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When Religion and Politics Collide

The Pussy Riot Affair

by BINOY KAMPMARK

The members of the Russian punk rock (some prefer to call it porn) band Pussy Riot await the out come of their appeals after being sentenced to two years imprisonment for their song “Mother God, drive Putin out”.  It wasn’t that they sung it, so much as where there did it – in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, thereby landing them convictions on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.  “It’s bearable,” claims the colourful band leader Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pre-Trial Detention Facility No. 6, nicknamed the “Bastille.”[1]

Tolokonnikova is an activist schooled in acts of public notoriety. She has led, along with her members, a publicly filmed orgy that commanded a few headlines.  For now, she is calmly cultivating the image of a tormented cultural symbol in her quarters.  She reads the Bible, she tells Der Spiegel. She also, for good measure, reads the writings of the Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Žižek.  “The lack of freedom of movement doesn’t constrict the freedom of thought.”

The marginal band has shot up in popularity, not because of its brimming talent, so much as the way it revealed its contentions against the Putin regime. The trials, for one, were considered Stalinist show trials in the good Soviet tradition. But there is a twist.  Yes, the protest in Church was considered by many Russians to be an outrage.  To Moscow lawyer Alexi Navalny and professed Orthodox Christian, “the action was itself despicable”. The punitive response was, however, a “heathen act of revenge.”[2]  No icons were desecrated, and nothing destroyed.  Stupidity, surmises Navalny, is not a crime.

The comparison to a Stalinist show trial is hard to make given that the protest was filmed and very public.  Michael White, writing in The Guardian, saw it as a case of a shadowy legal system and a general slide into “authoritarianism”.[3]  A global murmur has been registered, with protest groups doing everything from shedding their clothes to sawing down crosses (witness the actions of the Ukrainian protest group FEMEN).[4]  Protesters have had their mouths sewn in solidarity.

The affair, however, is a murky one.  The band is on firm ground in so far as their conviction shows heavy-handedness – two year convictions in a labour camp suggests the jerkiness of the regime, a terror, perhaps, that women are now joining the ranks of protest.  Tolokonnikova speaks of this with satisfied martyrdom.  “This system delivered a verdict on itself, by sentencing us to two years in prison although we committed no crime, and of course, I’m glad about that.”[5]

Revolts, even against the most brutal despots, are never neatly patterned incidents.  They contain in them the seeds of contradiction that, when they grow, puzzle those who choose to simplify them.  Persecution tendencies may well be detected in the reaction of the authorities, but the extreme disposition of the three women suggest that authoritarianism is never far from the debate. Extremes, in short, breed extremes.

For one group, the Kingdom of God has become a state front.  The state under Putin has veered towards stern traditionalism where petro currency is linked to the Church.  The band in question has suggested another, more pungent approach.  For them, sexual strictures are just that, a patriarchal nonsense in need of a good trashing.

Every day, limitations are placed on behaviour in public places, be they of worship, travel or otherwise.  They exist with a burdensome presence that has become all too real, though many in a political and religious community would accept them. Laws against obscenity and public nuisance exist, even in the most liberal societies.  And what of the protest on religious premises, holy ground, as it were?  Few would protest if the Israeli authorities took stern measures against those who would deface the Wailing Wall.  What matters in such instances is the sheer disproportionate nature of the punishment.

The Pussy Riot demonstration has also provided another angle in this debate.  How “hurt” is measured in exacting punishment or compensation is law’s permanent challenge.  A Siberian case is afoot where three people are claiming damages against Pussy Riot for their church indecencies.  One is Irina Ruzankina, who is being represented by Alexei Krestyanov.  “She suffered because this punk group performed their punk prayer in a place where they should not have, in a place where she worships and that she considers sacred.”[6]  30,000 roubles is being demanded in compensation.  Krestyanov, it must be said, is ambitious, intending to launch 12 lawsuits against the band members, each representing the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ.

What is unfortunate about the debate surrounding the band members will be how martyrdom, something this fringe band have yearned for, will be bestowed upon them.  The loud clarion calls will die, leaving a confused reaction against the group. What the band members will do with their sentence will be what history has done to Russia’s revolutionaries, genuine or pop – immortalise them then, when the time is appropriate, ignore them.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

 

 



[1] http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/spiegel-interview-with-pussy-riot-activist-nadezhda-tolokonnikova-a-853546.html

[2] http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/spiegel-interview-with-russian-activist-alexei-navalny-a-850914.html

[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/2012/aug/17/pussy-riot-trial-putin-dignity

[4] http://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/photos-of-protests-in-solidarity-with-pussy-riot-fotostrecke-86274.html

[5] http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/spiegel-interview-with-pussy-riot-activist-nadezhda-tolokonnikova-a-853546.html

[6] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/pussy-riot-sued-by-siberians-for-moral-suffering-8079460.html