Pussy Riot nails their theses to the doors of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

You may have heard of the recently concluded trial in Moscow of three members of the feminist-politico punk rock collective known as Pussy Riot. (I first heard of Pussy Riot through Amnesty International, whose mailing list I’m on.) The trial has concluded, and now Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samoutsevitch await the verdict, and presumably, sentencing, on August 17. They face up to three years in prison for the crime of “hooliganism”. They’ve already spent six months behind bars, some of which time they were on hunger strike. From Wikipedia, here is an account of their action which brought them to their current incarcerated state:

On February 21, 2012, as a part of a protest movement against re-election of Vladimir Putin, three women from the group came to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, crossed themselves, bowed to the altar, and began to perform a song. After less than one minute, they were escorted outside the building by guards. The film of the performance was later used to create a video clip for the song.

In the song, the group asked the “Theotokos” (Mother of God, i.e. the Virgin Mary) (rus. Богородица Bogoroditsa) to “drive Putin away”. The song also describes the Russian Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow as someone who believes in Putin rather than in God. Kirill showed open support for Putin as a candidate before the presidential election.

I urge you to read the closing statement from Ms. Samoutsevitch. It is a document of great subtlety and insight, and read by a woman of obviously great courage. Below the fold, a few observations on this closing statement.

Samoutsevitch begins by making clear that she knows exactly what she’s doing by refusing to apologize to the State:

During the closing statement, the defendant is expected to repent or express regret for her deeds, or to enumerate attenuating circumstances. In my case, as in the case of my colleagues in the group, this is completely unnecessary. Instead, I want to express my views about the causes of what has happened with us.

She then proceeds immediately to give the political context for her and her colleague’s actions, namely, that Putin and the Russian Patriarch of Moscow had already desacrilized the Cathedral by making it an asset of the Putin/State propaganda machine:

The fact that Christ the Savior Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of our powers that be was already clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former [KGB] colleague Kirill Gundyaev took over as head of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Savior Cathedral began to be used openly as a flashy setting for the politics of the security services, which are the main source of power [in Russia].

The implication is, of course, that if the Cathedral has become a de facto political venue, then there is nothing intrinsically sacrilegious about Pussy Riot’s using it as a venue for a political protest. She comes back to this point later, masterfully.

Next she asks the rhetorical question,

Why did Putin feel the need to exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetics? After all, he could have employed his own, far more secular tools of power—for example, national corporations, or his menacing police system, or his own obedient judiciary system.

And over a few short paragraphs she provides a brilliant answer to this question, retracing the history of the Russian Church’s relation to the State in Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet times. She explains exactly why, and how, Putin co-opted the “aesthetics” of the Church, such that the Church itself had become a 1-dimensional “media image”. I won’t summarize her argument; it’s short enough, just go read it. I will say that it’s a pithy analysis that would have been worthy of George Orwell at his best, and it’s a lot more subtle than it appears on first reading. After which she makes this astounding observation:

Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” violated the integrity of this media image, generated and maintained by the authorities for so long, and revealed its falsity. In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to combine the visual image of Orthodox culture and protest culture, suggesting to smart people that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch and Putin, that it might also take the side of civic rebellion and protest in Russia.

Notice how she does not lay claim to the “aesthetics of the Church” for her side; she merely says the she and her cohorts were “suggesting to smart people” that “Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch and Putin, that it might also take the side of civic rebellion and protest in Russia.”

Now she comes to the conclusion, how Pussy Riot has placed Putin in a no-win situation, even if Samoutsevitch and her two colleagues must go to prison:

“[T]hey tried to present our performance as the prank of heartless militant atheists. But they made a huge blunder, since by this time we were already known as an anti-Putin feminist punk band that carried out their media raids on the country’s major political symbols.”

Sorry, Putin; Purry Riot is six steps ahead of you. They had carefully laid their groundwork before their performance of  “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out!”, which Samoustsevitch calls “our complicated punk adventure in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior”.  Because their actions were so carefully thought out, there is no way any disinterested person is going to see Pussy Riot’s trial as anything other than a show trial meant to stifle political speech.  Nobody believes that they’re on trial for “hooliganism” at the cathedral. And henceforward the opinions of the Orthodox Church on the legitimacy of Vladimir Putin will be suspect, if not the object of ridicule. This is a backfire on the magnitude of “Mission Accomplished”, if not greater. The Church has been as thoroughly punked as Putin himself. By three women who sang a song for less than one minute.

Talk about your “speaking truth to power”.

I’ve excerpted much more than Samoutsevitch’s statement than I intended to, but it’s really hard not to, it’s such great stuff. Here, finally is her conclusion:

I now have mixed feelings about this trial. On the one hand, we now expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. Now the whole world sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial. Once again, Russia looks different in the eyes of the world from the way Putin tries to present it at daily international meetings. All the steps toward a state governed by the rule of law that he promised have obviously not been made. And his statement that the court in our case will be objective and make a fair decision is another deception of the entire country and the international community. That is all. Thank you.

Putin, of course, is still in power. The Russian quasi-totalitarian state has not been undone by Pussy Riot.
But neither were the Reformation and the Enlightenment effected by Martin Luther’s bold act of nailing his 95 theses to the cathedral door. And Rosa Parks did not end Jim Crow by refusing to give up her seat on the bus. But mighty oaks from little acorns grow, and I hope that Pussy Riot’s courageous–and dare I say, it, religious — gesture will have profound ramifications down the line.

For indeed, Pussy Riot, like Martin Luther, has worthy precedent:

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

I encourage you to support Amnesty International’s efforts on behalf of Pussy Riot.

This entry was posted in "A Republic, if you can keep it", I Fear These Things, Memology, My Thoughts Exactly. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

One Comment

  1. f.m. says:

    what you wrote is gold

  • Connect With Us

    Follow Wetmachine on Twitter!

Username
Password

If you do not have an account: Register