List

Pussy Riot Montage

Political Resistance, Gender & the International Audience in Putin’s Russia

Pussy Riot, a Russian punk band, rose to international prominence after a guerilla performance of their song “Punk-Prayer: Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior on February 21, 2012. While the members of Pussy Riot and their crew performed for less than one minute (click here for the music video with footage from the Cathedral), the event, and subsequent prosecution of three Pussy Riot members for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, “ has sparked several months of commentary and controversy both in Russia and around the world.

At issue is not the appropriateness of a punk band’s impromptu performance in a house of worship; rather, it was whether the political critique put forward by Pussy Riot was to be tolerated by powerful institutions in today’s Russia. In essence, it wasn’t what Pussy Riot did, it was what Pussy Riot said. The lyrics of Punk Prayer (click here for a copy of the full lyrics) directly criticize the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Kirill I (Gundyaev), and the government of now- Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the last verse of the song, Pussy Riot declares:

Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin
Bitch, better believe in God instead
The belt of the Virgin can’t replace mass-meetings
Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!

The result of Pussy Riot’s performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was a police investigation and subsequent arrest of Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, who were tried, convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. Judge Marina Sirovaya rejected the women’s defense that their performance was an act of political protest and instead ruled that the avowed feminism of Pussy Riot demonstrated their intention to insult the beliefs of the Russian Orthodox Church; hence the charge of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

On the global stage of public opinion, the convicted members of Pussy Riot have been widely heralded as political activists whose voice is being silenced through the collusion of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government. Musicians, such Bjork, Madonna and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys among others, have expressed their support of Pussy Riot and their opposition to the Russian government over the conviction. Similarly, human rights organizations, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have come to the defense of Pussy Riot on political freedom and free speech grounds.

However, not all international observers and commentators have embraced Pussy Riot as the latest human rights cause célèbre. Russia analyst Vadim Nitikin argues in his New York Times op-ed that the West is championing Pussy Riot’s anti-Putinism without understanding, acknowledging or accepting the group’s association with the anarchist street art/performance group Voina. Nitikin’s concern is that, like Cold War era Soviet dissidents (e.g. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Eduard Limonov), Pussy Riot is being lionized for who they oppose rather than for their particular political beliefs.

Similarly, Joshua Foust, in his piece “The Kony-ification of Pussy Riot” published in The Atlantic, contends that international supporters of Pussy Riot are engaging in a form of slacktivism that instills a false sense of resistance against the degradation of political freedoms in Russia while other, less high-profile Russian activists are regularly subjected to arrest and imprisonment without a word of objection from the international community. In this, Foust may have a point. If Tolokonnikova, Alekhina, and Samutsevich were pardoned by Putin tomorrow, then it is highly probable that the international community would cheer their apparent victory and move along to the next collective crisis of conscious. And with this absence of international scrutiny, the multitude of Russian political activists most likely would be left to contend with the repressive power of the government on their own.

While Nitikin, Foust and other analysts raise a series of valid concerns regarding the consequences of fleeting international attention and how this can, at times, mask the long term reality of activist struggles, they fail to fully consider the alternative. Specifically, well before the performance of Pussy Riot on February 21st, there had been countless media reports on anti-Putin protests in the run up to and aftermath of the 2011 Russian legislative elections (see USA Today,  NBC News, and Fox News for a sampling). Yet, despite the weeks of political activism, social protests and government repression in Russia, international support of political dissidents was relatively muted and, consequently, government actions against protesters went unabated.

This dynamic fundamentally changed with the arrest, trial and conviction of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich. Pussy Riot captured international attention in part because they were effectively packaged: feminist musicians with a provocative name criticizing a religious hierarchy and authoritarian government. One must seriously question whether Russian pop sensation Dima Bilan would have received a similar outpouring of international support had he been the one to take to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to publically object to the symbiotic relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin’s government.

Few dissident movements will ever succeed in garnering the level of outcry and awareness among international audiences that Pussy Riot has over the past few weeks. However,  rather than lamenting that the coverage provided to Pussy Riot has obscured the suffering of other political activists in Russia, commentators like Nitikin and Foust need to recognize that Pussy Riot has become a symbol that frames the broader injustices experienced by myriad Russian political dissidents. And while the conviction of three members of Pussy Riot is not the most egregious act of political repression committed by the Russian government; few can point to another act that so effectively raised the profile of anti-Putin activists in Russia. While it is quite likely that international scrutiny of the political repression in Russia will soon  fade, Pussy Riot has brought the world’s focus on Russia and, if only for a brief moment, its powerful institutions must contend with this unwelcome attention.

