The Pussy Riot cliches

No irony in this image. None at all.

OK, all of us who covered yesterday’s verdict were writing fast, and maybe also caught up in the moment, but many of the cliches, exaggerations and outright myths about this case are truly irritating me. Let’s just pick up on a few of the more egregious ones surfacing in the media and online comment:

“It’s like Stalinism.” As Mark Adomanis has eloquently pointed out, no it’s not, and to say it’s anything like it is dramatically to underplay just how ghastly Stalinism was.When the Pussy Riot trio, battered, bruised and brutalized, stand in the dock and haltingly read out a ‘confession’ that they were put up to it by Mike McFaul, Boris Berezovsky and an international Jewish conspiracy, if they and millions like them are sent to dig canals with their bare hands for 25 years or get a bullet in the head at the Butovo firing range, then you can call it Stalinism.

“It’s like Nazis performing in the synagogue.” No, it’s not. Pussy Riot were protesting against Putin, not calling for the extermination of Russian Orthodox believers. They may have been politically inflammatory and musically raucous, but their message is actually a distinctly humane one. Whether or not you think it legitimate protest (not least as the Russian Church is slavishly – pun intended – supportive of Putin), a childish stunt or an act of blasphemy, don’t make it more than it is.

“It was just a publicity stunt to sell records.” I doubt it. Sure, they garnered a great deal of attention, but to a large extent that was because not of their act but the trial – had the state and Church dismissed them as irrelevant and childish, or slapped on a fine or some community service, they would have been a 5-minute wonder. They could hardly have predicted what happened. Besides, if they did, if they were willing to spend a couple of years in Russia’s violent, under controlled, TB-ridden prison system just to sell records, then that’s a level of dedication we should surely applaud…

“It was whipped up by the Western media.” No, it wasn’t. Frankly, I am sure the Western media wishes it had this power, but you can ‘blame’ the clumsy handling of the case by the Russian state, the power of social media and the presence of a genuine, vocal minority who don’t like the current regime. For some reason The Guardian often seems to be regarded as the eminence grise here. I love the Grauniad dearly, but I somehow don’t see it as some combination of Bilderberg and SPECTRE. I suppose its power would explain why the UK has a liberal, leftist government, a thriving and bounteously-funded National Health Service, and Rupert Murdoch behind bars. Oh, wait, it doesn’t…

“It’s the end of Putinism.” I doubt it. Maybe we’ll look back and see it as part of the end of Putinism, to be sure, but losing Paul McCartney’s vote is something I suspect Putin can live with. If anything, I would see the trial as a symptom of the Kremlin’s increasing inability to control the national political debate and the rise of a new generation of protesters and radicals, as well as a handy rallying point, but in six months’ time I doubt we’ll be regarding it as some momentous turning point.

“They are philosopher queens/the new voice of a generation/the Vysotskys of the Putin era/etc…” Eh. The trio are clearly intelligent, committed, composed and thoughtful (more so than their music). But we can appreciate their words and poise and deprecate the trial without needing to elevate them to such a mythic status. Again, had the state not decided to make an example of them, would we really be investing them with such sanctity?

“It’s all about the Church.” Not really. Sure, the ROC has an unusual role in Russia, but it has never been truly independent of the state (well, maybe for a little while in 1917 and the very early stages of the Bolshevik era). In the tsarist era, it was firmly behind the tsar of the ‘third Rome’ while under Soviet times, the ecclesiastical hierarchy became a branch of the KGB in flowing robes. Nonetheless, it cannot demand a trial from the state, that’s not how modern Russian politics works – not even Sechin can demand anything (just ask Kudrin). Instead, it has a voice in the upper elite and it can make its case, gather supporters and hope to convince Putin the ‘decider’. In this context, Pussy Riot went on trial because the Kremlin wanted them there. They may have wanted to placate the ROC, but this should be seen as a piece of the government’s wider campaign against the opposition.

“The same would have happened in the West.” No, it wouldn’t. The “whatabouters” who tend to plug this line tend to point to cases of people trying to distribute anti-Semitic tracts or the like, in countries where that it explicitly illegal. (If you want an example of this kind of offensive nonsense, see here.) Let’s take UK law as an example. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that at most they could be charged under section 5, Part I of the Public Order Act 1986, which would be punishable by no more than a fine

There is much excellent reportage about the case, and it is an important case that does have a real significance for Russia today. But there is also far too much hyperbole, spleen (on both sides of the debate) and wishful thinking. It will be interesting to see how the case is viewed in six or twelve months from now.

