I support Pussy Riot, but. . .

A young woman at an opposition protest in April. The newspaper headline reads: “Freedom for Pussy Riot.”

[Sorry this is a bit long! It’s a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about, and will continue to think through. Comments welcome!]

As the (probable) end of the trial nears for the three Russian women being held responsible for Pussy Riot’s punk prayer/concert/ protest/provocation in the Church of Christ the Savior, I’ve been following Western/English-language coverage of the whole deal with some interest. The story we’re getting seems to be: Three artist-feminists stood up against Putin, bravely spoke truth to power, and are being threatened with years in prison for an act which we (liberal, freedom-loving Westerners) would honor as freedom of speech. Western artists (just last night, Madonna in Moscow!) have taken up the cause, lauding the women for their heroism against abusive government power.

It’s a heartening tale, right? I get it, too—how often do we get to see news about young women—creative, articulate, intense—making a stir on the political scene? My inner wannabe punk rocker is cheering.

But, having been in Moscow during part of this affair, and having talked with my own young, urban, intellectual friends and acquaintances about it, I’m frustrated about what’s lacking in this story. And not just because the anthropologist’s favorite phrase is, “well, it’s more complicated than that.” 

Some of the things:

An over-simplistic moral tale. The popular narrative suggests that the conflict here is binary: Pussy Riot vs. Putin; urban intellectuals vs. the brainwashed Russian masses; progressive liberal values vs. authoritarian backwardness. And in each case, it’s a pretty black-and-white conflict. But for many Muscovites, it’s not so clear. One young woman I interviewed last spring expressed an ambivalent sort of sympathy, saying that as a (non-Orthodox) Christian she didn’t support Pussy Riot’s action at all. But the threatened punishment—seven years in prison—was excessive. Another young man, an activist in a far-left political group, noted that he of course supported Pussy Riot on principle, as victims of a repressive state, but he still didn’t think their tactics were very helpful. This kind of protest, he feared, would likely hurt the opposition movement by antagonizing the majority of Russians. And a number of feminists expressed frustration that Pussy Riot so quickly became the sole representatives of Russian feminism to the West, when they’ve been struggling for years to raise awareness about gender inequality and the increasingly active political role of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Misunderstanding politics. Ah, right—the Church! Recall that Pussy Riot may have name-checked Putin, but they performed at a site closely associated with the Orthodox Church. The song they performed didn’t attack Putin alone, but the political associations between him and the Church.

[This remains a live topic of conversation in these parts. My flatmate just got home and told me about the Madonna concert she went to last night, making the same point herself: the reason many people got upset about Pussy Riot wasn’t for their attack on Putin, but for their attack on the Church.]

Missing this facet of the story isn’t just a problem accuracy and completeness. It actually hampers readers’ understanding of contemporary Russian politics. The popular view in the West is that Putin is something of an authoritarian puppet-master, that at the end of the day, he has basically free reign to run things as he likes. But I would argue that, like the mass opposition demonstrations last winter, the Pussy Riot event illustrates something quite different: while he’s quite powerful, Putin can’t just ignore public opinion or the other powerful political actors in Russia. In this case, officials in the Orthodox Church were agitating for a swift and severe punishment. And it’s Orthodox activists and many believers who continue to advocate in the public sphere for the government to take an active role in defending the Church. Presenting this as a story about an authoritarian dictator seriously misrepresents the political scene.

Ignoring Orthodox viewpoints, plus self-congratulation. Yes, it’s nice to have an opportunity to pat ourselves (in the West) on the back for upholding freedom of speech and expression and so on. (As long as it’s not too close to a major political party or bothering the wrong people. Ahem.) But maybe journalists would better serve the public by investigating and explaining the context around an event. Why is it, they might ask, that the Church took such great offense to this particular event? Why did thousands of people join in a mass liturgy and prayer at the Church of Christ the Savior last April? Answering these questions might help us learn something about what seem to be powerful changes in Russian society since the end of the USSR.

Ok, I admit some of these are issues I’m hoping to dig into while I’m here, so maybe I’m a little biased. But you can do better, news bureaus! As for me, I’m going to keep working through this one–it’s a complicated story, and my own understanding might be quite different in a few months. I’ll be sure to keep you updated.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “I support Pussy Riot, but. . .

  1. I appreciate an alternative narrative – and it is valid – but the issue is how the State and Church respond as much as the ‘act’. The crime has been framed by the State as religous hooliganism when it was political. In the UK the stunt would be classed as that a stunt

  2. Certainly, and thanks for the comment. An interesting element in the courtroom arguments has definitely been what counts as ‘political.’ How could something be mere hooliganism, without any status as a political expression (as the prosecutors try to suggest), but at the same time be so very threatening that it must be prosecuted very publicly and commented on by political leaders? The very fact that these women have been imprisoned and tried for such a small offense shows that their actions were a political display.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s