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.
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.