Pussy Riot: Russia needs more superheroes to stand up to Putin

Punk performance challenged the rise of Russian Orthodoxy and its links to the far right

BY Matthew Carr LAST UPDATED AT 07:56 ON Thu 9 Aug 2012

THE TRIAL of Russia's feminist/punk provocateurs Pussy Riot is now approaching its denouement. The three defendants made their final pleas yesterday, while the state prosecutor is still asking the court to sentence them to three years' imprisonment for engaging in "hooliganism" having "insulted in a sacrilegious manner the centuries-old foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church". The judge's verdict will be handed down on 17 August.

The charges stem from the punk performance [see video below] in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral on 21 February, where Pussy Riot sang and danced in their trademark 'superhero' balaclavas on the altar and called on the Virgin Mary to become a feminist and "throw Putin out".

To say that Pussy Riot were pushing the boundaries with this performance would be something of an understatement, and there are few - if any countries - where such activity would not lead to arrest - or worse.

But the severity of the state's response is the latest in a series of episodes in which vague and over-arching notions of 'extremism' have been used by the KGB/Mafia state of would-be president-for-life Vladimir Putin as a justification for exemplary acts of cultural and political repression.

This authoritarian drift has frequently had a religious component that is on the surface surprising, coming from a former KGB functionary. In 2002 the Russian government enacted a law On Combating Extremist Activity which followed the broad template of post 9/11 antiterrorism legislation introduced by Western governments in enabling the state to take action against groups and individuals engaged in action deemed prejudicial to state security.

The new law was concerned not only with combating 'terrorism'; it also included a broad array of definitions of 'extremism' such as "the humiliation of national dignity; inciting racial, ethnic or religious discord, as well as social discord, connected with violence or appeals to violence".

In practice this legislation has been used against members of Russia's pagan Mari people, against Jehovah's Witnesses, anarchist anti-fascists, and the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, which was closed down in 2006 after its director was found guilty of inciting racial and ethnic enmity.

Charges of 'extremism' have also been leveled at artists and cultural activists who have focused on religion in their work, including a number of artists who have used imagery relating to the Russian Orthodox Church.

In 2010, Andrei Efofeev and Yuri Samodoruv, the curator and director of Moscow's Sakharov Institute, were given hefty fines for "debasing the religious beliefs of citizens and inciting religious hatred" after holding an exhibition of Forbidden Art works, which included an icon made from caviar and an image of Lenin on the cross.

Samodoruv had previously been convicted for staging an exhibition in 2003 entitled Caution! Religion! which contained images like this: 

 The iconography was certainly provocative and even offensive. But the state's punitive response to such activity owes more to Putin's new determination to use Russian Orthodoxy and Russian nationalism than to any concern with the religious sensibilities of devout Russians.

On 8 February, in the midst of his re-election, Putin visited St Daniel Monastery in Moscow, where Patriach Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, described his time in office as a "godly miracle" that had saved Russia from the economic disasters of the 1990s.

In return Putin called for a revisiting of the "primitive notion of a separation between church and state" and pledged $120 million towards the construction of Orthodox churches.

Pussy Riot challenged this new relationship in a performance that simultaneously criticised the patriarchy of the Church and the authoritarianism of the Russian state, while mischievously appealing to the Virgin in her traditional role as the protector of Russia to get rid of Putin.

One of the defendants, 21-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, has expressed regret at what she calls an "ethical error" in offending the sensibilities of churchgoers. She nevertheless insists that the group's "punk performance" was intended to highlight the public support given to Putin's "authoritarian and anti-feminist course" by Patriarch Kirill, declaring: "We, like many of our compatriots, find unpleasant the insidiousness, deceit, venality, hypocrisy, acquisitiveness and lawlessness with which our current leadership and authorities are sinning."

Putin has publicly called for the court to show leniency towards the three defendants - something that may owe more to a strategic desire to cultivate a certain public image internationally than to a commitment to freedom of expression.

The state prosecutor's call for three-year sentences – rather than the seven years that were originally considered – may be a demonstration of the president's influence. But three years in jail is clearly a very relative concept of leniency.

For Pussy Riot may have been offensive and provocative, but their intentions were serious, well-intentioned and even noble, and they should not become exemplary scapegoats in the dark alliance between the former KGB man and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Nor is the new post-Soviet political role of the Russian Orthodox Church limited to Putin and the state itself. Russian Orthodoxy has also begun to reprise its older pre-Soviet role as a bastion of the established order and a vehicle for Russian chauvinism, with links to far-right extremists and ultra-nationalists.

These include Aleksandr Dugin, leader of the International Eurasian Movement - a self-professed admirer of the Nazi luminaries such as SS-Obergruppenführer (General) Reinhard Heydrich, and host of a TV programme broadcast by the Russian Orthodox cable channel.

The far-right is a rising and dangerous political force in Russia, which draws on various strands that include anti-Semitism, homophobia, Nazism, anti-Muslim sentiment and a strong dose of Russian chauvinism, with the Church as the symbolic core of the Russian nation.

These were the forces that Pussy Riot chose to attack head-on, with the recklessness and audacity of youth.

We need more superheroes like them.

This is an edited version of an article by posted at Matt Carr's Infernal Machine.

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How about the dangers of extreme leftism? This has been happening to Cuba for the last fifty years. No group ,association, or anybody can protest against the cuban goverment in that country without getting jailed or fined. Noone is doing anything about...50 year regime! Are we.afraid of Fidel??

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