Monday, March 31, 2014

Raw Pussy Riot

"Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out
...
The phantom of liberty is up in heaven,

Gay pride sent to Siberia in a chain gang
...
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist."

For singing these lyrics for 30 seconds in the Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in 2012, two young women were condemned to endure nearly two years of forced prison labor. A third participant who never even got to open her mouth was sentenced to three years on parole. Other participants and hangers on were never identified or charged. This was the art of Pussy Riot, the anonymous punk performance group, that has been chronicled by Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen in Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.

I've never been able to make anything of performance art or, more broadly, of most protest art. I'm pretty literal. I respond well to the bold statement, not so well to satire or irony. If I'd been there, I probably would have just gawked. So I'm attentive when Gessen tries to set the context for this unfamiliar tale. She portrays a Russian society in which only the dramatic interruption of the drab humdrum stands a chance of gaining attention within a repressive state and apathetic populace.

To create, and to confront, one has to be an outcast. A constant state of discomfort is a necessary but insufficient condition for protest art, however. One also has to possess a sense that one can do something about it, the sense of being entitled to speak and to be heard. ...

In all societies, public rhetoric involves some measure of lying, and history -- political history and art history -- is made when someone effectively confronts the lie. But in really scary societies all public conversation is an exercise in using words to mean their opposites -- in describing the brave as traitorous, the weak as frightening, and the good as bad -- and confronting these lies is the most scary and lonely thing a person can do.

To the Russian state, Pussy Riot itself was blasphemous, so the women were charged with blasphemy against the Church, an institution in bed with the state. Their trial, whose proceedings Gessen details exhaustively, was reminiscent of Soviet-era show trials.

The motivation of Pussy Riot and their lawyers was exactly the same as that of their predecessors half a century earlier: they aimed, on the one hand, to act as one would in a courtroom and country where laws were meaningful and respected, and on the other hand, they wanted to use the forum of the court to make political declarations that would be heard.

There was vast international media coverage and many expressions of support from artists and human rights organizations, but the verdict was never in doubt.

Nadya's, Maria's, and Kat's arrests had heralded a new Russian crackdown. In the months following, dozens of people were arrested on charges stemming from various kinds of peaceful protest. ... The courts had become Russia's sole venue for political conversation, the only place where the individual and the state confronted each other. Not that most political defendants in Russia had a clear idea of how to use such venue or a language for speaking in it. But Maria and Nadya knew a stage when they saw one... They were doing what Pussy Riot had always done: illuminating the issues and proposing a conceptual framework for discussing them. ...

The two women who were imprisoned served hard time. Maria became an effective jailhouse lawyer; Nadya sought anonymity among the general population, but eventually resorted to a hunger strike against the brutality of prison conditions. Both were released two months early as part of Vladimir Putin's pre-Olympic effort to quiet international criticism of the human rights climate in Russia.

Gessen's book is not easily comprehensible for a U.S. reader. I felt as if I could know all the words and still not be quite sure I had gotten the meaning. Rather than violate the women again by interpreting their art, their actions, their lives, and their pains in terms that are more readily understandable to us, Gessen transmits their own self-descriptions without much cultural mediation. In our easy apparent freedom, I feel pretty sure we don't quite get it. But I think those of us who are progressive have to recognize that we are on Pussy Riot's side insofar as we can understand their cause. Or maybe I should say insofar they can understand their cause. They have come up in, and choose to remain in, a place and time where life and action define more than self-conscious explanations.

3 comments:

Hattie said...

Downloading a sample right now.

amspirnational said...

Class before gender! spiritual foundation before gender! Socialism in One Country!
Support Eurasian Socialist Unity/ Fight Amer-Zionist plots to harm Russia!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxhxRyeX8tY

janinsanfran said...

@amspirnational: i can only note the date on which you posted this. Be well.

Related Posts with Thumbnails