When Putin Becomes Religion

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by Joshua Foust on 8/17/2012 · 17 comments

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.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Eric August 17, 2012 at 7:15 am

Did they have permission to do this? Was this a concert? or did they break out into this “protest” while other people were praying? If they did not have permission. they ABSOLUTELY should be arrested and fined and then released. Freedom of speech has it’s limits.

Ryan August 17, 2012 at 8:50 am

-Eric, they definitely did not have permission to do this. What they did is illegal an warrants some punishment, but probably not two years in prison.

I agree that the media may not be focusing on the most important issues, but they are focusing on what people will follow. Protest movements need people, a lot of people. The trial has made more westerners care about freedoms in Russia. Unfortunately the Russian protest movement doesn’t need more westerners, it needs more Russians. Has this incident attracted more Russians to the protest movement? I’m not in Russia so I can’t say, but there are certainly a lot of tweets about the trial coming from Russia. The trial can’t be trivializing the protest movement if it is increasing the enthusiasm for the protest movement, and increasing the number of Russians involved in the protest movement. Is it doing either one of these things?

Nick August 17, 2012 at 9:43 am

The verdict is very much in line with public opinion in Russia, which is generally more conservative than in the West. Read any Russian news site/forum for immediate confirmation of that fact. If they had been set free there’d be a shitstorm much more dangerous to the “vlast” than any local hipster protests in Riga, London or Paris.

I still remember when I first read about this on a Ru site in March. One of the first comments was that it was a setup by “Puten” because why else would these unemployed 25-year old “girls” protest in such a stupid and unnecessarily offensive way. And indeed, what better way to make the public disgusted with the entire protest movement?

hansg August 18, 2012 at 5:10 am

Excellent piece, thank you.

elke blinick August 18, 2012 at 5:34 pm

I disagree, I think that most people see this as protest against Putin. I am not exactly a fan of Pussy Riot and do not agree with their methods. But they did put the attention back on Putin and his thugs. Every western government sent a message of condemnation. And Putin had Kasparov arrested. Not a smart move, more a sign of desperation …or giving everybody the middle finger.

Suzanne Schroeder August 19, 2012 at 2:31 pm

As far as this essay and raw nerves, the entire incident and its aftermath is a sort of FREE NELSON MANDELA-type cause. The motives are completely laudable, (the Russian justice system should not be selectively used as the punitive fist of the State), but that critical message has been lost. It’s been lost, well, because sometimes, when the “personal becomes political,” it all goes wrong. It’s no longer about injustice, reform, an accountable government, the discussion is not about FEMINISM (!) ART (!) FREE SPEECH (!) RELGION (!) and all the accompanying passions and contradictions. It becomes very much about *us,* and I think that’s one of the reasons why this essay touched some nerves and raised some angry responses. Funny, but last night I was watching two of the West Memphis 3 on Piers Morgan and was reminded of this issue. The discussion in this case, once again ceased to be about a completely innocent person strapped to a gurney and having a needle inserted in their vein, it became about Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder. It became about how when they were kids, they had the weird haircuts and liked all the cool music, and all the football players and cheerleaders hated them. It was not a serious examination of flaws in the justice system and capital sentences. The Pussy Riot support shows that *we* are progressive, supporters of “freedom” and “art” and we may be “spiritual”, but definitely secular. (And these characteristics also shape our view of Islam. Over and over again.) Now, on a personal note that I will probably regret: the US know *nothing* about Russia. The Orthodox Church is NOT the Russian version of Roman Catholicism, the Putin protests are been mainly driven by a middle-class who feel that they are marginalized and unable to advance (nothing pisses people off more than have an advanced education and a crappy low paying job), so Western democratic reforms are supported *in part* has a move towards a more vital and less elitist economy. Feminism in Russia has nothing to do with the Western experience of feminism. I’ll just say, every week I see women who worked on the Soviet nuclear program, were engineers, professors, and what are these women doing? Venerating the icons in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Suzanne Schroeder August 19, 2012 at 3:38 pm

The inevitable correction: It’s no longer about injustice, reform, and an accountable government, the discussion is now about FEMINISM (!) ART (!) FREE SPEECH (!) RELGION (!) and all the accompanying passions and contradictions.

Don Bacon August 19, 2012 at 7:46 pm

“Pussy Riot are clearly not expressing hatred of Orthodox Christianity, but they are clearly protesting the Church’s close relationship to Vladimir Putin. ”

So PR isn’t protesting against the church, but then they are protesting against the church? Inside the church!

We have no business telling Russia, or any country, what to do. I can come up with a dozen wrongful police and court actions in the US for every Pussy Riot-type one you can present in foreign countries.

