Pussy Riot in Public

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There is always more to the story than meets the eye where Russia is concerned. For citizens who have dealt with serious oppression and human rights abuses, it is no wonder that what happens in public is not really what’s happening. There have been clandestine groups of artists in Russia for at least the last two centuries. No matter what the political situation, artists have had to tread lightly. Even during the supposed “Thaw” of the Khrushchev era, any artist deemed “dissident” was barred from self-promotion and public exhibition of any kind. In the wake of Stalinism, socialist realism, and the subsequent execution and extradition of artists, there remains an underground art world that never subscribed to the prescriptive style.[1] In ­­­­John McPhee’s book, The Ransom of Russian Art, the author details the activities of US economist Norton Dodge, who smuggled some 8,000 artworks by 600 dissident artists out of Russia during the 1960’s and 70’s. McPhee brings to light the network of underground art makers, buyers and sellers in the country and the necessity of discretion.[2]

Since “real art” that is, artwork that is truly expressive of an artist’s sentiment, has broiled under the surface of the public radar for so many decades, the habit of non-disclosure has become ingrained in the consciousness of artists working in Russia—until Pussy Riot. The recent media coverage of the feminist punk rock group has included many YouTube videos, a film documentary on HBO, a book release and international news coverage. All of this hoopla has been in response to the 2012 arrest of three members of the group, Nadezhda (Nadia) Tolonnikova, Maria (Masha) Alyokhina, and Yekaterina (Katia) Samutsevich. I would like to explore the ways that Pussy Riot straddles the border between public and private identity in Russia, and to give an account of the group’s unique brand of Russian-feminist-punk-art-activism.

photo by by Igor Mukhin

The torrent of Pussy Riot talk has left me wondering: what is so special about this particular group? How are they different from other activists? Yes, they are women (so are many LBGTQ rights groups and feminist groups), and yes, they got arrested. But haven’t so many other activists around the world been arrested and detained in the past few decades? I have deduced that what sets Pussy Riot apart is that they had the balls (excuse the slang) to go public. With performances at places like Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior and The Sochi Olympic compound, it is clear that the group’s brand of art-activism is not an underground affair. In a culture where it is understood that there is both a surface reality and a deep reality in operation, Pussy Riot surprised everyone by conflating the two. The line between public and private is hard and fast in Russia, and this deviation from the dichotomous structure has unnerved the public.

The Church

The performance that incited the arrest of three of the eleven members of Pussy Riot in 2012 occurred at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. The group stormed the altar of the church during a service, and attempted to film a performance of their song, “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” Church officials quickly intercepted them, and the incident eventually led to the arrest of three members of the group. However, it must be noted that members of Pussy Riot have engaged in much more shocking performance art, and the decision to arrest them for this particular event reveals cozy church-state relations. Nadia and Katia were members of the political performance art group, Voina from 2007-2009 and that art group has been considered the impetus for the creation of Pussy Riot. A Voina performance in 2008 was supposed to critically comment on Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev’s plea to increase the birth rate in the country. Voina’s performance piece showcased couples, including a pregnant Nadia, at the Timiryazev State Biology Museum engaging in sexual intercourse. The fact that this performance was not censored, although the church performance was immediately snuffed out, relates the tense feelings surrounding orthodox doctrine in Russia. christsaviorcathedral

The particular cathedral chosen by the group carries symbolic weight in the country. Much like an overprotective parent, the state maintains the “protection” of this specific cathedral. The cathedral was originally built in the mid-19th century by Tsar Aleksander I and his successor Nicholas I, to thank god for the retreat of Napoleon and to commemorate the sacrifice of the soldiers who died during the War of 1812.[3] It was destroyed in 1931 under Stalin’s anti-religion campaign, and then rebuilt in 1990 with funds for its construction raised by citizens of Moscow. It is located in close proximity to the Kremlin, which is the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.

