‘Prison is Russia in miniature’

Until recently, when someone mentioned modern-day Russia, I’d think of those photographs by Anna Skladmann of Russia’s wealthy children:

Well those, and the fact that there have been so many journalists murdered in Russia since the early 90s that the list has its own Wikipedia page.

Then there was what I’d gleaned from the past few years at the Melbourne International Film Festival, from films such as Elena, a glacial portrait of the economic disproportion between the haves and the have-nots. And other films I’ve since forgotten the titles of that hinted at Russia’s corrupted psyche; they’ve blurred into a cinematic concoction of individuals caught in bleak cycles of extreme violence and rape and murder and more rape.

This year I saw only one Russian film at MIFF: the documentary Tomorrow, about the anarchist art collective Voina. In English, voina means ‘war’.

Voina has 60 or so members, but not all take part in each performance. The piece that made them semi-famous was 2008’s Fuck for the heir Puppy Bear!, in which five couples fornicated in Moscow’s Museum of Biology. (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, said to be the ‘evil genius’ leader of Pussy Riot, was a heavily pregnant participant in the stunt.) The one that made them internationally famous was their challenge to police rule: the overturning of a police car, which they filmed and posted on YouTube.

Tomorrow spends a great deal of time on the mechanics of the police car action, so really doesn’t do the collective – or their artistic and political vision – justice. I left the film knowing only two things about Voina: they viewed their politics as indistinguishable from their art and they were vaguely committed to anarchism.

Pussy Riot’s music videos, on the other hand – whether due to the intense media coverage that has made them cause célèbres or because their trial forced them to crystallise their theoretical positions – read like short seditious studies of the Russian atmosphere.

Pussy Riot only formed in August of last year, in response to two political events: the re-election of Vladimir Putin, and the changes to abortion laws which state that providers can no longer recommend abortion as a ‘safe legal procedure’ and now have to devote some of their advertising to listing the ways in which abortion could potentially harm a woman’s health. (A bizarre stipulation considering carrying a pregnancy to term is far more dangerous to a woman’s health. It’s also worth mentioning that Russia was the first country to legalise abortion in 1920, following the Russian Revolution. It was then made illegal during and after Stalin’s reign. Due to further changes in October last year, abortion is now illegal after 12 weeks, except in cases of rape or medical emergency.)

They realised, said one of PR’s members in an interview in March, that:

this country needs a militant, punk-feminist, street band that will rip through Moscow’s streets and squares, mobilise public energy against the evil crooks of the Putinist junta and enrich the Russian cultural and political opposition with themes that are important to us: gender and LGBT rights, problems of masculine conformity, absence of a daring political message on the musical and art scenes, and the domination of males in all areas of public discourse.

Contrary to popular media opinion, Pussy Riot is not really just a band. They are an anonymous political guerilla art collective of 10 performers and a crew of another 15. Performers regularly exchange roles, costumes and identities, reinforcing the theory of Pussy Riot as a series of politically defiant acts and ideas, as opposed to musical entertainers.

As you can see in this impromptu performance on the roof of a prison for activists arrested during the 5 December post-election protests, Pussy Riot don’t actually sing in public. Rather, the guerilla acts are about the spectacle of art, of political protest and of disturbance.

In a country where less than one per cent of trials result in a verdict of not guilty, and around 65 per cent of the population identify as Orthodox, the PR members being tried were inevitably going to serve a jail sentence. This, one could argue, became the point of the international outreach during the trial: to show that Russia is indeed a totalitarian country, one where dissent is basically outlawed and where there is no separation between Patriarch Kirill’s church and Vladimir Putin’s state (yes, the head of Russia’s church really has the designation ‘Patriarch’; he is also, like Putin, ex-KGB).

This is the Punk Prayer Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevitch were tried for:

‘Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away’

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away
Put Putin away, put Putin away

Black robe, golden epaulettes
All parishioners crawl to bow

The phantom of liberty is in heaven
Gay-pride sent to Siberia in chains

The head of the KGB, their chief saint,
Leads protesters to prison under escort

In order not to offend His Holiness
Women must give birth and love

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist
Become a feminist, become a feminist.

