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Pussy Riot

The artist as political figure

00:15 – 02:25

Late 2011 saw the biggest street scenes in Moscow in years. First people thronged Christ the Savior Cathedral for the Virgin Mary’s belt. Then tens of thousands came out to protest dishonest elections. In a popular video masked girls danced on Red Square, hurling insults at Vladimir Putin. Soon these girls would intersect with both scenes: the line outside the cathedral and the Bolotnaya Square protest.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “Pussy Riot burst onto the scene with Bolotnaya Sq., on the same impulse: Putin and Medvedev switching places. The idea to found Pussy Riot came on September 24, the same day Medvedev said Putin would return as president, without even asking the people first.”

On February 21, 2012 the balaclava-clad girls entered Christ the Savior. They unwrapped a guitar and began to dance, getting everything on film. This action became famous after it hit YouTube. First it seemed just one protest of many that winter.

Maria Lipman, political scientist: “I think, like Pussy Riot, this wasn’t supposed to be a big deal. It only lasted a few minutes. Nothing happened to them. Guards kicked them out and just let them go. When we went to Christ the Savior, our worst fear was our amp being taken away. It cost 10,000 rubles. We didn’t have that money. We were worried. We debated whether to call out our real names. If we did, would we spend more time at the police station? If we did, would we probably get the amp back? If we didn’t, would we lose the amp for good?”

02:25 – 06:00 Reaction to punk prayer

Pussy Riot’s action instantly sparks debate. People argue about whether one can invade sacred space like that, what sense there was to it, and most importantly, if the girls say they’re artist protesters, where’s the art?

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “As I’ve always said, Pussy Riot is like pop music in every meaning of the word. What used to be unpopular became popular. We added nothing, cut nothing out. Our performance made a statement. Our country naturally lacks a culture of accepting such actions. But sometimes, if you plan everything well, and you act in a truly pop fashion, it might work. Oddly, most people I’ve met understand Pussy Riot’s thing. My guards thought me an idiot not for entering a church, but because I spoke up against Putin.”

Andrey Erofeev, art critic: “The effect was huge. Later, when I searched for “Virgin Mary”, “Drive Putin Out” was a top result. We can compare the video’s propaganda effect to Mayakovsky’s poems. It really made waves. There was anger, you see, caused by its popularity, its unquestionable persuasiveness. An anger, desire for revenge, to harm those who, in that way, mercilessly revealed how things are. Of course, Pussy Riot was a political statement, and there had been so few in our art.”

By February 2012, modern art and street actions were already a site of social conflict. The main point of opposition was religion. In recent years, artists touching on religion were criminally charged. Orthodox activists protested their exhibitions. Pussy Riot certainly belong to this tradition. As in previous cases, the church and government would not remain indifferent.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “I felt I wasn’t alone in this attack by the Church, its attempt to censor contemporary art. Even before Pussy Riot, we in the Voina group had put on “All Cops are Bastards” at the Tagansky courthouse, where Andrei Erofeev and Yuri Samodurov were being tried for Forbidden Art 2006. Still earlier were scandals like Avdey Ter-Oganyan’s icon destruction. That wasn’t straight-up iconoclasm, it was more a reflection on the avant-garde than on religion. But the Church saw it and made a religious thing out of it, just like with the punk prayer, even though it was really a political act.”

06:00 – 11:35 The trial

On March 3, the authorities intervene. They arrest Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich for hooliganism. At the same time, high-ranking clergy denounce the action as an outrage, blasphemy, an insult to believers. It is claimed to be an attack on our traditional values. Blasphemy, mockery of the sacred, is called a manifestation of human liberty!

Boris Groys, philosopher: “I think the Pussy Riot effect highlighted not liberal society but the Church: “Don’t come asking us for help,” right? “We will not support you, you are strangers to us.” The Church mobilized the people, it unexpectedly appealed to the laity, the public. The Church seems to have been discredited by this choice, though it really could have avoided it.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “Read the New Testament: Jesus was a merry fellow. He turned water into wine, did some other cool stunts. He wasn't the sort to condemn people for dancing in a church; he did similar things himself. A Protestant spirit was in the air among us, a return to the sources. Let’s read how things initially were. We’ll protest against the princes of this world as per old-time Christian religion.”

Third-term Putin was no longer president of all Russians. He bet on the people lining up for the Virgin Mary’s belt, opposing them to the protesters at Bolotnaya Sq. Pussy Riot’s act was an ideal wedge to drive between the two sides.

Alexander Baunov, journalist: “It was a period when the regime had to improvise. Its goal was clear: to turn from an elite dictatorship to a more populist one. Turning away from city people the middle class, to simpler folk. From those who need more than others, to those who want what everyone else has. The state had little to offer them materially, but it could appeal to values, notions of beauty, their instincts and fears, appeal to their aesthetic ideals and sense of self-worth.”

Unprecedented attacks on Pussy Riot unfolded in the press. Even those far from Orthodoxy agreed: they saw the action not as art but petty hooliganism. They barge in, stir up a ruckus, like they’re making some statement.

