chose work] in keeping with their education and interests? Since I have experience teaching in the philosophy department at Moscow State University, I would gladly and enthusiastically put together educational programs and lectures using the books in the library and books sent to me. And by the way, I would unquestioningly do such work for more than the eight hours [a day] stipulated by the Russian Federation Labor Code; I would do this work during all the time left over from scheduled prison activities. Instead, I sew police pants, which of course is also useful, but in this work I’m obviously not as productive as I could be were I conducting educational programs.

In Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn describes how a prison camp detective stops one convict from teaching another convict Latin. Unfortunately, the overall attitude to education hasn’t changed much since then.

I often fantasize: what if the correctional system made its priority not the production of police pants or production quotas, but the education, training, and rehabilitation of convicts, as required by the Correctional Code? Then, in order to get parole, you would not have to sew 16 hours a day in the industrial section of the colony, trying to achieve 150% output, but successfully pass several exams after broadening your horizons and knowledge of the world, and getting a general humanities education, which nurtures the ability to adequately assess contemporary reality. I would very much like to see this state of affairs in the colony.

Why not establish courses on contemporary art in the colony?

Would that work were not a debt, but activity that was spiritual and useful in a poetic sense. Would that the organizational constraints and inertia of the old system were overcome, and values like individuality could be instilled in the workplace. The prison camp is the face of the country, and if we managed to get beyond the old conservative and totally unifying categories even in the prison camp, then throughout Russia we would see the growth of intellectual, high-tech manufacturing, something we would all like to see in order to break out of the natural resources trap. Then something like Silicon Valley could be born in Russia, a haven for risky and talented people. All this would be possible if the panic experienced in Russia at the state level towards human experimentation and creativity would give way to an attentive and respectful attitude towards the individual’s creative and critical potential. Tolerance towards others and respect for diversity provide an environment conducive to the development and productive use of the talent inherent in citizens (even if these citizens are convicts). Repressive conservation and rigidity in the legal, correctional, and other state systems of the Russian Federation, laws on registration [of one’s residence] and promotion of homosexuality lead to stagnation and a “brain drain.”

However, I am convinced that this senseless reaction in which we now forced to live is temporary. It is mortal, and this mortality is immediate. I am also certain that all of us—including the prisoners of Bolotnaya Square, my brave comrade in arms Maria Alyokhina, and Alexei Navalny—have the strength, commitment, and tenacity to survive this reaction and emerge victorious.

I am truly grateful to the people I have encountered in my life behind barbed wire. Thanks to some of them, I will never call my time in prison time lost. During the year and two months of my imprisonment, I have not had a single conflict, either in the pretrial detention facility or in prison. Not a single one. In my opinion, this shows that I am perfectly safe for any society. And also the fact that people do not buy into state media propaganda and are not willing to hate me just because a federal channel said that I’m a bad person. Lying does not always lead to victory.

Recently, I got a letter containing a parable that has become important to me. What happens to things different in nature when they are placed in boiling water? Brittle things, like eggs, become hard. Hard things, like carrots, become soft. Coffee dissolves and permeates everything. The point of the parable was this: be like coffee. In prison, I am like that coffee.

I want the people who have put me and dozens of other political activists behind bars to understand one simple thing: there are no insurmountable obstacles for a person whose values consist, first, of her principles and, second, of work and creativity based on these principles. If you strongly believe in something, this faith will help you survive and remain a human being anywhere.

I will surely use my experience in Mordovia in my future work and, although this will not happen until completion of my sentence, I will implement it in projects that will be stronger and politically larger in scale than everything that has happened to me before.

Despite the fact that imprisonment is a quite daunting experience, as a result of having it we political prisoners only become stronger, braver, and more tenacious. And so I ask the last question for today: what, then, is the point of keeping us here?

Photo: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

The Riot of the Faithful

The fall out from the Pussy Riot scandal continues unabated. But the activities are less from Riot’s supporters, and more from their detractors. Indeed, it seems that Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” in Christ Our Savior Cathedral has stirred a hornet’s nest, and now all the little bees are angrily buzzing about, thrusting their tiny stingers into side of the so-called “enemies of the faith.” When I noted some of the activities of Orthodox activists in my last post, I assumed that their antics were more flashes in the pan. Now it’s clear that I grossly underestimated the fragility of the sensibilities of a minority of Orthodox followers. Perhaps it’s because I never thought that the religious fanaticism that I often witness in the US, let alone that among the ultra-Orthodox in Israel and elements in the Muslim world, would find expression in Russia.