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16 Comments

  1. Another popular cliché:

    They’re guilty now because of Voina’s 2008 public sexual provocation.

    No they’re not, because any substantiation of the hooliganism charge has nothing to do with what the Voina art activist group did four years ago, in spite what many anti-Pussy Riot bloggers seem to think. Apparently, the prosecution in this trial did not seek to introduce that old Voina stunt as some form of character evidence.

    Reply
  2. AK

     /  August 19, 2012

    Good in parts, but:

    They may have been politically inflammatory and musically raucous, but their message is actually a distinctly humane one.

    No, it is not. What they did was “scary, violent and punitive” (in the Guardian’s own words) towards the worshipers in the cathedral.

    Frankly, I am sure the Western media wishes it had this power, but you can ‘blame’ the clumsy handling of the case by the Russian state, the power of social media and the presence of a genuine, vocal minority who don’t like the current regime.

    I believe that to be incorrect. There are any number of more odious things happening almost everyday; just yesterday, for instance, an American teacher was imprisoned for 5 years for having sex with her 18 year old (!) students.

    The reason she got 0.01% of PR’s coverage is that she is not against Putin.

    When the first five pages of your page on the Russian section are about Pussy Riot, as on The Guardian, you clearly have a deranged obsession.

    The trio are clearly intelligent, committed, composed and thoughtful (more so than their music).

    They are exhibitionists who get a sick thrill from having a (public) dump on social norms, who cloak their perversions in pseudo-intellectual appeals to anarchist and feminist thought.

    No, it wouldn’t. The “whatabouters” who tend to plug this line tend to point to cases of people trying to distribute anti-Semitic tracts or the like, in countries where that it explicitly illegal.

    Disagreed again, but to avoid the whataboutery issue, I will stay on your terms here: Why is insulting Jews worse than insulting Christians?

    Reply
    • Mark Galeotti

       /  August 19, 2012

      The Guardian (etc) are right behind PR; my point is that they don’t have that much traction in Russia. And at what point did I say that insulting Jews is worse than insulting Christians? I simply noted that in some countries Holocaust denial and Nazi propaganda are explicitly illegal. There is a huge gap between insulting Jews and advocating their extermination.

      As regards the idea that PR are scary, apart from the fact that I’m surprised you rely on the Guardian for your source, I’m talking about the overall message, pre and post that brief stunt. If you actually read their statements (rather more illuminating than their lyrics), I certainly don’t see them as these violent souls.

      Reply
  3. I have some quibbles with the last cliché “The same would have happened in the West.”

    True that the same wouldn’t have happened in the West, it wouldn’t because West and Russia have different notions of “sacred”
    In the UK people are given comparable or longer sentences for racist trolling on a tribute website (3 years) http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/oct/06/race.ukcrime
    or for swinging from war memorial (16 months) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/8639930/Pink-Floyd-guitarists-son-Charlie-Gilmour-jailed-for-drug-fuelled-rampage.html
    This shows what is unacceptable for Brits, whereas for Russians “holly shit” and parodying Orthodox rites in front of the altar in the Cathedral is unacceptable, different societies, different values.

    Reply
    • Mark Galeotti

       /  August 19, 2012

      Well, I take your point – but under article 243 of the Russian Criminal Code you have actually get up to 5 years deprivation of liberty for vandalising or desecrating a war memorial. And, of course, let’s not forget that part of the sentence for that racist was actually for having pedophile images. So I’m not convinced that it can simply be written off as different notions of the sacral. After all, if that were the case then there would actually have been some kind of blasphemy law on the statute books and they would not have had to distort the hooliganism article to fit.

      Reply
  4. Sorry for replying here, I don’t seem to be able to “log in to reply” for some reason.

