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Anatoly Karlin
Anatoly Karlin
Anatoly Karlin is finishing a degree in Political Economy at University of California-Berkeley. He runs the blog Da Russophile.
A PR disaster: Five views on Pussy Riot's war
Russia's prosecution of the feminist, anti-Putin punk group is much more complex than portrayed by Western media.
Last Modified: 23 Aug 2012 11:38
Three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison on charges of hooliganism [EPA]

There is a rock garden at the Ryoan-ji temple near Kyoto, Japan. Its fame consists of the spacing of its 15 stones, which are arranged in a manner such that an observer can only ever see 14 of them from any horizontal vantage point. It represents a simple but profound idea: Only by contemplating an issue from many different angles can you discover the location of the 15th stone.

Yet all too frequently, as regards Russia in general and the case against Pussy Riot in particular, Western journalists have eschewed walking. Instead, they bring along a big telescope, zoom in on two or three stones, and declare it a done deal: Putin pursuing a vendetta against his detractors; sinister black-garbed Orthodox monks attempting to theocratise society; a patriarchal order swinging the baton down on the pussies that dared riot.

It is a lot more complex than that. I do not claim to have found the 15th stone, but I promise to put away the telescope and take you on a leisurely stroll instead.

Perspective #1 - Permanent War

The female punk group Pussy Riot started off as an offspring of Voina (lit. "War"), an art collective that gained considerably notoriety for its street performances since 2006. Membership between the two groups overlaps to such an extent that they might as well be said to be one and the same, at least as far as their anarchist ideals - as expressed through their "artistic" acts - are concerned. These acts are occasionally funny, typically gross, sometimes criminal, and always provocative.

 Putin weighs in on Pussy Riot case


It's basically a story of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good: Firing up a laser projection of a giant skull and crossbones onto the white façade of the State Duma building. Spray-painting a giant phallus on a Saint-Petersburg drawbridge, so that it became "erect" in front of the city's Federal Security Bureau headquarters. They got not only a $67 fine for their efforts, but also a state arts prize partly sponsored by the Russian Culture Ministry.

The Bad: Setting a police prison van on fire (the culprits were never caught). Overturning seven police cars as part of the action "Palace Revolution", for which two members of Voina did three and a half months of prison time before UK graffiti artist Banksy put up £80,000 ($127,152) for their bail.

The Ugly: A public sex orgy at a Moscow zoology museum, one of whose "stars" - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who was one of the three recently sentenced for her part in Pussy Riot's "punk prayer" - was nine months pregnant at the time. Performing intimate acts with a frozen chicken in a supermarket, in front of dozens of slack-jawed onlookers. Yet most offensive was perhaps the action "Mordovian Hour", in which Voina activists celebrated International Labour Day by entering a McDonald's and pelting the staff with live cats as a "a fine gift to a low-paid labour force, devoid of enjoyment from contemporary radical art on that holiday". I'm sure the downtrodden proletariat appreciated Voina remedying that.

As the ideological offspring of Voina, the band Pussy Riot continued in similar vein. They staged a series of "guerilla" performances across Moscow, including atop a scaffold in the Metro or at the Lobnoye Mesto on Red Square, the scene of executions in centuries past. They were following in the 19th-century traditions of Russian anarchism, with its emphasis on "propaganda of the deed" as a means of awaking the masses to the country's corruption and authoritarianism. They saw themselves as frontline combatants fighting against the regime, inspired by the likes of Nikolai Berdyaev, the riot grrrls, and Rage Against the Machine. But perhaps frustratingly for them, neither the regime nor society took much notice of them. All they experienced up to a certain point was scandalised headlines and the odd symbolic fine.

Then things went from good to ugly.

They performed a "punk prayer" in front of the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Perspective #2 - The (Western) Commentariat

As soon as they were put on pretrial detention, media commentary on the matter exploded in both the West and Russia. Especially in the former, the obsession can barely be overstated. According to my rough tally, a stunning 70 per cent of The Guardian's articles on Russia this past month - almost all of them uniformly uncritical - were related to Pussy Riot.

Nick Cohen described it as an "evil collusion between a tyrant and a man of God". Carole Cadwalladr argued that it revealed the Russian state as "scary, violent, punitive and male" (no matter the sex of the presiding judge, Marina Syrova), while feminist theorist Jane Clare Jones interpreted the trial as a symbol of "patriarchal domination" and connected it to rape culture (I fail to see the connection, even after rereading it a few times, but maybe that's just me). Carol Rumens praised Pussy Riot's lyrics as "wonderful poetry". Suzanne Moore compared Putin to Gaddafi and Kim Jong-Un. Even convicted fraudster / persecuted dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky was wheeled out to give his opinion that the whole thing reminded him of the "inquisitors of the middle ages."

Nor is it just leftists, liberals, and ex-Trotskyist neocons supporting Pussy Riot. It is ironic in the extreme to see someone like Paul Roderick Gregory, who rants against the Occupy movement and Obama's "socialism", come out batting for Pussy Riot - a group that is defined by its opposition to "patriarchy, capitalism, religion, conventional morality, inequality and the entire corporate state system". As Vadim Nikitin points out in The New York Times, surveying Western commentary on the Pussy Riot case, what is good for the Russian goose is not good for the American gander.