In the end, Pussy Riot cannot be held liable for the capricious appetite of media outlets, social networks, celebrities and the like that will eventually abandon Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and countless other Russian dissidents in favor of the next cause célèbre; that responsibility rests squarely with the international community.

Originally published in Anthropology News.

By on .

2 Responses to “Pussy Riot Matters”

  1. Anthropology News

    […] criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church and the government of Vladimir Putin. As discussed in an earlier Anthropology & Activism column, the international community quickly and forcefully condemned the two-year prison sentence meted […]

  2. Silencing Dissent in Putin's Russia | Robert R. Sauders

    […] criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church and the government of Vladimir Putin. As discussed in an earlier Anthropology & Activism column, the international community quickly and forcefully condemned the two-year prison sentence meted […]

Leave a Reply

  Posts

October 18th, 2015

Mapping the Dead in the Latest Israeli-Palestinian Violence

Basma Atassi at Al-Jazeera has put together a great storymap that explores the latest violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Complete with pictures, text and place location, this resource allows you to get a good sense of where, when and how the violence is occurring. Definitely worth a look.

October 16th, 2015

Netanyahu, Context & Responsibility

At the center of this current iteration of violence in Israel and Palestine stands the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has reacted to this violence as if he was surprised that Palestinians would resort to violence when for decades he has done everything within his power to thwart the establishment and growth of a responsible Palestinian civil society, expanded settlements with the explicit aim of crippling an emerging Palestinian state, and undermining the responsible leadership of Mahmoud Abbas at every possible opportunity.

October 8th, 2015

Abbas, Netanyahu and Responsible Leadership

Abbas is demonstrating his commitment to deescalating tensions and calming the violence that is a direct result of Netanyahu’s persistent efforts to whip Israeli society into a panicked frenzy about an existential threat lurking behind every corner.

June 30th, 2015

Our Dictator in Cairo – Abdel Fatah el-Sisi

So, once again, the foreign policy of the US has chosen perceived immediate stability over the somewhat more bumpy and unpredictable evolution of democracy in the Middle East. It’s not the first time we’ve done this… it’s sort of our thing at this point… we’re pro’s out it.

June 22nd, 2015

The Many Victims at Mother Emmanuel

The problem with Gosnell and others who make these arguments is that they believe intentionality serves as some magical “Get out of Jail Free” card that absolves perpetrators of the violence they commit. Further, and in many ways far more problematic, is the realization that Gosnell and others only want to use this logical canard to absolve themselves or other like them. No such compassion regarding intentionality and the multiplicity of victims derived from violence will ever be used with the families of the 9-11 hijackers. In the end, the fundamental mistake that Gosnell and others make over and over again is that they focus on issues of intentionality rather than on issues of responsibility.

March 4th, 2015

Mr. Netanyahu Goes to Congress

There are two things to never forget when considering Netanyahu’s views of regional threats. First, he is desperately seeking his “Churchill moment”. Second, he has a record of being blinded by his own biases and is never, ever a sober analyst of a situation

February 16th, 2015

Cursed Be The Peacemakers?

This video, produced by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, has been released as part of the current Israeli political contest where the extreme right wing of Israel is attempting to maintain the rightist complexion of the Israeli government. For me, the truly offensive aspect of this video is how it makes the case that working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians or defending Palestinian and Israeli human rights somehow makes you a threat to the country.

February 14th, 2015

The Danger of Molly White’s Islamophobia

Rep. White is the new poster child for the anti-Muslim bigotry, Islamic hatred and Islamophobia that is so deeply embedded in American society that it can hide in plain sight.

July 15th, 2014

In Focus: The Gaza Strip

As Israeli bombs are dropped throughout the Gaza Strip and Hamas missiles are launched into Israel, the media coverage has focused on discussing Gaza as a known yet ill-defined entity. We are made aware of roughly where it is (next to Israel), who lives there (Hamas) and what happens there (rockets are made and launched). But this reductionist view of Gaza doesn’t provide any insights into the common, everyday lived experience of the 1.8 million Palestinians who live in the 360 sq. km that makes up the Gaza Strip.

July 14th, 2014

Middle East News Review #28

The Middle East was plagued with news of violence this week. In Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Libya, episodes of violence resulted in death and destruction. Iran continued its negotiations with the US and EU this week in the hopes of reaching an agreement over the country’s nuclear program and removing the economic sanctions that have crippled its economy. In Iraq, violence between the militant group ISIS and the Baghdad government reached new heights as 29 people were found massacred in an apartment and Human Rights Watch condemned the government for mass executions carried out earlier this year. The direct physical violence in Iraq was mirrored this week with political turmoil as the government of Nouri al-Maliki erupted into conflict with the semi-autonomous Kurdish government.