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Pussy Riot: a cultural revolution?

9 August 2012

On February 21, five girls wearing brightly colored balaclavas stormed into Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral to perform an anti-Putin protest song entitled, “Holy Sh*t.”

Group members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich were arrested and remained in pretrial detention until  their trial for an incident that some have lauded as a valid exercise of free speech, and that others have lambasted as blasphemous. If convicted they could face up to seven years in prison.

The media reports of the actual charges are unclear, and they have been variously described as “hooliganism”, “public disorder” and “blasphemy”. The media reports of the actual event are unclear too. Some say that they burst into the “altar”, but video footage of the event shows them performing in front of the ikonostasis. None of the reports I have seen make it clear whether or not they interrupted a church service with their performance.

But one thing is is clear from the media reports: that people are looking at this event through very different cultural spectacles, and they are seeing very different things. For example, there is this Pussy Riot are a reminder that revolution always begins in culture | Suzanne Moore | Comment is free | The Guardian:

Some people have their eyes on the prize. A prize beyond medals. That prize is freedom, freedom of expression, freedom to protest. I am talking about Pussy Riot, who are drawing the eyes of the world to what is happening in Russia. Pussy Riot – crazy punks, yeah? No, they are not crazy, daft or naive. They are being tried for blasphemy in what is still, nominally, a secular state. They are highlighting what happens to any opposition to president Vladimir Putin and, indeed, they do look fabulous. If you want to see protest as art or the art of protest, look at these women and their supporters.

Described as punk inheritors of the Riot Grrrl mantle, they are so much more. They are now on trial in Moscow for a crime that took 51 seconds to commit. Please watch it on YouTube. They mimed an anti-Putin song in the main Orthodox cathedral wearing their trademark balaclavas and clashing colours. For this “hooliganism ” and “religious hatred”, the three women have already served five months in jail. They now face a possible seven-year sentence, in a country where fewer than 1% of cases that go to trial end in a not guilty verdict.

That article is worth reading, whether you agree with it or not.

It represents one strand of Western culture that is fairly vocal.

Another strand of Western culture, which is also fairly vocal, puts it like this: Western media concealing facts about female rock band’s desecration of Russian cathedral | LifeSiteNews.com:

Western media accounts typically quote only one phrase from the song sung by the trio, “St. Mary, virgin, drive away Putin,” giving the impression that the song was nothing more than an outcry against the Russian leader. However, an English translation of the full lyrics obtained by LifeSiteNews.com indicate that the girls had more than just electoral politics in mind.

In addition to their mockery of Orthodox worship, the girls derided the “Black robe, golden epaulettes,” of Orthodox clergy, and mocked the “crawling and bowing” of the parishioners. They then added a barb against the Orthodox Church’s defense of public morality, stating, “The ghost of freedom is in heaven, Gay pride sent to Siberia in chains.”

“The head of the KGB is their chief saint,” continue the girls, in reference to Putin’s former position under the Soviet regime.

They then sing a stanza associating the sacred with feces, followed by another stanza objecting to perceived support of the Putin administration by leaders of Orthodoxy, then another stating “Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin,” adding “B**ch, you better believe in God.”

But Russian cultural spectacles are also very different, and confusing. Some Russian commedntators do seem to think that freedom of speech is a bad thing. This one, for example: Интерфакс-Религия: Вопрос не в жесткости наказания участниц “Pussy Riot”, а в его неотвратимости. He seems to be saying that their act wasn’t bad because it was in a church, but because the church was a public place. This implies that he would think it equally bad if it were in a theatre, a street or a park, and not in a church.

We are told elsewhere that “Prosecutors have maintained that the Pussy Riot members “inflicted substantial damage to the sacred values of the Christian ministry…infringed upon the sacramental mystery of the Church… [and] humiliated in a blasphemous way the age-old foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church.” And that implies that it would have beemn OK if it were performed in a public place other than a church.

The Western pop star Madonna came out in support of the jailed Pussy Riot members at a concert in Russia Pussy Riot case: Madonna labelled moralising ‘slut’ | Music | guardian.co.uk:

Madonna is the highest-profile star to come out in support of the group. Artist Yoko Ono issued a statement calling for their freedom earlier this week.

The tens of thousands of fans inside Olimpisky Stadium greeted Madonna’s gesture with wild applause.

So in Russia itself there are wildly divergent cultural perceptions.

Some Western groups, however, are also propagating outright lies and disinformation about the event. One of these is Amnesty International, a formerly-respected organisation that stood up for the rights of prisoners of conscience. I’ve pointed out some of their falsehoods in another blog post here, which also gives the English translation of what Pussy Riot sang in the cathedral.