Reaching new heights of farce, a Washington Post editorial and the New York Times' Masha Gessen both likened the case to Stalinist show trials. The comparison isn't merely absurd; it is in bad taste, considering the persecution of Orthodox believers under the Bolsheviks - who, just like Voina, also started off as "left anti-authoritarians" - not to mention that the very cathedral where Pussy Riot performed their "punk prayer" was blown up under Stalin to make way for a "Palace of the Soviets" (later cancelled for cost reasons, and replaced by an outdoor swimming pool; the cathedral was rebuilt in 1995).

Indeed, the only challenges to the dominant narrative - that Pussy Riot were imprisoned essentially for singing a song against Putin - came from just a few Leftist, Alt-Right, and Christian conservative sites.

This is broadly what the Western Commentariat and the Russian "creative class" had to say about Pussy Riot, and the same concepts - the illegality of the trial, the freedom of artistic expression, etc. - were stressed by the defense in the courtroom. At one point, in turning over the discussion to the prosecution, a visibly exasperated Judge Syrova declaimed, "We've now heard a lot about what culture has to say, now what about the law?"

Indeed, what about it?

Perspective #3 - Article 213

When discussing the issue, it is typically only the chorus of the song that is cited: "Virgin Mary, drive Putin away." This in turn is taken to support the narrative, adopted by the media and Amnesty International - which calls the trio "prisoners of consciousness" - that the case is one of political persecution.

But simply reading the entire lyrics, as translated by the activist website Free Pussy Riot, poses a huge challenge to this notion. It describes Orthodox parishioners as cringing supplicants, "crawling to bow" to their venal priests in "black robes, golden epaulettes". The "head of the KGB" is "their chief saint", who is a "bitch" and "believes in Putin", not God. Their wild gesticulations, as observed in the video of the "punk prayer", are a mockery of Orthodox ritual, and this mockery is reflected in the lyrics, e.g. "the cross-bearer procession of black limousines". They rage against "gay pride sent to Siberia in chains", urge the Virgin Mary to "become a feminist", and lace their song with scatological references.

The Pussy Riot trio were convicted on Article 213 of the Russian Criminal Code. It states that a "gross violation of the social order" that expresses "patent contempt towards society" on "motives of political, ideological, racial, national, or religious hatred or enmity", and that is "committed by a group of people by prior agreement or by an organised group", constitutes hooliganism and carries a possible sentence of up to seven years imprisonment.

Are the lyrics motivated by religious hatred? The court decided that yes, they were, and considering the location where they were performed, it's hard to make a case otherwise.

As Alexander Mercouris argued in a detailed analysis of the case, Russia is hardly an outlier in Europe for having such laws. To give just a couple of examples, the UK has a law against "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior", an offense that is aggravated if "demonstrates towards the victim of the offence hostility based on the victim's membership or presumed membership of a racial or religious group or the offence is motivated (wholly or partly) by hostility towards members of a racial or religious group based on their membership of that group". In Poland, merely speaking blasphemous words in public can attract a sentence of up to two years, a statute that the pop singer Doda fell afoul of by casually opining - outside church! - that the Bible was written by "people who drank too much wine and smoked herbal cigarettes" (she ended up paying a $1,450 fine).

"The reality is that all democratic societies have to make compromises between the right to free speech and the maintenance of civility and good order."

Are these laws against offending social propriety in general, and against uninhibited free speech in particular, unfair? For the most part, yes, I do think they are unfair. But my opinions and yours are irrelevant and the facts of the matter are that these laws exist, and not only in "obscurantist" Russia but in the "enlightened" West also. Read the headlines. Just this past week: (1) A feisty American teacher was convicted for five years in prison for having sex with her students - who were all 18 years of age or more; (2) an Australian man was sent to prison for rating women's sexual performance on his Facebook page; (3) a former Marine veteran was detained for involuntary psychiatric examination after making anti-government postings on Facebook (if this had happened in Russia, we'd see headlines about a "return to Soviet-era punitive psychiatry").

Of course, the numbers of these cases will mushroom if you go back further than a week. Directly relevant is the two-month imprisonment of Nicolas Walter for heckling Harold Wilson at a Labour Party church service in Brighton in 1966 in protest of the Vietnam War (an act that was far more clearly and explicitly political than the "punk prayer"). I need hardly mention the laws against hatred and Holocaust denial prevalent in Europe. The reality is that all democratic societies have to make compromises between the right to free speech and the maintenance of civility and good order.

The European Convention on Human Rights, to which Russia is a signatory, states this quite explicitly in Article 10: "Everyone has the right of freedom of expression… The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such [conditions and restrictions] as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security… for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others…"

If they so wish, Pussy Riot can appeal the verdict, up to and including in the European Court of Human Rights (incidentally, an option they'd have lacked under Stalin - or in Guantanamo). But they shouldn't count on victory there. After all, Khodorkovsky failed to prove his prosecution was politically motivated several times in the ECHR - and he had a lot more money and influence than Pussy Riot ever will.

