Boryana Rossa: Pussy Riot as a dream

Why I support Pussy Riot, but not the arguments in their defense

The case Pussy Riot revealed the most horrible sides of contemporary Russian capitalist society. Fuse of religious, state and corporate interests, misogyny, authoritarianism, impossibility to respect diversity. This case is a culmination of a long sequence of similar cases in Russia since the 1990s.

However, differently to previous cases with Russian artists, this case is rapidly losing its critical and transformative potential and is becoming a commercial spectacle, empty of meaning. This senselessness is thus serving the very mechanisms of contemporary misogyny, against which the group was seemingly protesting at the beginning.
What happened with these three women has been a perfectly orchestrated (intentionally or not) spectacle of contradictions. Often the actions taken by the different parties, pro or against them, did not lead to the intended effect, but rather to its opposite.

I won’t discuss the ridiculousness of the “common sense” moralist preaching of the persecutors. Their weakness have been perfectly summarized on CNN by the director of the Russian think-thank for Democracy and Cooperation in New York – Andranik Migranyan. His arguments against Pussy Riot’s ideas and personas, were the ones of an illogical, authoritarian populist, a macho, who appeals to some not quite definable “moral” values of the “majority,” a majority that, according to him, wants the girls to be punished. For that purpose, as he says, the state has no other option but to punish the three women. Poor Pontius Pilate, so outdated.

However, I think more attention than the anti-Pussy statements, deserve the once in their defense. Those are arguments that actually promote highly conservative ideas. In longer term exactly these supportive opinions, can completely erase all possible transformative potential of Pussy Riot’s ideology that initially seemed so progressive.
Here are some of the main questionable arguments in Pussy Riot’s defense, although the list can be extended:

Beautiful mothers versus “ugly” non-mothers

The problems of contemporary Russian politics due to the fuse between religious and state power, had been so far revealed by series of cases in which artists, musicians and journalists had been prosecuted for blasphemy. It started with the cases of Avdei Ter-Oganyan and Oleg Mavromatti, and continued with the collective cases of the exhibitions “Caution Religion!” and “Forbidden Art”.
The most important difference between these cases and the “punk prayer” in the temple of Christ the Savior is that this action was made by women, who proclaim themselves anarcho-feminists. This seemed to be a substantial aspect of their pathos. Why was that completely forgotten?
Many of their defenders point out that Pussy Riot are “mothers and beauties,” as a relevant reason for them to not go to jail. Yekaterina Samutsevich is usually not mentioned in these cases, because she doesn’t fit. Does that mean that the ones who fail to fit this “beauty/mother” ideal do not deserve to be released or won’t be heard? The colorful masks of the group had been taken off; the fascist discourse about “beauty” (or about what is considered “beautiful” by a deeply misogynist society) had taken over our minds so naturally, as if we were supposed to think that way by default.

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Collage made by a fan of Nadezda Tolokonnikova uncritically re-posted many times on facebook by famous artists incl.

After Pussy Riot’s first actions in November 2011, feminists critiqued the contradictions and vagueness of their texts, and particularly the use of words like “sexist” mixed with aggressive statements, which is an English word and a notion unfamiliar to the wider Russian audience. Accordingly, this word says nothing at this moment to this audience and does not help the dissemination and development of feminist ideas. Here I am simplifying this feminists’ argument (that otherwise deserves extra attention) to underline that after so many months of crazy TV shows and published texts on the case, it became clear that Russian society (at least the one that is the most actively speaking) actually not only does not know what “sexist,” means, but it does not know what the word “woman” means either, not to speak about the many layers that this concept contains.
“The woman,” according to the accusers, but also according to many defenders, is a half-human, a baby-manufacturing machine; her feelings, dreams and desires do not deserve respect, especially if they are not well accepted by the common semi-secular, semi-religious patriarchal moral. In other cases “the woman” is somebody who is told what to do by someone else, or she is a “tender girl,” “a bit stupid and immature” (as they are also called many times by defenders, to make them look more innocent). No matter how stupid and innocent the woman is, she would better be a sex symbol, again for both accusers and defenders. Her personality is unified, she has to exactly fit the sexist oppressive ideal and if she doesn’t, she has to be punished as a witch or doomed to non-existence.

Unfortunately the defenders of the “mother/beauties,” that “deserve to be released,” are only in favor of this repressive sexist mold, although they might be incapable to understand why I am critiquing them once they support the group that I seem to be supporting as well. But wasn’t exactly this sexism the target of Pussy Riot’s intentions on the first place? Didn’t they play their songs without exposing their faces and feminine attributes and without bearing kids in their hands? Where did this all go now that we see their pretty young faces? Some of their “advocates” even said that performances shouldn’t be made by ugly people. And now I am speechless, because I am afraid I might be among the “ugly” ones.