In fact, Putin attended the Easter mass at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 2012, which was in part, the reason that Pussy Riot chose to perform at the site. Putin’s highly publicized attendance served as an example of entwined church/sate relations in Russia, where church and state are legally separate. Most of the group’s vitriol for the current regime is aimed at Putin’s politics. Indeed, although Pussy Riot has expressed displeasure regarding the patriarchy of Russian Orthodoxy, it is Putin, not the Church, that they criticize most harshly. The group actually aims to enlist Christian women in their cause, and they appeal to them through lyrics like, “The mother of god will learn how to fight/ Magdalene the feminist will join the demonstration.”[4] However, their appeals have not been met with acceptance in this arena, in fact quite the opposite is true.

Public Opposition

It is unfortunate that the public response to Pussy Riot in Russia has been largely unfriendly. While it may seem like the group is getting a large amount of media coverage in the west (even Madonna has appeared in concert with the words “FREE PUSSY RIOT” scrawled on her torso), the same cannot be said in Russia. Although there is certainly a group of supporters (mostly young people), there are also many detractors. This is partially because of media censorship, but it is also because many Russians are not sympathetic to Pussy Riot’s cause. What, exactly is Pussy Riot’s cause? An unidentified member of the group stated in the HBO documentary, Pussy Riot! A Punk Rock Prayer For Freedom, “As artists, our goal is to change humanity, to transform consciousness a little bit.” Some of their stated aims are: to end patriarchy in the Russian orthodox church, which does not ordain female clergy; tolerance for gay rights in Russia; and to incite the public to think critically about their government.

These aims may seem rather benign to American readers; however, the citizens of the former Soviet Union have a different perspective. Organized religion was illegal during the Stalin years, and a large effort was put into erasing the heritage and culture of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had played an important role in the Tsarist government before the revolution. After the Law of 1997, freedom of religion was again made legal, although some religious minorities (especially certain Islamic minorities) still face bigotry and harassment by government authorities and members of the orthodoxy. The largest religious group in Russia today is the Russian Orthodox, with 41% of the Russian population identifying as such. churchPR

The fervent revival of traditional religion in Russia constitutes a group that strictly aligns itself with a value system put into place some 2,000 years ago. It is not surprising that such a group would react violently to any call for change directed at their doctrine. Responses to Pussy Riot’s performance at the cathedral were very emotional. The general feeling among those who witnessed it was not that Pussy Riot aimed to enlist “the mother of god” in their plight, but rather that the group intended to desecrate holy ground. The sacredness of the church is protected with special vigilance because of its tumultuous history. The message of Pussy Riot’s performance may seem completely lost on their audience, but I would argue that exposing the conservative majority to radical thought, is a way to at least open the door for discussion.

Punks

Misunderstanding has plagued Pussy Riot’s attempts to incite change within their community. Mark Feygin, a member of the legal team that defended Pussy Riot in their 2012 trial, states, “ Punk has never really existed in Russia, neither has performance art, nobody understands it.”[7] Punk Rock is defined bythe Merrium-Webster dictionary as, “rock music marked by extreme and often deliberately offensive expressions of alienation and social discontent.” The Punk movement in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has not been limited to music, and has always maintained a political purpose. Pussy Riot uses Punk Rock as a vehicle to communicate an activist message and as a methodology for public performance. Pussy Riot certainly is not the first feminist punk group, Riot Grrrl and Bikini Kill in the US are some of their predecessors. However, they are the first group of their kind in Russia. The aim of Punk Rock is to incite protest, and Pussy Riot has certainly managed to do this on an international scale. Yet, the protest is usually limited to “Free Pussy Riot” instead of “Gay Rights for Russia.” It seems as though the celebrity of the group members has begun to overshadow their political message.

Bikini Kill performing in 1993

Bikini Kill performing in 1993

The group documents their performances on video and releases them to the international public on the popular streaming website, YouTube. This type of documentation is symptomatic of performance art. However, Pussy Riot does not document themselves for museum posterity, they bypass that institution altogether. Their work has been disseminated through the free social medium of the shared web video. In a somewhat defensive response to Pussy Riot, the international museum circuit has mostly thumbed their nose at the group.