The USA has two million people in prison, many of them wrongfully convicted and sentenced by a corrupt justice system.

katia August 19, 2012 at 8:56 pm

First of all,what would happened with all the western protesters if someone butt in during the Friday’s prayers at some mosque and started to play pop music?
The band would be accused of islamophobia and all the western media would loudly condemned the band, regardless of whether they would be a feminists or a protesters against some Islamic government.
Secondly, although orthodox church is close to Putin, a mass at Orthodox church is a religious ceremony. If someone wants to protest against Putin or the government one should not protest during the mass which has nothing to do with secular but everything to do with sacred.
Thirdly, a lot of people support the prison term for Pussy Riot. Many people in Russia are religious or they think that people shouldn’t get only slap on the wrist for disrupting religious ceremony. They think that this kind of prison term prevents similar incidents in the future .
Fourthly, Pussy Riot is not a ” part of a larger mass movement within Russia to demand more political freedom ” Yes, there are people who are wants “more political freedom”, but they are usually a well- to-do academicians. Majority of Russians want better economy and lower level of corruption.

I can understand protests against Putin, and against present government but lets be real, Pussy Riot are just what their name suggest “pussy” and “anarchist” (aka riot) — nothing more, nothing less.

tnerb August 20, 2012 at 6:50 am

Church and state lines have always been blurred in countries where Orthodox Christianity dominates. The fact that Russian Orthodox Church has a very cozy relationship with Putin and the government is nothing surprising and it is something to be expected.

Mary M. August 21, 2012 at 12:28 pm

This is male privilege in it’s well articulated form. The fact that the media decides not to cover stories such as Magnitsky’s is not the doing of Pussy Riot. The fact that the media wants to cover stories about three WOMEN (not girls) in order to capitalize on their objectification as “victims” (although they are not) and sexualized objects is just the manifestation of another problem that you are prescribing to: male privilege and misogyny. And don’t think I’m straying from the point because everything is interconnected. Male privilege and misogyny are just aspects of a larger system that operates under the binary of power and powerless. By critiquing those structures, they are protesting against Putin and the “important” issues. You marginalize and undermine their resistance because they are using feminism and punk as a mechanism, making the mistake of privileging certain epistemologies as well as methods of protest. Protest comes in many forms. And if you think raising awareness and education through radical acts are useless, do your research. Movements around the world needed both fronts covered in order for things to get done: education and reform. Radical groups utilize diverse forms of protest to raise awareness while reformers lobby for changes in legislation, regardless of the relationship between the two. Laws and the minds of the population must change together. Otherwise, either form becomes useless.

Nathan Hamm August 21, 2012 at 1:34 pm

I like the part where you appropriated the practice of mansplaining.

Nevertheless, I think you’re reading things into this that aren’t there.

Joshua Foust August 21, 2012 at 6:55 pm

“You marginalize and undermine their resistance because they are using feminism and punk as a mechanism, making the mistake of privileging certain epistemologies as well as methods of protest.”

Not quite. I complain very plainly about the misplaced attention on them instead of on the far greater abuses other people must face, and suggest that it might be because they’re so media friendly while, for example, a middle aged lawyer is not.

tnerb August 23, 2012 at 5:33 am

Interesting point of view, though I agree with Nathan that you might be reading too much into it.

Michael August 21, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Entirely agree with the general argument of this article, but just so we’re clear, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by the northern French (who supported a claimant to the French throne who was also king of England, but in terms of lineage his claim was as good, if not better, than the guy’s Joan was supporting) for heresy, of which the sources (both those written to villify and venerate her) indicate she was just as guilty as any of the the other poor bastards who suffered the same fate in fifteenth century Europe.

That there was a political dimension to this is of course undisputable. To her accusers, she fit the mould of a heretic and her arrival in the dauphin’s army had coincided with a marked upturn in their fortunes. Thus political affiliation and all-pervading religious belief merged into accusations of heresy. But just so we’re clear, this was not some Vichy-esque fronting for the dastardly work of the foreign masters. Henry VI’s government in France was in utter chaos in the months before and during Joan’s capture, trial and execution, due to the presence of the (infant) king, his council and the regent Bedford in France at the same time and the resulting confusion about authority, spheres of influence and the chain of command. The destruction of Joan was very much led by the French faction on the other side of the French civil war.

I know this has little if anything to do with the main thrust of this article, but it’s important to be clear.

Joshua Foust August 21, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Fair enough! I always appreciate a correction like this.

AS August 23, 2012 at 4:59 am

Send these women to jail. If I go and pee on the White House lawn and get arrested does that make me some sort of dissident, or just an ass? Maybe there is a message in there about the state of Kremlin-Orthodox relations (or more precisely FSB-Orthodox relations, as they have a long and sordid history even in Soviet and Tsarist days) but did it need to delivered at the sake of the humiliation and disgust of millions of Orthodox believers in Russia? These girls are not democrats or social crusaders who seek to build within the system new allowances for free speech they are anarchists who want to destroy Russian capitalism and nullify everything Russia has done to move on from the 90s when criminals ruled and people killed each other in the streets like dogs.

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