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A sexist kitsch with focus of the breasts of the executed women, in support of the cult, by artist Julia Sezonova, who says she is not a feminist but she supports mothers with kids 

The cult of personality and the “brand” Pussy Riot

“Pussy Riot had created a recognizable visual brand, so now you all shut up and praise their undeniable marketing talent! Criticism is not accepted on any matter!”- unless you are a representative of the PR department of Benetton, Madonna or Playboy, which requested Nadezda Tolokonnikova as a cover-girl. There is nothing anarchist in that “brand” thing, not to mention feminist or critical to the contemporary world. This is pure old fashioned cult of personality within market economy. No criticism or sensitivity to the fact that besides Pussy Riot there are other people who are persecuted for the same reasons, but a cult around them has never been created, so “let them rot where they are together with their critical messages, once they were incapable to create a brand.” On the contrary, the following of this cult of personality or “cult of the brand” actually establishes quite conservative ideal of “how to make art” in a capitalist environment, which is “make a brand or die.” But isn’t this against the initial idea of Pussy Riot?

The syndrome “Gulag”: “dissident” means only the one imprisoned by the “communists” and nothing else

“Pussy Riot are like the dissidents from the communist era.” Well, they are not. They are prosecuted for insulting the religious feelings of those who believe in a religious ideology born in the conditions of capitalism and “democracy.” They are prosecuted for an offense of “believers” who have already been criticized by many people, who belong to their own church. But who is to blame for this so complicated case? Let’s blame the omnipresent “communists” again for everything! It is so easy to reproduce the black and white dichotomy of the Cold War; power structures around the world still dig it, because it has been an easy blame like terrorism nowadays. Why be complex and contemporary, when it’s easier to be simple and populist? Who else, but an “evil commie” can threw beautiful mothers in jail?

It is clear that the offended persecutors in this case are not “commies” because they can not be commies. They are not even representatives of the oppressive structures of the past, because they live in the present. They are a result of a different ideological and economic system, allowing a resurrection of the oppression apparatus of religious institutions. So how are Pussy Riot like the “anti-communist dissidents?”

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A sticker in support of Pussy Riot with focus on Soviet symbols

Even if the people in power in Russia have been associated with former structures of the Soviet Union this does not make their actions and personal ideology equivalent to the “communist” or one that is located in the left on any matter. Instead, they stick to the most right corner of corporate capitalism, where they have always belonged even during the socialist past. Their methods are actually the ones of the system of punishment dating back to the notorious inquisitional techniques practiced in Solovetsky monastery during Tsarism.

Today’s dissenters are supposed to be critical to quite different phenomena, not to those of the Communist era, because we don’t live in a communist system. Of course, totalitarian and authoritarian mechanisms may occur in any system. That’s why more simplistic we get and associate “authoritarianism” with the ubiquitous “communism,” the blinder we become towards contemporary oppression and less protected and confused we get about the mechanisms by which contemporary rulers organize their system of discipline and punishment.

Of course, if you seek help from “the West” (“the West” that is given the most time on mass media and the most political power currently) then you should keep things simple and talk about Solzhenitsyn and Gulag, because this couple, frozen in an eternal intercourse, had become a pop-icon for all superficial analyzers and fighters for “justice.”

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Heraldic image in defense of Pussy Riot where somewhat fetishist aesthetics and Soviet symbolism are combined

However, even the trivial Wikipedia and even the New York Times,  say that Solzhenitsyn was controversial figure, he actively called for the very conservative values, that currently dominate Russian society and politics. Is this not against the “Pussy Riot idea?” Do we need to maintain such self-colonizing practice in which external patronizing is the only thing that counts? Yes, perhaps we still need, because we continue to not be capable of recognizing and valuing the critical practices within our own countries and to look at what they say within their own context. It is quite unfortunate that these practices gain meaning only after Red Hot Chili Peppers or Paul McCartney or the Queen of England say something about them. Then we know that is OK and even cool now to support these internationally recognized heroes, this successful “brand.” Before the backing of the “big ones” couldn’t be possible. How long will this self-humiliation continue?

Why not assume that contemporary authoritarian corporate capitalism–both local and global-produces its martyrs right now and appeal for their defense from that position? How can we be so outdated and refer to Solzhenitsyn in the middle of an international economic collapse? Why not look at our local particularities and create our own strong critical discourse capable of dealing with the problem before it’s too late? If we don’t do it, we are at risk to fall into the same position as in the early 1990s. We will sing “The Wind of Change” until we burst, or until it transforms into a song by Skrewdriver (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skrewdriver), getting as a result of our stupid singing a state system that condemns people to prison for nothing.