But the cultural and political implications of what is on the Amnesty International site are even worse.

An Amnesty International petition site (Take Action Now – Amnesty International USA) urges people to send an e-mail with the following text to the Russian prosecuting authorities:

I respectfully urge you to drop the charges of hooliganism and immediately and unconditionally release Maria Alekhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Furthermore, I call on you to immediately and impartially investigate threats received by the family members and lawyers of the three women and, if necessary, ensure their protection. Whether or not the women were involved in the performance in the cathedral, freedom of expression is a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and no one should be jailed for the peaceful exercise of this right. Thank you for your attention to this serious matter.

Now imagine, for a moment, that the boot was on the other foot.

Imagine that it was a Western European country, and that the act of “hooliganism” concerned was daubing swastikas on a synagogue. If that were the case, would Amnesty International be urging its members and the general public to send messages saying

Whether or not the women were involved in writing the graffiti on the synagogue, freedom of expression is a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and no one should be jailed for the peaceful exercise of this right. Thank you for your attention to this serious matter.

I think that in Western Europe such a petition would be widely regarded as “hate speech”, and “anti-Semitic”, as would the graffiti. So why does Amnesty International think that it is OK to encourage people to send such things to Russia?

And then, of course, one can put the boot back on the first foot again. If these same three young women had daubed graffiti on a synagogue in Moscow, would they have been prosecuted for the same offence and in the same way as they have been in this case?

So there are differences between Russian culture and Western culture, and differences within Russian and Western culture. There seems to be a huge gap in understanding these differences. But these differing views also have something in common: they share in the failure to understand cultural differences, and they share in the readiness to condemn those whose culture they do not understand.

But what about Orthodoxy?

Is there an Orthodox culture, and does it have anything to say about this?

Yes, I believe there is an Orthodox culture, and it is well expressed in one of the hymns we sing repeatedly in the Paschal  season.

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered
Let those who hate him flee from before his face.

Does that apply to Pussy Riot?

Yes, I believe it does.

But you have to come to the end of the hymn to see how it applies.

This is the day of resurrection.
Let us be illumined by the feast.
Let us embrace each other.
Let us call “Brothers” even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection, and so let us cry:
Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

So what do we call the members of Pussy Riot?

Sisters.

And what do we do with them?

Embrace them, forgive them by the resurrection
and tell them that God loves them and we love them too.

That’s Orthodox culture.

_________________

Postcript:

The events described in this post highlight some of the different cultural views and perceptions there are in the world, and how little they are willing to even try to understand one another. One of the important questions it raises for Orthodox Christians is how Orthodoxy relates to culture. In the blog post above I’ve barely scratched rthe surface, and rather just pointed out a few examples.

To help us go deeper into the question, some of us have agreed to take part in a synchroblog on the theme of Orthodoxy and culture. That means that we will try to blog on the same topic on the same day — Friday 17 August 2012.

If you are an Orthodox blogger, and are reading this, we invite you to join in by writing a post in your blog on that day, and posting links to the other blogs that are participating. For more information on how to do this, see the Orthobloggers page on Facebook, or the Orthodox Synchrobloggers Mailing list.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 August 2012 6:51 pm

    Thank you for talking about this. A co-worker and i have been talking about this case. We’re both catachumens. Our main concern has been, how has the Russian Orthodox Church responded to these ladies’ offenses? Have they responded in the way you’ve suggested? If not, is there any accountability–where the Russian Orthodox Church is encourage/reminded by other archdiocese about the need for this kind of forgiveness and compassion you describe?

    i would say that how the Orthodox Church has historically related to state and culture are issues both my co-worker and i struggle with as catachumens.

    –guy

  2. 10 August 2012 2:53 pm

    Steve: Like the post. Good explanation and a good way to talk about this.
    I always find appealing the scene from Les Miserables where Jean Valjean is caught by the priest stealing in the church, and the priest gives him the candlesticks to take with him, too.There are many Orthodox examples, but one from Western culture doesn’t hurt. I think also more succinctly of Peter Kreeft’s line from his lecture on the Culture Wars: “If the Church is truly the hospital, these are our patients.”

    Guy: This is a problem in far more places than Orthodoxy…take the way Anglican order has been changed (as I understand) by Parliament…or in the US where the church has conformed itself to popular mores and yes, it is always uncomfortable, and when resolved badly, usually is unproductive. There are many uncomfortable with the cozying up between the Russian state and church. Good of you to notice. Think the phrase we use is “when the Church is acting as the Church…” things work, but when it does not… and often it does not… things go badly. And cozying up to the state typically entombs the church from acting as the church at more than the fringes. Here… Moscow… we’re at the center.