Following their performance, Pussy Riot defended the act from accusations of religious hatred, stating that they needed to sing the prayer at the altar:

in a place where women are strictly forbidden. The fact is, the church is promoting a very conservative worldview that does not fit into such values as freedom of choice, the formation of political identity, gender identity, or sexual identity, critical thinking, multiculturalism, or attention to contemporary culture.

During their trial, Tolokonnikova asked a number of the prosecution’s witnesses if they considered ‘feminist’ to be obscene.

All gave the stock answer: yes, if it is said in a church. ‘For an Orthodox believer it is an insult, an obscenity,’ said cathedral security guard Sergei Beloglazov.

Okay, so Pussy Riot live in a country where ‘feminist’ is still considered obscene – but their battles were never about the freedom to create or the freedom to express dissent or be a woman or any of the other freedom-y inroads neoliberalism has made into protest. These women are radicals, the Punk Prayer was a political action and it needs to be defended as such.

After all, Pussy Riot went into an orthodox church and utterly disrupted it. The devout around the world would be indignant if this happened in their churches or temples. Imagine if, in Australia, an anarchist collective stormed the altar of St Patrick’s and broke into song about how Tony Abbott wore Satan’s Speedos!

With its outlawing of homosexuality, ultra-nationalism and religious orthodoxy, Russia is a terribly restricted society. But that doesn’t mean that we in ‘the west’ can exercise our political freedoms in the way we often imagine either. Take, as examples, the recent case of the Max Brenner protesters who were charged and tried for blocking the entrance to a store, or refugees indefinitely incarcerated because of undisclosed ASIO findings. In the UK there’s the youths charged over the Tottenham Riots – six months for stealing a bottle of water, four years for ‘attempts to incite mayhem’ on Facebook.

And then there’s the US, where anarchists with the same political values as Pussy Riot are treated like potential domestic terrorists, and where Bradley Manning, who revealed actual war crimes the US committed, isn’t even given the chance of a fair trial.

So these are our democracies of the west, where we defend protest for art’s sake – but, as history shows, dissent rarely begins and ends with art.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

More by Jacinda Woodhead ›

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  1. Great post Woodhead. I’ve got a hundred thoughts on this, but too many for a comments thread.
    Thanks for the context, verbal and pictorial. The photos were very illuminating. When I put them together with Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich and Alyokhina’s closing statements at their trial I get a powerful picture of Putin’s Russia.
    Of course, as you point out it would be easy to position PR’s acts as existing ‘out there’ where freedom does battle with totalitarianism. I guess PR may have shown us what sort of courage and intelligence is needed to stand up to very pernicious injustice. Nice that you drew the line between the prosecution of PR and the criminalisation of civil disobedience in the west. A similar act in Australia, would be positioned as sacreligious no doubt, but also as a prank. Occupy St Paul were very careful not to go there. Camping outside got them in enough trouble.
    I don’t know if you’ve heard the PR single released the day of the convictions, but to hear them spitting out Putin’s name in a country where less can you get you shot, is very brave I think, cause celebre or not.

    1. Totally agree, very brave, and I don’t meant to detract from having the courage of one’s political convictions under that kind of rule – nor downplay the severity of two years & five months in prison.

      I’m not sure about civil disobedience seen as prank, however. I mean, if Occupy Melbourne had pushed harder – as PR and Voina have done – who can say where that would’ve ended. And last I heard, there were 4000 OWS participants arrested, though I’m not sure if any received jail terms.

      Then there’s the anarchists, most notably animal rights and environmental activists, in the States who’ve been sentenced for up to 6 years for running a website where people posted links to violent and non-violent direct actions. The AETA4 were also charged under the same terrorist conspiracy laws for leafletting and chalking on the sidewalk.

      And Jeff ‘Free’ Luers got twenty-two years for Molotoving some SUVs at a car lot and causing $20,000ish in damages. Interestingly, Voina Molotoved a police paddy wagon, which didn’t cause as much damage, but are yet to serve any jail term for the act. (Possibly because the police don’t know who to charge, I guess.)