It just goes to show that a stable post-Soviet identity remains elusive, and the virtually ideologically hollow multiethnic and multiconfessional model offered by the Russian government has yet to find traction. Thus, a radical adherence to Orthodoxy seems to fill that vacuum for some, and like good converts, their anxieties about the purity of their own faith is transferred on to the Orthodox Church as a whole, making anything that appears to threaten its sanctity an evildoer. The global crisis of secularism has found its Slavic voice.

How else to explain bringing a lawsuit against the Russian fashion designer Artem Lebedev for writing “god” in lowercase letters? Actually, Lebedev wrote “F*ck god,” but in justifying their lawsuit, Orthodox activists say that they were offended by the disrespect the lowercase type denotes.

Or the fact that a group of Orthodox activists have prevented the performance of Jesus Christ Superstar in Rostov by charging that the musical offends their religious sentiments. That’s right Jesus Christ Superstar. Funny, the musical has been running in Russia for 20 years, and now suddenly its offensive. The bees are buzzing indeed.

At the moment there is no law to hold Lebedev or the Rostov Philharmonic responsible for offending the faithful. But that might soon change. The Russian Duma is planning on turning the Russian codex back before 1917 by passing what essentially is a blasphemy law. The proposed law, which has support across party lines, will make “publicly insulting the religious beliefs and feelings of citizens” punishable up to a 300,000 ruble fine, 200 hours of community service, or a max of three years in prison, and “the desecration of objects and articles of religious worship and places of religious rites and ceremonies” liable to a fine between 100,000 to 500,000 rubles, 400 hours of service, and up to five years in the slammer.

Now, Michael Bohm’s idea that Russia is becoming Iran and must choose between becoming “anti-Western and theocratic or liberal-­democratic” is quite presumptuous, not to mention downright silly. But that’s the kind of hyperbole that his editorializing is known for. Nevertheless, the upsurge in concern about the sanctity of Russian Orthodoxy does suggest that something is amiss. And that something, I would argue, is that the Russian state has yet to offer its citizenry an ideology to bind the nation. The outlandish maneuvers on the part of Orthodox activists and the politicians that seek to capitalize on them are expressions of this ideological lack. The militant turn to Orthodoxy, however, is hardly a cure. In fact, such gestures in a society that is lukewarm about religion in general are likely to perpetuate the symptoms.

Update:

Unsurprisingly, the scandal in Rostov over preventing the performance of Jesus Christ Superstar has lit Runet ablaze. Here’s a run down of some responses courtesy of BesTToday. More interesting, however, is that the Russian Orthodox Church has weighed in on the issue. Daniil Azizov, a representative from the Rostov diocese told Interfax:

“We were quite surprised by the group of people who call themselves believers and wish that their opinions coincide with those of all Orthodox believers. But this is not so. It is only the personal opinion of 18-20 people who do not reflect neither the views of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Rostov diocese, or that of our parishioners. . . Twenty-years ago, when the Bible or the dioceses weren’t in wide usage, people found out about Jesus Christ through the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s a wonderful opera. There is nothing in it that should offend religious believers. . . If I had the free time, I would go see this rock opera myself.”

So there you have it. The message from the Russian Orthodox church is “Rock on Jesus, you superstar.”

Orthodoxy’s Young Street Fighting Men?

Just when you thought Pussy Riot would fade into the media ether (Gazeta.ru removed its “Pussy Riot Affair” link from its main page, after all.), the rage continues–from all sides.  And now there’s plans to form a new Orthodox youth organization. Will it help swell the ranks of the street fighting faithful. Initial signs appear doubtful.

Still, there’s been a burst of Orthodox militancy of late. Here’s a list of recent events: A call for Orthodox believers to form patrol squads to tag along with police to combat “enemies of the faith” (Thankfully, the police declined). The outspoken Father Vsevolod Chaplin blesses the measure, saying that “It’s a step in right direction.” A group of Orthodox activists descends on G-Spot, a museum of erotic art in Moscow, with bricks in hand and threaten its curator, Alexander Donskoi. A similar group of Orthodox, accompanied by a NTV camera crew, no less, burst into Teatr.doc to disrupt a so-called “Eyewitness theater” where a panel of witnesses to the Pussy Riot trial were giving their impressions.

