Mercy, not justice

Last week, the Magic 8-Ball that is the Russian blogosphere read “Signs point to…Pussy Riot being released from prison.” Perhaps an amnesty. Perhaps the verdict would be overturned. And lo, the amnesty was passed. But I’m holding back my cheers of triumph; releasing the two still-incarcerated members would be not a belated exercise of justice, but a continued manipulation of young women’s lives to demonstrate the authority of powerful men.

You may remember Pussy Riot from such actions as “Kiss a Cop,” “A Punk-Prayer,” or perhaps their more recent material, performed in uncharacterically dull costumes: testimony at a politically-motivated criminal trial and prison hunger strikes to protest living and labor conditions. Nadya Tolokonnikova, Masha Alekhina, and Katya Samutsevich were convicted in 2012 of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” thanks to an unauthorized performance in a major Moscow cathedral protesting their government’s reactionary gender politics and the increasing political influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Katya was released a few months later, but Nadya and Masha have been grinding out their terms in labor camps.

Among liberal Westerners, the group has been widely celebrated as heroic, martyrs for free speech and political expression. Some of us took particular note of their self-identification as feminists and felt a combination of awe and pride at these women, risking their freedom and lives to stand against the patriarchy and the Patriarch.

I was doing ethnographic research on political protest in Moscow when Pussy Riot first broke into international media, and conversations I had through my research cued me in to significant differences in how the group was received at home. I’ve been working primarily with feminists, LGBT activists, and radical leftists; even in such company, Pussy Riot evoked mixed feelings. Many people objected to the form of their punk-prayer: it was incomprehensible to the average person, it was unnecessarily provocative, or its message wasn’t radical enough. (I would hereby like to nominate the latter group to become our new radical queer global overlords.)

But they all agreed that the prosecution of the group was unjust, a clear sign that the government was becoming increasingly repressive. This was not a universal opinion in Russia; the case was incredibly polarizing. The mass anti-Putin protests going on at the time blossomed with neon balaclavas, while at the same time public officials and media figures talked about how the “girls” were demonic blasphemers or deviant children who should be whipped for their misbehavior. All the worse that two of the women charged were mothers.

If you’re hearing strong notes of misogyny with BDSM undertones, you’re spot on. Anya Bernstein suggests that the women’s bodies were read by Russians as objects upon which the sovereignty of the Russian state was enacted. Young women protesting the Church and President in a symbolically charged cathedral were an insult to state power that simply could not be borne. And so they paid for it on their bodies–spanked and whipped in the imaginations of prominent men, growing cold and gaunt and sick in the prison system. A public sacrifice of deviant women to reinforce the symbolic power of the masculine state.

Have they paid enough? Last week saw two official announcements that may affect the fates of Nadya and Masha, who remain in prison at the moment. First, the Russian Supreme Court issued a statement ruling the initial verdict was unlawful and calling for a review. Around the same time, word came that the Duma (the Russian Parliament) was planning to pass a wide-reaching amnesty in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution. Among the groups to be forgiven: mothers of young children, and those convicted of hooliganism.

Cue cheers?

It’s important to note that several other activists, albeit less celebrated internationally, should also be released if such an amnesty passes. I’m sure those Greenpeace activists are eager to get home, not to mention a handful of people who were prosecuted for being involved in mass street protests last year. And by no means do I want to understate the importance, for any individual finding herself in a Russian prison, of getting out as soon as possible. (Well, make that any prison. There are good reasons California prisoners have been striking, and many US prisoners also do sub-minimum wage labor.)

The troublesome thing is that such an amnesty would only reinforce the problematic power arrangements that Pussy Riot was protesting in the first place. Their prosecution allowed Putin and the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church to demonstrate their authority to the public. An amnesty would permit them to demonstrate magnanimity, to show audiences at home and abroad that they’re really not so harsh after all. It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that talk of forgiveness is ramping up shortly before the Sochi Olympics, when an international audience will be momentarily tuning in. The amnesty would take a few months to come into effect, by which time Nadya and Masha’s sentences would be up anyway. Why not take credit for something that would happen anyway?

Whatever the motives and whenever the timing, the point remains that both prosecution and forgiveness reinforce the basic structure of political authority: power inheres in personal decisions and happenstance, not in the institutional workings of objective rules that apply equally to everyone. Of course, there’s nothing unusual, nothing particularly Russian, about state power operating personalistically. What else does the US annual ritual amnesty of poultry signify, but that the President himself embodies the disiplining power of the state? A little show of mercy for the cameras, and we’ll turn a blind eye to the violence carried out behind the scenes.

I’ll beg forgiveness from Pussy Riot for comparing them to turkeys. (Although I suspect Masha, at least, is familiar with The Sexual Politics of Meat –vegetarian feminists represent!–and perhaps wouldn’t mind too badly.) I hope Nadya and Masha are released, and soon. But when they are, be careful to read the signs carefully. Never mistake selective mercy for justice and rule of law.