    Point taken about the pedophile images and the Russian law.
    (There’s also the case of British woman filmed being racist on the buss and given a 5 months jail sentence.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2151576/Woman-jailed-21-weeks-racist-Tube-rant-seen-YouTube.html )
    I don’t think that Russia needs blasphemy law on the books to prove that parodying religion is gravely serious. I can recall an incident from 2010 where an art exhibition which included an image of Mickey Mouse as Christ was banned by Russian court and artists were fined for inciting religious hatred.
    http://www.examiner.com/article/mickey-mouse-jesus-gets-art-curators-convicted-of-inciting-religious-hatred
    I don’t condone the sentence for Pussy Riot in any way but it’s clear to me that Russians are super sensitive on this issue. Russia’s always been very spiritual and she’s been going through conservative/religious renaissance in the past 20 years, these are the results.

    Reply
  5. Good post, if I understood it correctly, it was a response and discussion of all arguments presented by media and individual bloggers…if I am not mistaken, some civil activists held protests in front of Russian embassies and consulates, at least I remember reading something held in Kyrgyzstan, active citizens were organizing a peaceful protest

    Reply
  6. This is very well-balanced. Thanks for injecting reason into the conversation Mark Galeotti.

    Reply
  7. Good post! As I tweeted, though, there are some points that we differ on.

    Here’s a detailed opinion on my blog: http://www.noyardstick.com/?p=110

    Shortly:

    – I think the Pussy Riot case is dangerous for the elite because it again exposes a part of the deep state, and therefore causes growing irritation within the society. This time it’s the role of the orthodox church which risks to be viewed as a corrupt and privileged institution. There are palpable concerns about this within the elite.

    – As Putin’s base is gettin more and more fragmented, both within the elite and the masses, it will be increasingly harder to play to them. If a silent, fragmented majority, yet a majority seems to be building up against Putin, the elite might increasingly be willing to act.

    – The Pussy Riot case is, therefore, not a turning point in itself, but an important part of a series of events that look likely to constitute a turning point.

    Reply
  8. “No, it wouldn’t. The “whatabouters” who tend to plug this line tend to point to cases of people trying to distribute anti-Semitic tracts or the like, in countries where that it explicitly illegal.”

    Do tell. How about wearing a fake crown of thorns and descending on a suspended, glittery cross as part of , yes, a sensational musical artistic performance? That illegal? Not so far as I could uncover. But when Madonna – cue music evocative of irony, since she was spotted of late prancing around with “Pussy Riot” written on her back and sporting a balaclava – announced her intention to do exactly that on the doorstep of the Vatican as part of her “Confessions” tour, what was the reaction of those tolerant, so-down-with-Pussy-Riot hipsters in that most sacred of Catholic venues? “This concert is a blasphemous challenge to the faith and a profanation of the cross. She should be excommunicated.” So saith Cardinal Ersilio Tonino, speaking with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, whom I am led to believe is quite a bigwig in the Catholic religion. He certainly hands out judgments like he was God’s representative on earth, or something.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-398931/Vaticans-fury-Madonna-blasphemy.html

    “It is disrespectful, in bad taste and provocative,” fumed Father Manfredo Leone: “”Being raised on a cross with a crown of thorns like a modern Christ is absurd. Doing it in the cradle of Christianity comes close to blasphemy.”

    Forgive me, Father; I don’t want to quote you out of context, but are you saying acts which might be barely tolerable in certain circumstances become beyond unacceptable based on their being performed in proximity to a place sacred to the Catholic faith? Even blasphemy, I believe I heard Cardinal Tonino say? Sorry, I can see you’re busy; I’ll come back later.

    I submit it is difficult indeed to interpret this otherwise than that the Catholic church is intolerant of Madonna’s freedom of expression. And since no less an authority than Nadezhda Tolokonnikova tells us, in the latest commandments handed down from Mount Punk, “all artistic performances are political”, Madonna’s concert must be political, and here’s the Catholic church trampling all over her rights.

    This is not handing out anti-Semitic tracts. It is exactly the same thing as the Pussy Riot “performance”, except that Madonna will not even be in the church. Her perceived disrespect for the church is nonetheless condemned in the strongest terms by the highest authority of the world’s most influential religion. And, “In an unusual show of religious solidarity, Muslim and Jewish leaders added their condemnation of the self-styled Queen of Pop…” That’s the two largest religions, neither of whom can seem to get with the now in a brave new age of if-it-feels-good-do-it.