Boris Groys: “Russian culture has largely remained of the 19th century. Back then, it was acceptable to love fantastical art, in order to step out of prosaic bourgeois reality. The 20th-century avant-garde responded by showing things that were clear: for example, a tractor, a sleek machine, a black square. Things perceivable as real-life things, to bring art and reality closer. It’s a habit of seeing art and reality together, not distinguishing, not asking “Is this reality or art?” This question was dismissed in the early 20th century, really. It’s reality and art at the same time. I think people who claim they don’t understand Pussy Riot’s actions, they understand it quite well, yet because they understand it, they think it’s not art.”

Alexander Baunov: “Russians are brought up on ordinary realism in art. Why? Because Stalin in his time halted the avant-garde wave. He forced the most classic, academic art under the name “socialist realism”. A national aesthetic ideal was set down: theatres should have a curtain, Onegin should have a top hat, paintings should show bears, heroes, maidens. Whatever doesn’t is 1) bad, 2) foreign, Western, and 3) probably made by deviants.”

11:35 - 15:01 International fame

Pussy Riot’s case had huge global resonance. Dozens of big names defended it, from Paul McCartney to Madonna. One trial undid all the government’s foreign PR efforts. For the world press and society in Summer 2012, Russia was mainly a country that tried girls for making art. All one had to know about Russia was the Pussy Riot case.

Maria Lipman: “In a sense some clichés had been brought back to life. It was a struggle between Good and Evil, with capital G and capital E, such that the media can only dream of. Here of course we’re talking about the Western press. One might call the fight conservatism vs progressivism, or secularism vs. clericalism and obscurantism. The massive brutal state vs. defenseless girls, or the state vs. individuals and their freedom. This was the picture Russia gave the foreign press: two defenseless girls and even mothers, behind bars. It was a dream come true for TV and the press.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “When I was in jail, Petya Verzilov gave me weekly digests of events. I knew nothing in the meantime, except general news that didn’t relate to us. The digests described movements in our support, legal motions or statements by politicians or celebrities. So, I had an idea of what was going on. At one point I felt like I was living in a myth: now Socrates was stepping into my cell, I started my morning chatting with Plato, my imagination ran free with Solzhenitsyn. Therefore, since I spoke in court, I can’t make myself read my final statement, or watch the video: I can remember how modernist, pompous it was.”

The Pussy Riot trial became a real farce. The prosecution cited the Quinisext Council and condemned the girls for taking an active position. Protests sprung up outside every court hearing. On August 17, 2012 judge Marina Syrova sentences Tolokonnikova and Alekhina to 2 years in prison.

Maria Lipman: “What happened? They nonetheless gave them this memorable 2-year sentence, as Putin said. Those charges could have brought 7 years. But I don’t think this was the result of a pressure campaign from above. According to opinion polls, there were hardly any supporters around, yet neither a bloodthirsty sentiment seeking a maximum sentence.”

15:01 – 19:21 The consequences of the action

The Pussy Riot case defines where all 2010s Russian art finds itself. Now the state, or more often individual activists, decide what is art, or what is sacrilege and a crime. Theatres and galleries draw ever more Orthodox activists and Cossacks, who confront undesirable art on the spot, sometimes with the use of violence.

Marat Guelman, art manager: “There are believers and unbelievers there. These believers are actually two sets. One set are not Christians, just defenders of traditionalism. They’ll kill for the sake of Christ’s church in order to preserve things. The other set are people who read the Gospel. That’s important, and it led to a reaction. It showed that Pussy Riot’s “hooliganism” was of much smaller scale compared to the symbolic effect it had.”

Alexander Baunov: “Pussy Riot did create one unpleasant effect. In previous years the ultraconservatives were no fewer. There were many religious fanatics, icons of Stalin in churches, etc. You had punks, anarchists, extreme leftists, nationalists too. Yet they didn’t enter each other’s spaces. Of course, Pussy Riot breached this barrier. When they entered that church they opened a door in the other direction, too. Orthodox activists at the Manezh, or Moscow Art Theatre performances, is a direct result of Pussy Riot.”

Andrey Erofeev: “Lately this type of art, Russian radical performance, has been co-opted by the regime and its supporters. These people take this same type of expression far, further than any artist could go, for in this artistic disguise they’re simply committing a crime. For example, the Donetsk separatists and their leaders, they have used a buffoonish carnival in order to simply create bloody spectacles. Take that parade of prisoners they put on in Donetsk. It shocks the art world, for artists see their own selves reflected, distorted, in the face of a killer.”

Tolokonnikova and Alekhina stoically endure their imprisonment. After their release, they advocate for the rights of Russian prisoners. Today Pussy Riot is Russia’s most well-known band in the West, though Tolokonnikova and Alekhina today appear at conferences more than on stage. For many foreign tourists Christ the Savior has got a second name: the Moscow attraction is known worldwide as Pussy Riot Church.

Marat Guelman: “There are many wrongfully convicted in Russia, thousands imprisoned for nothing. Honestly, they don’t interest me much. I think most people, Madonna too, don’t even think about them. Pussy Riot called out the Russian legal system with its great action. They brought the unjustice of the courts to light. Then we discovered there were many such people, and the whole system is sick.”