To prove that you stand for your values you should go to jail

It is too late now to fight against imprisonment of Pussy Riot. They are already there, and they will probably remain there for some time (nevertheless I hope they will be released, although this will be a miracle).

Many defenders say, “They must go to jail so their voices be heard.” But if a country is democratic, then people shouldn’t go to jail for their beliefs. How long will we agree with the idea that dissidents should go to jail so that their voices be heard? This affirmation is a result of deeply depressed thinking, according to which the very possibility of co-existence of diverse opinions is incomprehensible, and the violence and imprisonment are norms. How many people go to prison for their believes in this jail-normative culture and their voices are never heard? How being in prison is more productive, than the creation of a free environment in which these diverse opinions can strike against each other and produce changes that way?

So therefore now it is too late to defend Pussy Riot. We had to fight mechanisms of suppression of difference much earlier. Nobody should go to jail if we are sensitive to oppression before it takes its most violent form like it did in this case.

Why Pussy Riot should be released?

The strongest side of their actions is in the fact that intentionally or not, the most serious problems in contemporary society had been revealed, and most importantly these problems got more media resonance than in all previous cases. In all these media spectacles we saw the general attitude towards women as semi-people. Pussy Riot should not be in jail, because while they are there this society will continue to affirm its repressive segregation by gender. If they remain in prison one of the most serious problems, nowadays, namely the fuse between religious and secular power (addressed numerous times by both believers and non-believers and by Yekaterina Samutsevihc in her last statement, which to my opinion was the strongest of the three) will remain intact. Unfortunately, both institutions, religious and state, are being compromised by this fuse.

If Pussy Riot remain in prison, these problems won’t get better “vocalized”: on the contrary they will prevail and the possibility of democratic coexistence of diverse opinions will be cut off. The abscesses of society will not only be disclosed, but will prevail victoriously.

P. S. Madona, Zizek and McCartney

This text was written and published in Bulgarian couple of days before the final verdict on August 17th. The following is an update to current date:

While the two years sentence is considered as less cruel than the expected seven years, it is still enormously unjust and unproductive in terms of change in society. Very few voices discuss the fact that the most support gotten from abroad is from the side of conservative agents, that have specific political or commercial reasons to do that. Very few discuss the consequences for women rights and feminist struggles. Very few discuss critically the rapid commersialisation of the brand Pussy Riot, tremendously harmful to any political action and to the potentially liberating message of the group. Very few if any critique current capitalism. Current power is unshaken.
The focus now is on sales of souvenirs and energy drinks with the brand, concerts and spectacles. As well as on the Kandinsky award – one of the biggest contemporary art awards in Russia. Being in prison appeared to be “a must” for high artistic quality, according to Irina Kulik (who nominated PR first for the award). Her horrific statement deprives anyone who is not in jail to even think of competing artistically with ones who are in. It seems that the continuation and sustainability of social and political message in contemporary society has no meaning for the appreciators of the stunning S&M dream-aesthetics of “beauties behind bars”.

The mantra “Madona, Zizek, McCartney” is repeated every time when some questions appear.
But how did it happen that Zizek and the Queen of England are in one pile? “The leader if the communist philosophers” as called by Al Jazeera?
Isn’t it because “the brand is the message”? While the message is “no-message”? Of course there is nothing wrong that Madona, Zizek and the entire German Bundestag, conservatives and liberals altogether support Pussy Riot against the evil uncle Putin, but not against political and social ideologies that he represents.

The problem is that in this long journey the meaning is lost. There is an impossibility to ask questions and provoke a meaningful discussion. One can’t make art, music or activism without being required to go to jail for clarity “like Pussy Riot.”
After the jury of experts of the Kandinsky award decided to not include Pussy Riot in the long list, artists from this long list appealed for boycott of the award. Summarized by artist Aristarkh Chernishev, who is also in the long list, the situation is a dead end: the artists who will boycott the award will be accused of self-promoting themselves by exploiting the Pussy Riot brand; the ones who won’t boycott – will be accused of being together with Putin, the “girls” and any progressive ideas There is no middle way, the meaning is desperately lost now and three of Pussy Riot are in prison for who knows what. This is a nightmare scenario of artistic and activist failure.

Note : Solzhenitsyn and other conservatives were preferred as references by the members of Pussy Riot. In their last statements not even a single woman was quoted in any of the last speeches of the imprisoned women, which deeply weakened their statements as feminists. The controversy of Solzhenitsyn as a contemporary dissident icon has been also reffered by New York Times and Russian artists.

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