Then there are reports that Alexandr Sidyakin, the United Russia deputy who came up with the law upping the fines on protests, is working on a blasphemy law based on the German and Austrian codices. He later denied that any such law is in the works.

For their part, the so-called “enemies of faith” have not remained silent. On 17 August, the bare-chested activists of FEMEN cut down a cross in central Kiev to protest Pussy Riot’s two year prison sentence. Then ten days later, a previously unknown group, Narodnaya Volia, or People’s Will, the namesake of the 19th century Russian terrorist group, took a chainsaw to three crosses in village of Smelovsky in Chelyabinsk Province and another in the district of Varavino-Faktoriya in Arkhangelsk. According to Narodnaya Volia’s statement:

“The cutting down of the Russia Orthodox Church crosses in the village of Smelovsky, Verkhneuralsky District of the Chelyabinsk Region and in the city district Varavino-Faktoriya in Arkhangelsk is part of our operation against the Russian Orthodox Church called Krestopoval and was carried out by the military wing of our Movement, the flight combat units Neizvestnyye [the Unknown]. . . Russian Orthodox Church signs are a response to the statement on the creation of Orthodox militia, the Russian Orthodox Church’s reprisal of the Russian girls from Pussy Riot, and the insult by Archpriest Dimitrii Smirnov of the prominent Russian revolutionary movement leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. . . We demand the immediate release of the Pussy Riot members. Attacks against the Russian Orthodox Church will continue until our demands are fully met.”

Then there is this week’s Russian tabloid sensation: two women were found murdered in Kazan with “Free Pussy Riot” written on the wall in their blood.  RuNet was immediately ablaze with all kinds of conspiracy theories (Why didn’t initial reports mention the blood tinged “Free Pussy Riot”? The cops must have planted it . . . ) and cries of provocation from Pussy Riot supporters, and their denunciation by Pussy Riot foes (Archpriest Smirnov: “The blood of the murdered women of Kazan is on the conscious of Pussy Riot’s supporters”). The cops immediately dismissed any real connection to Pussy Riot and passed it off as the work of a crazy person.

The police were right: the killer turned himself in and revealed that his Charley Mansonesque scrawl was meant to throw off the cops.

Sill, the discourse on Pussy Riot gained new intensity.

And now Vedomosti reports that there are plans to create the All-Russian Association of Orthodox Youth. Interesting timing. Actually, the idea seems that have been in the works as Putin was asked about it at this year’s Seliger summer bash. He supported the idea as long as it didn’t become “a new quasi-Orthodox Komsomol.” Wouldn’t that be ironic if it did?

The Pussy Riot Affair only gave the idea of a Orthodox youth organization more purpose. According to Vadim Kvyatkovskii, the meeting’s coordinator, Pussy Riot showed that missionary efforts among youth require intensification. Surveys have shown that youth tend to support Pussy Riot more and often have negative views of the Orthodox Church. That said, Pussy Riot bogey-women have the potential to draw religiously inclined youth into defending the faith. During the trial, the church affiliated group Georgievtsy increased its membership from 400 to 600. Even United Russia’s youth wing, Molodaya gvardiia is looking to get into the act. It’s leader, Maksim Rudnev, said that there is room to work with Kvyatkovskii’s new Orthodox youth organization.

But perhaps its too soon to lump Kvyatkovskii’s group in with the Orthodox fanatics. Pussy Riot may spark new earnest, but not militant urgency. One sign of this is that Kvyatkovskii has ruled out the idea of his new youth group joining the Orthodox patrols. When asked about his position on the matter in an interview on Slon.ru, he responded:

Militias are a form of united citizens, but no more. In general, I don’t know of a single such voluntary patrol really existing. I know that where were several PR efforts, but I am not confident that this most effective way to unite youth. For example, we have young guys actively participating in helping Krymsk. This experience showed them that such volunteer groups now have much more demand. We aren’t very close with the tendencies toward some conservatism. On the contrary, we talk about the openness of the church and our activities, and we are prepared to make steps towards any interested people. Therefore we are not close or interested in the idea of a street patrol as some kind of watchdog.

It seems that in the search for new militants, Russian Orthodoxy’s street fighting men will have to look elsewhere.

Picture: Ridus

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