Art Forum recently reported on the group’s January 2014 visit to Singapore to attend the Prudential Eye Awards, where they were nominated for an award. This trip marked Nadia and Masha’s fist foray out of the country since being released from jail after serving 21-month sentences. Amidst a flurry of media coverage, Pussy Riot did not win the award for the Digital/Video category. In a particularly revealing statement, an unnamed jury member stated, “Frankly, I would never consider Pussy Riot ‘art’.”[8] This blatant statement made by a professional in the art world, who chose to remain unnamed, discloses a self-conscious reticence on the part of Big Art when it comes to politically charged art that has eluded the mechanisms for generating capital for the art world.[9]

Private Parts

Although Pussy Riot has been successful in subverting the capitalization of their artwork, the line that they walk between public exposure and privacy is barely maintained. Serving prison time usually erodes the individualism of everyday life. Nadia brings up an interesting point when she states, “jail is not the worst place for a person who thinks, you have your brain, your consciousness,” this idea is not only a signifier of Nadia’s strong inner world, but it can also be seen as a plea to other women that Pussy Riot wishes to enlist.[10] If women do not fear prison, they will be more likely to engage in illegal protest.

Another matter that cannot be ignored is Pussy Riot’s use of the balaclava, which Americans may think of as a ski mask [Fig.1]. This particular mask brings to mind visions of armed robbery; but the masks worn by Pussy Riot are brightly colored, “girly,” in fact. The synthesis of criminal fierceness and feminine funk encapsulate the essence of Pussy Riot’s je ne sais quoi. The mask might also be confusing for an international public, if the group is so insistent on flouting the public/private divide, why do they hide their identity? There are two important reasons for the mask in my opinion: the first is a democratizing quality, and the second is the need to remain out of jail as long as possible in order to continue to perform. Indeed, Pussy Riot’s whole costume is meant to be accessible and inviting for would-be Riot girls. The group urges other women to put on some tights and a dress, add a balaclava and scout out a place to perform. The colorful, often handmade, often crocheted status of the balaclava meshes happily with contemporary connotations of feminism, punk and craft.[11]

Pro-Pussy Riot protesters in Berlin show solidarity by wearing balaclavas

Pro-Pussy Riot protesters in Berlin show solidarity by wearing balaclavas

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Nadezhda Tolonnikova and Maria Alyokhina after being attacked in Nizhny Novgorod

Even though the members of Pussy Riot are able to partially obscure their identities in regard to law enforcement, it is obvious that the mask is really a provisional measure. If the group was filming these videos in their basement, the mask might provide real protection. But, since they are performing illegally in public, their bodies are still very vulnerable. As recently as March 2014, Nadia, Masha, and another Pussy Riot member, Taisia Krugovykh were advocating for prisoner’s rights in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod when they were attacked by a group of men with jars of green chemicals. Masha was given a concussion when one of the jars was thrown at her head.[12]

The radical practice of Pussy Riot is most certainly art, whether or not it is accepted as so by jury members of the art world. Their brand of performance art is not meant to be possessed or owned, it is meant to create friction, and it has certainly been successful in that regard. The group is breaking through social borders in Russia, the same borders that have kept artists encircled for the last century. I will continue to follow Pussy Riot’s progress in the media and track any major changes in Russian policy regarding public performance art. A debt is owed to the bravery of these artists and they should be recognized in the art world for the efficacy of the practice.

[1] Alexei Yurchak. “Necro-Utopia: The Politics of Indistinction and the Aesthetics of the Non-Soviet.” Current Anthropology 49, no. 2 (2008): 199–224.

[2] John McPhee. The Ransom of Russian Art. 1st ed. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

[3] The cathedral was also the scene of cultural activities, such as the world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture.

[4] Mike Lerner, and Maxim Pozdorovkin. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. HBO, 2013.

[7] Mike Lerner, and Maxim Pozdorovkin. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. HBO, 2013.

[8] Kate Sutton. “Eye for an Eye – Artforum.com / Scene & Herd.” Artforum.com, January 2014. http://artforum.com/diary/id=45084.

[9] I refer to “Big Art” to signify “Big Business,” that is, large corporate entities in the art world.

[10] Mike Lerner, and Maxim Pozdorovkin. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. HBO, 2013.

[11] The practice of ‘yarn-bombing’ is a popular feminist activity in the world of street art.

[12] “Pussy Riot Attacked In Nizhny Novgorod.” Huffington Post, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/06/pussy-riot-attacked-nizhny-novgorod_n_4910350.html.

 

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