Ten Miles Square


August 16, 2012 10:14 AM Pussy Riot - In Their Own Words

By Joshua Tucker

While Americans continue to fret about whether Paul Ryan will help or hurt Mitt Romney’s presidential chances, a remarkable drama is unfolding in the Russian political sphere. Three members of the Russian “feminist punk-rock collective” Pussy Riot have been on trial and are due to be sentenced on Friday. Here’s some background from the AP (additional background information can be found here.):

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were little known before their brief impromptu performance in Christ the Savior Cathedral in February. Dancing and high-kicking, they shouted the words of a “punk prayer” asking the Virgin Mary to deliver Russia from Putin, who was set to win a third term in a March presidential election.
They were arrested on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years. Since then, they have been vilified by the state media, while winning over hearts at home and abroad.

In the lead up to the trial verdict, the three arrested women have attracted increasing international attention, including from celebrities such as Madonna and Bjork. Now, according to the AP:

Supporters of the punk provocateur band are mobilizing this week in at least two dozen cities worldwide to hold simultaneous demonstrations an hour before a Russian court rules on whether its members will be sent to prison.

For those interested in this story, I want to draw your attention to a blog/online magazine called n+1, which has translated the closing statements these three young women gave in their. The full statements can be found here, but here are a few particularly interesting excerpts:

From Nadezhda Tolokonnikova:

By and large, the three members of Pussy Riot are not the ones on trial here. If we were, this event would hardly be so significant. This is a trial of the entire political system of the Russian Federation, which, to its great misfortune, enjoys quoting its own cruelty toward the individual, its indifference toward human honor and dignity, repeating all of the worst moments of Russian history. To my deep regret, this poor excuse for a judicial process approaches Stalin’s “troikas.” We too have only an interrogator, a judge, and a prosecutor. Furthermore, this repressive act is executed based on political orders from above that completely dictate the words, deeds, and decisions of these three judicial figures.
What was behind our performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the subsequent trial? Nothing other than the autocratic political system. 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.

From Maria Alyokhina:

It is interesting that our situation was depersonalized from the start. This is because when we talk about Putin, we have in mind first and foremost not Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin but Putin the system that he himself created—the power vertical, where all control is carried out effectively by one person. And that power vertical is uninterested, completely uninterested, in the opinion of the masses. And what worries me most of all is that the opinion of the younger generations is not taken into consideration. We believe that the ineffectiveness of this administration is evident in practically everything.

From Yekaterina Samutsevich:

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.
Why did Putin feel the need to exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetic? After all, he could have employed his own, far more secular tools of power—for example, the state-controlled corporations, or his menacing police system, or his obedient judicial system. It may be that the harsh, failed policies of Putin’s government, the incident with the submarine Kursk, the bombings of civilians in broad daylight, and other unpleasant moments in his political career forced him to ponder the fact that it was high time to resign; that otherwise, the citizens of Russia would help him do this. Apparently, it was then that he felt the need for more persuasive, transcendent guarantees of his long tenure at the pinnacle of power. It was then that it became necessary to make use of the aesthetic of the Orthodox religion, which is historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself.

There are a lot of reasons why competitive authoritarian regimes continue to prosper or fall apart. However, it is clear that one strategy of the Kremlin has been to portray those who disagree with it, or those who seek to reform or democratize Russia’s system of rule, as somehow anti-Russian or agents of foreign powers. An interesting question to ask at this point in time is how far this argument can be stretched. Does a punk rock “collective” come off as foreign to most Russian citizens? Or does the fact that that regime is now putting young performers on trial somehow cross a line that in the minds of more Russians that more traditional forms of political protest (e.g., marches in the street) did not? Russia’s last big court case of international renowned was of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. While Khodorkovsky also garnered international sympathy, one can not help but think that we are headed into different territory here.

[h/t to Anne Lounsbery.]

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.