      1. Point taken. Agreed, that elites were freaked out by Occupy.
        I should have made myself clearer that protest has often positioned by elites as either prank, or violent sedition. The line between the two is now often elided, so that all protest becomes characterised as extremism. By ‘prank’ I guess I mean that an act is characterised as not having any political import, but just a kind of childish vandalism.

  2. Great post Jacinda and thanks for pulling all the clips together. Could someone please get on with this project – ‘Imagine if, in Australia, an anarchist collective stormed the altar of St Patrick’s and broke into song about how Tony Abbott wore Satan’s Speedos!’ – hahaha

  3. This piece is basically true, but selectively quotes the lyrics of the song, the really offensive part is the direct attack on the Orthodox Church and its patriarchs. If they had said nothing about the Church leadership, they wouldn’t have gone to jail. Putin doesn’t care about minor agitators, but some type of punishment became unavoidable, because he wants to shore up his conservative base.

    Also they were not really playing instruments, and what they were shouting was mostly incomprehensible. Almost no one would care that they said the word “feminist” in church. The pre-recorded song was dubbed over the video later and put on YouTube

    Actual lyrics of second part of the song:

    Holy shit, shit, shit of the Lord
    Holy shit, shit, shit of the Lord

    The Church praise of rotten leaders
    The religious procession of black limousines
    A preacher is going to visit your school
    So go for a lesson – and bring him money!

    The Patriarch believes in Putin
    It would be better believe in God, bitch.

    1. Ah, I took that from Democracy Now and didn’t realise I’d only found a partial translation. Still, I think the second verse and chorus only strengthen my argument.

      And there are court transcripts of witnesses being asked if they find ‘feminist’ offensive; they said they did. (Admittedly, I don’t speak Russian, but the Daily Beast journalist who wrote the article does.)

  4. Pussy Riot is a classic example, I think, of how Russians can completely transform Western subcultures and aesthetics and make them fiercer, by a whole order of magnitude, than they were in the west.
    Eduard Limonov (who was the subject of an Adam Curtis essay earlier this year) wrote an autobiography, “Memoirs of a Russian Punk” that showed the whole process of Soviet street delinquents misreading Elvis and James Dean and going to bizarre, pedantic lengths to reconstruct and imitate US beatnik culture — not realising their own gang culture was much scarier than anything in the US. (Imagine an ultraviolent parody of “West Side Story” with gangs of HUNDREDS of teenagers fighting street battles in Soviet Ukraine and you’ll get the picture.)
    The same thing happened later with punk — Russians took punk rock at face value, presumably thinking that Pom and Yank punk musicians were ten times fiercer than they really were (that they were actually trying to incite revolutions instead of sell records) and created their own guerilla subculture out of that mythology.
    It seems to be happening again now with misreadings of Riot Grrl music — I imagine the members of Pussy Riot stumbled on a Bikini Kill album and thought it was a blueprint for an actual guerilla war against patriarchal rule, not just a pose struck by musicians during the 90s PC-culture wars (e.g. when one clique of hipsters tried to squeeze shock value out of misogyny by praising violence against women, while their left-wing counterparts pretended that roller-derby and hairy armpits were dangerous tools to smash da system wit!).
    So, Pussy Riot is what happens when a “Maximalist” culture — a culture with a much stronger sense of survivor guilt than you’ll find in the West, and big taboos against *simply staying alive* in wartime situations if martyrdom is expected, and more big taboos against ratting people out to authority figures, and a general taboo against cowardice of any kind — encounters Third Wave feminism and misreads it through the lens of Russia’s martyrdom-ethos, until you have something more Tank Girl than Tank Girl.

    1. Thanks Ramon, the more ‘Tank Girl than Tank Girl’ is an interesting perspective.

      But I think some of the Riot Grrls were committed to a war against patriarchal rule – especially through their challenges to civility, heterosexuality, spectacle and art construction. At the same time, I wonder how committed Pussy Riot are. I mean, aren’t they essentially an agitprop art group? I don’t get the sense that they think they personally are going to overthrow the patriarchal state.

