Pussy Riot have been found guilty of “religious hatred” for their February 21 protest at the Christ the Savior Cathedral. Here’s the offending 55 seconds of performance that got them into so much trouble:
The case itself is troubling for many reasons. For one, Pussy Riot are clearly not expressing hatred of Orthodox Christianity, but they are clearly protesting the Church’s close relationship to Vladimir Putin. Hating Putin is not hating religion, unless Putin is now religion. That’s something that could possibly have worrying consequences if it goes much further.
But of course there’s more. Pussy Riot have been turned into a cause célèbre by the West’s pop culture mavens. Madonna, Paul McCartney, Bjork, even Sting — who apparently learned his lessons after screwing up in Kazakhstan — have publicly issued statements supporting the fem-punkers.
And that’s all well and good. Pussy Riot are being unjustly persecuted (in the U.S. they’d have been given a slap on the wrist and a fine and let go), and it’s appropriate to protest when that happens. But there’s also an uncomfortable Kony 2012 aspect to the Pussy Riot protests as well.
The Kony 2012 campaign was the most successful social media push ever. Centered around a short movie of the same name, it was meant to raise the international profile of Joseph Kony, a notorious warlord in East Africa famous for conscripting child soldiers and committing horrific atrocities. While the Pussy Riots don’t have the same uncomfortable stench of neocolonialism as the Kony 2012 videos and events, they do suffer from the same fundamental problem.
In a real way, Kony 2012 took a serious problem — warlords escaping justice in East Africa — and turned it into a crass exercise in commercialism, militarism, and western meddling. Local researchers complained about it, and lots of scholars used it as an opportunity to teach how not to do damaging activism.
In Russia, Pussy Riot is doing the same thing — taking a serious issue (Russia’s lack of political freedoms or civil liberties) and turning it into a celebration of feminist punk music and art. Pussy Riot are being unjustly imprisoned, but that doesn’t mean all of the protests against their imprisonment should be lauded.
For example, the media frenzy over Pussy Riot’s possible three years in prison is obscuring the much harsher sentences facing their not-famous, not-female co-protesters.
With the eyes of Russia-watchers trained on Pussy Riot, the feminist punk performance-art group whose now-famous trio is bracing for a verdict over their iconoclastic performance at a Moscow cathedral, the plight of Artyom Savyolov has drawn little attention… Sixteen of the demonstrators remain in custody and at least 12 of them, including Savyolov, have been charged with calling for mass disorder and assaulting police officers. They could each face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
I guess they’re not pretty girls in a punk band with a naughty name, so they don’t deserve the Amnesty International campaigns and celebrity solidarity. When Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer in Russia who was arrested after alleging widespread political corruption, died from the abuse he suffered in prison — having never even gotten the courtesy of a trial, like Pussy Riot — there were some peeps of protest by some politicians but nothing on the scale of the Pussy Riots. Russian authorities acted suspiciously after his death, leading many to assume they had something to do with it.
Magnitsky’s death prompted some wrangling in the US Congress, where a bill named after him now awaits enactment. But the many celebrities urging their fans to show concern about Pussy Riot, about Russian women, about the plight of Art, apparently don’t know about the many men, non-punk rockers, regular Russians who face far worse brutality and mistreatment by Putin’s government every day.
Raising the problem of this misplaced attention to spectacle on Twitter raised a number of complaints — namely, that any attention drawn to Putin’s abuses is good attention, regardless of detail (along with some particularly unpleasant comparisons of Pussy Riot to Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks). This is wrong, however: focusing on the spectacle of Pussy Riot actually obscures from the real issues that prompted the Pussy Riot trial in the first place.
The New York Times unintentionally highlights just how misguided the hype has become.
“Virgin Mary, mother of God, become a feminist, become a feminist, become a feminist,” the performance artist Karen Finley said, reading from the group’s “Punk Prayer,” as the audience cheered.
For context, Karen Finley once sang a song about pooping in someone’s ear to protest Tipper Gore (NSFW link), now reading protest poetry from the dangerous environs of a boutique hotel in Manhattan. But it gets far worse.