    Reply
    • Mark Galeotti

       /  August 21, 2012

      I really don’t see your point. So the Catholic Church condemns what it regards as blasphemous and disrespectful acts – how is that meant to surprise us or add any analytic value? Cardinal Tonino is hardly anyone’s poster child of inclusive hipster tolerance. Every faith will respond negatively when it believes itself mocked or challenged. I am not a Catholic, I don’t care that much whether the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury or any other religious leader does or does not condemn the PR trial. I suppose the point might be that the Carabinieri did not arrest Madonna because the Papal authorities were unhappy. But if you want to discuss whether the Vatican in hypocritical — and I’d have a lot of sympathy for that point of view — then this is not really the forum for that.

      Reply
      • The point I intended to make is that there appears to be zero outrage directed at the Catholic church for its intolerance, while the ROC has become a dartboard for barbs directed at its alleged stuffiness and failure to grasp that Pussy Riot is really trying to liberate it and let it be free. Or so Tolokonnikova’s closing statement would have us believe.

        I suppose in some ways my argument actually supports your point that they should not have been sentenced so harshly, because nobody seems to have any trouble – judging from the aforementioned lack of outrage – accepting that Madonna’s grandstanding was just a publicity stunt and that she truly did not mean any disrespect because shock and outrage are just tools of the performance artist. However, what I intended to showcase was that the trigger event to the PR prosecution was the complaints of the ROC. It was not Putin plotting how he could finally exact revenge against his tormentors, and in fact he appeared quite detached from the whole process; there have been plenty of protests against him without even a threat of punishment. Discussion of it keeps trying to pull in and implicate Putin just because the “protest” was directed at him. So what? He otherwise has zero to do with it. The church initiated the prosecution, and the prosecution made a mess of it. You are absolutely correct – every faith will react negatively when it finds itself mocked or challenged. And that’s all the ROC did. But it seems to have to wade through thrown dung because of it, while the dung-throwers just shrug when the Catholic church accuses Madonna of blasphemy and encourages her excommunication based entirely on her choice of venues to play out her attention-getting stunt.

        I realize the Vatican is all the way across town from hip, and I was being sarcastic; nor do I expect the Carabinieri to arrest Madonna or for her to appear in a glass box to answer for her crimes.

        We appear to be confronted with a modern dichotomy – Pussy Riot are at one and the same time ardently drefended from the viewpoint that theirs was just a girlish prank, completely undeserving of harsh discipline that might mar their youthful sensitivity and refreshing brashness – simultaneously, they are brave visionaries whose political ideas must be given the weight of due consideration, lest the country be denied the opportunity to benefit from greatness.

        They can’t be both.

  9. Thanks Mark – very good point about the (false) comparisons with Stalinist-era repression. I’d be interested to know your thoughts about the comparisons drawn with the repression of politicised musicians during the late communist period though – for example, I’ve seen several parallels drawn with the Czechoslovakian ‘Plastic People of the Universe’ and their 1976 trial in the last couple of days.

    Reply
  10. Interesting that Pussy Riot may itself now be basis for others’ “whataboutism” arguments, as seen with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange comment, in his recent Ecuador Embassy balcony speech, when he drew attention to other threatened paragons of freedom of expression “…on Friday, a Russian band was sentenced to two years in jail for a political performance…” (8:34 minute mark)

    Reply
  11. gweccles

     /  August 24, 2012

    Of course two years in a penal colony is somewhat excessive for Pussy Riot, but surely outpourings of grief and disapproval at the verdict by the media and celebrities who had never heard of them before the group’s performance in Christ the Saviour Cathedral is equally excessive. After all, what did the group do? Running up to the front of the church wearing their trademark balaclavas, the three girls shouted “Mother of God, drive out Putin!” in front of the altar. Not a very clever thing to do in today’s Russia – not a very clever thing to do anywhere, some would say. As my new book ‘The Oligarch: A Thriller’ demonstrates, you would have to live on Mars not to know that offending Putin in this public way would lead to reprisals, and choosing to do it in this Cathedral managed to upset a lot of people who might otherwise have been on their side. Quite frankly, they have only themselves to blame.

    Reply

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