    1. Actually, I thought that was a pretty strange piece. And is it any surprise that Faith No More’s audience isn’t Pussy Riot’s audience?

      I thought it an even stranger choice that on The Exiled’s version, they’ve published images of the Biology Museum act, with Tolokonnikova’s face circled. Not really sure why.

          1. You have a point. Feminism’s a lot less popular in Russia than in the West — ironic for the country that gave the world International Women’s Day — though there does seem to be a small feminist revival happening.

            Besides Pussy Riot, I’m also thinking of Elena Kostyuchenko — incredibly brave reporter and lesbian activist, looks like a modern-day Joan of Arc in all the photos of her that are out there. There’s one where she’s facing off against cops and homophobes in the street, wearing nothing but a summery floral dress, but looking completely fierce and unafraid, as if to say: “Go on, martyr me, I dare you — do it, and your problems are going to multiply by a thousand! I’ve picked just the right dress to make this look iconic…”
            Leaves the enemy in an awkward position — they’re damned if they attack her (instant martyr!) and they’re damned if they don’t attack her (big bad chauvinists, intimidated by a girl!). And Kostyuchenko’s just a gangly high-fem with no weapons, armour, bodyguards or money.

            Here’s pictures:

  5. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Pussy Riot type agitational resistances gaining popular support through speaking truth to power. But to gain what? The type of neolib corporate alleged democracies under which we and others suffer thankfully?

      1. Dennis, I think Pussy Riot are struggling against the same things we are. I don’t think they are trying to get what we have.
        Jacinda said in an earlier comment that she wondered how committed PR are. Committed to enough to be sent to a Siberian prison camp. Whether PR can personally overthrow the patriarchal state they are, they act as though they could, and that is a critical attitude. One of the convicted women,I can’t remember which, wrote about her experience in an adolescent psychiatric ward, and also said that she become convinced that some kind of act of inner freedom need to take place for the outer freedom to occur. She’s right I think. PR put their finger on a rupture in the power structure – 3 young women in balaclavas acting with a considered political conviction. They may not bring down the system, but they have demonstrated that it is very very shaky. Whether they’re agitprop or whatever, I really don’t care. They’ve got heaps of guts and a sense of humour and have shown considerable composure in a terrifying situation. And done something really memorable and worthwhile.

        1. I meant committed to the idea that they personally by themselves could overthrow the state. And when I say agitprop, I mean that their purpose is to stir up dissent — which I think is courageous and worthwhile.

          And really, I was just rejecting the idea that the Riot Grrls presented no threat.

          1. I’d go further and say that we are nowhere near postpunk, and that Pussy Riot have demonstrated and are demonstrating that their stand against fascist power requires not just intellect and heart, but the sort of guts that comes from and is felt in the stomach and bowels when your body is on the line.

        2. I take your point, Stephen, and of course I don’t know exactly what future aim Pussy Riot have in mind, and neither do I care if they’re what might be called agit-prop or not. I’m more thinking that here is a chance for a definite break – a chance for something new – for advanced western ‘democracies’ as well – and it would be good if Pussy Riot’s direct and indirect aims coincided with that possible trajectory. Just a thought; hopefully, a just thought and outcome.

        3. I take your point, Stephen, and of course I don’t know exactly what future aim Pussy Riot have in mind, and neither do I care if they’re what might be called agit-prop or not. I’m more thinking that here is a chance for a definite break – a chance for something new – for advanced western ‘democracies’ as well – and it would be good if Pussy Riot’s direct and indirect aims coincided with that possible trajectory. Just a thought; hopefully, a just thought and outcome.

  6. Thanks Jack. I slightly mis-read you, and I agree.
    What the PR women have done is courageous enough with the world watching. They can’t possibly have known that their acts would become a cause celebre when they were arrested – which shows stupefying bravery to me.

      1. Nah, the misreading was my fault and occurred because I had just spent another day being astounded by the courage of women.
        After the massacre at the Lonmin mine in South Africa,the women relatives of the murdered confronted the soldiers shouting, “You strike a women and you strike a rock.”

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