Perspective #4, #5 - The Russians and Putin

Though ideally the tour should end here, the political overtones that dominate coverage of Pussy Riot means that there are two final vantage points we must take into consideration.

The dominant narrative is that it is Putin who is behind the persecution of Pussy Riot. But here, one must note that in his only comments on the issue, Putin recommended leniency for the trio. Beyond that, it is simply very difficult to credit the notion that Putin lies awake at night, worrying about a proletarian revolt incited by feminists with bags over their heads and aging single-name pop celebrities. One would think there are thousands of other, more pertinent issues on his priorities list: the chaos in the eurozone, the civil war in Syria, etc.

But the real strike against the Putin-is-behind-it-all theory is that it is unfalsifiable. Any outcome can be spun to support it. Had Pussy Riot gotten the maximum seven years, it would only have been yet more evidence of Putin's petty vengefulness; had Pussy Riot been set free, it would have proved Putin was running scared of them. This theory cannot be tested or refuted, and as such, it is of exceedingly little value - you can't have your cake and eat it too.

What probably did play a very substantial role was the court of public opinion, which was, ironically, mobilised in no small part thanks to the efforts of the media and Pussy Riot's own legal team. Their lawyers conducted the case in obstructive and showy ways designed to maximise its political resonance, as opposed to minimising the sentences against their clients.

Unfortunately for Pussy Riot, that court of public opinion did not find in their favour either.

In a July poll by FOM, a thin majority of Russians - 39 per cent to 37 per cent - said that several years imprisonment would be a just punishment for Pussy Riot; in an April Levada poll, it was 47 per cent to 42 per cent.  Yet opposition to a harsh punishment does not mean endorsement. According to a recent August poll, only 7 per cent felt either respect or sympathy for Pussy Riot, compared to 31 per cent who felt irritation or enmity; and 44 per cent to 17 per cent felt that the judicial process was fair and impartial.

For all intents and purposes Madonna and The Guardian might as well live in another world from the real Russia, where even the non-systemic opposition sought to distance itself from the PR disaster (pun intentional). As Vladimir Milov wrote, "It is practically impossible to explain the girls' action to the mass of Russian voters in a positive light… This is extremely beneficial for the authorities."

A Russian Culture War

"So what makes Pussy Riot so special in the attention they got? Ultimately, I think it boils down to them being telegenic, weird, having a cool name, and, most critically, anti-Putin."

None of this is all that surprising, as most ordinary Russians' aversion to Pussy Riot goes well beyond what they see as the "poshlost" - a Russian term loosely translatable as "petty, self-satisfied vulgarity" - of their actions. It is a matter of values. Pussy Riot self-identify as Third Wave feminists, support the LGBT agenda, and come out against what they see as the "despotism of the traditional family". Theirs is not a message that will find many listeners in a country where support for gay marriages, at 14 per cent, is as low as in the most conservative US state, Utah. Nor will theirs beseeching the Virgin Mary to become a feminist go over well in a country where a vast majority reject the liberal notion of gender as a "social construct". As regards issues such as LGBT rights or feminism, Russia now approximates the US or Britain in the 1970s - and that's not forgetting that even today, for that matter, the ideas Pussy Riot stands for would still be rejected by that "flyover America" wedged in between San Francisco and New York.

There is no need to invoke a dastardly Putin to explain why Pussy Riot ended up in hot water. They attempted to justify their actions by appealing not to the law - to the contrary, they actively denigrated the authority of the court - but by invoking higher political and moral principles. Those principles, however, were not generally shared by the public, and nor, as it predictably turned out, by the court. All that was left was the letter of the law.

Spending two years in prison, even accounting for the possibility of early release, is not a pleasant prospect. Many people, myself included, would consider it disproportionate - ironically, the maximum they'd have gotten under Russia's 1845 Law Code would have been eight months! Regardless, when you look at the case in perspective, you often see similar or harsher punishments for broadly analogous "moral" or "propriety" crimes, not only in Russia but in the West too.

So what makes Pussy Riot so special in the attention they got? Ultimately, I think it boils down to them being telegenic, weird, having a cool name, and, most critically, anti-Putin.

What you get from this is the mother of all farces. The head of the Russian Communist Party Zyuganov calls for the women to be "whipped with a good belt", while radical feminists, left-liberals, and Wall Street Journal-reading conservatives in the West join forces to call for their immediate release. The "propaganda of the deed" strategy is appearing to pay off, with the past few days seeing an arson attempt on a church in Baltiysk, and a solidarity "action" by the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN that involved cutting down a memorial crucifix. The image of Russia as "a European Iran" was strengthened, no matter how tendentious the actual comparison. In the meantime, Pussy Riot has gained huge amounts of publicity, and even a certain cult figure status.

I suspect that when all is said and done, it is Pussy Riot who will emerge as the winning party in this sorry mess. 

Anatoly Karlin is finishing a degree in Political Economy at University of California-Berkeley. He runs the blog Da Russophile.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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