“When they first were jailed, I clearly felt a connection to them,” JD Samson, a longtime feminist activist and member of the indie groups Le Tigre and MEN, said. “It’s so in my world — my Facebook feed is ‘Pussy Riot,’ ‘Pussy Riot,’ ‘Pussy Riot.’ ” Her realization that she could work freely as a feminist artist while they were jailed spurred her to act, she said.
It wasn’t thousands of people rallying in the streets of Moscow for political freedom that got Le Tigre into Russia, it was three girls in a punk band showing up in her twitter feed. And she responded by going to a poetry reading in Manhattan.
[Chloe] Sevigny, in a white eyelet dress and flats, read a letter Ms. Alyokhina wrote long before the trial began, describing being cold and tired in detention. “It seems like it really won’t get any worse,” Ms. Sevigny-as-Ms. Alyokhina said, with feeling. Ms. Myles read a letter the group wrote to Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev.
“There’s a Joan of Arc-type resonance,” she said afterward, “that they’re standing up to patriarchy. It’s poetry in and of itself.”
Just so we’re clear: the band members of Pussy Riot are not analogous to Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake by the English after leading French troops into combat. At this event organizers encouraged people to join a “civil anger” march in costume today… though they also had to warn these same people that balaclavas (the face masks Pussy Riot wear in concert) are illegal in Manhattan. So don’t protest too much or you might get in trouble for it, I guess?
Amidst the “confront patriarchy” literature — I didn’t realize Russia’s biggest sin against freedom was its male chauvinism — we meet people who try, valiantly to express solidarity with the imprisoned fem punks.
“It’s insane how really banal the work is — I don’t feel shocked by it, and that makes me feel like, I can imagine being thrown in jail for doing absolutely nothing,” Ms. Stoner, 33, said.
“The music is so accessible but the statements these women have made — they’re extremely smart,” she added. Pussy Riot’s simple performance antics juxtaposed with their sophisticated social theory — “that to me is extremely inspiring,” she said…
Kate Conroy, 49, an East Villager who described herself as a “secretary by day, arts activist by night,” said she felt that Pussy Riot resonated because of an increased international awareness of political and economic imbalances. “Everybody feels the squeeze from the government, and every kind of squeeze,” she said. Arts activism, she added, was a platform everybody could understand.
“Three women standing up against Putin,” she marveled. “They are nobodies. They could be silenced tomorrow. They are sheroes, to the world.”
Kudos for introducing me to the term “sheroes,” but honestly: give me a fucking break. Pussy Riot are not normal peasants grabbed off the road and put on trial for being women — they are rather famous (at least in Russia) political activists who got arrested for political activism. That is a horrible, ludicrous thing for Russia to do, but making them into everyman “boy life sure is hard under government” types is worse than silly. It is ignorant.
The Pussy Riots today represent the worst sort of slacktivism. Rather than being educated about the real abuses in Russia, the people publicly supporting Pussy Riot are mouthing empty 90’s-vintage college activism phrases and bravely standing up for free speech on the streets of America and Europe — while also trying to avoid getting into too much trouble for it. In Russia, where there are consequences for standing up, actual brave people are making public protests against the verdict. But they’re not getting any attention.
Of course, armchair protests always have their stalwart defenders: those who think that “raising awareness” through spectacle is a perfectly acceptable substitute for educating the public about real abuses and how they can stop them. Demanding freedom for Pussy Riot at poetry readings and over Twitter is a fine thing on its own, whatever; but if hundreds of non-famous protests still languish in prison for years at a time, what good does it really do?
That’s what is so awful about the way the Pussy Riot media frenzy has played out. Reporters have focused on the most narrow, attention-grabbing aspect of the story (pretty young punk girls being told feminism is bad and put on trial) and have completely ignored that Pussy Riot are part of a larger mass movement within Russia to demand more political freedom that’s being literally, physically, beaten back by Vladimir Putin’s thugs. So now, rather than this trial being catalyzed into a broad education movement to get people to pressure Russia to scale back its authoritarianism, it’s just posturing about how sad it is for some punk rockers to go to jail for a silly little church concert.
In other words, the Pussy Riot attention has not only trivialized Pussy Riot itself, it’s trivializing the Russian protest movement. The result couldn’t be any worse than it is.