  3. Your Intrepid Blogger permalink
    10 August 2012 5:25 pm

    Your equating singing a song (however vile) and painting swastikas on a synagogue a false equivalence, and that for at least two reasons. 1. The former is not defacing somebody else’s property; 2. The latter is a credible threat of harm (and harm in a really big way — remember the Shoah?) where the former is not.

    Historically at least some people who blasphemed the church and her officials –some going so far as to physically assault priests during a service– in the past were declared Holy Fools and canonized as saints because (in part) they were pointing out places where the Church was wrong and needed to change. This is not a Western thing. This is a very Russian thing.

    Lastly I don’t see anything discreditable with the quote from Amnesty that you posted. What’s wrong with it?

  4. 11 August 2012 7:09 am

    Ditto with “Your Intrepid Blogger” above. I too think you’ve made an unfair comparison of this event with swastikas on a synagogue. You have to look at this event from a different paradigm, it is, as I see it, a prophetic act, in the biblical tradition of the Israelite prophets to not only make a statement, but to encourage transformation/reformation/etc., which we are all in need of on and ongoing basis as we navigate through life and deal with injustices and evil. I do however like your conclusion, advocating forgiveness and love.

  5. Rangjan permalink
    11 August 2012 10:47 am

    One of the accussed has made a statement on the actions she took, and this includes a commentary on how orthodoxy relates to culture (and politics) in Russia:

    http://olenskae.tumblr.com/post/29137327674/yekaterina-samutsevich-closing-statement-at-the-pussy

  6. 13 August 2012 2:53 pm

    I saw a video of their action in the Savior Cathedral and have to say I found it really disgusting, not something likely to have positive impact on anyone except those at war with the Church nor to receive support except from the most alienated. On the other hand, would that the Church could have responded in a way that communicated mercy and forgiveness. That would have been the great surprise.

    Jim Forest
    http://www.jimandnancyforest.com

  7. 13 August 2012 6:45 pm

    I would like to thank everyone who has taken the trouble to comment so far, and find all the comments thoughtful and interesting.

    It is worth noting that one of the commenters, Jim Forest, has himself spent time in jail for a protest action, which you can read about here Nonviolent Cow : Milwaukee14Today/Milwaukee 14 Today browse.

    I’m hoping to take part in a synchroblog on Orthodoxy and culture on Friday, and these events illustrate some aspects of that, and so I find all these comments helpful in various ways.

  8. 18 August 2012 2:27 pm

    I think Jim’s actions were brave, especially as they were offensive to many Americans, particularly at the time: the USA was battling a “communist takeover” in various parts of the world and these actions of burning the draft were seen as unpatriotic, treasonous, and as undermining the “brave American troops” that were fighting the Communist onslaught (according to those who were offended).

    Freedom of speech and protest should include the right to be offensive. I personally wouldn’t protest in the way that these brave young woman would, but I would defend their right to do so. Their acts were not mindless; they seem to be onto something in highlighting the collusion of powerful church and authoritarian state. The charges and sentences also seem disproportionate (excessive).

    • 19 August 2012 7:34 pm

      But would their right to such “freedom of expression” be acknowledged and respected in the West?

      What would happen if such a group marched into the BBC’s studios, or CNN, and interrupted scheduled broadcasts replacing them with their own material? Would their right to do that be recognised by the courts?

      Or what if they hijacked the Guardian’s web pages, and replaced them with material to promote their own cause?

      Would the same things be said about them then? Because preventing them from doing so would surely inhibit their “freedom of expression”, as freedom of expressiion is being interpreted in the Western media in this case.

  9. 18 August 2012 10:04 pm

    Partly because to the trial that ended yesterday in Moscow and also the simultaneous action of a Pussy Riot supporter in Kiev cutting down a large crucifix that had been raised in the post-Soviet time to commemorate victims of Stalin, I’ve been thinking about protest actions and how easily they can widen distances between people.

    It seems to me that, if one is trying to help opponents change their minds, to see things in a different light, whether the opponent is a bishop, a president or a very ordinary person, one does one’s very best to show respect for the other, not to treat him as an object of contempt — and it was contempt that has struck me as being the driving force for the Pussy Riot group. Great care also needs to be taken about use of important social symbols.

    Thomas Merton was at times critical of tactics and attitudes of the US peace movement during the sixties. I attach a letter of that he sent me in 1962. I found it — still find it — very helpful.

    Jim

    * * *

    One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations. I think this is especially true when there are … elements that are not spiritually developed. It is an enormously subtle question, but we have to consider the fact that, in its provocative aspect, nonviolence may tend to harden opposition and confirm people in their righteous blindness. It may even in some cases separate men out and drive them in the other direction, away from us and away from peace. This of course may be (as it was with the prophets) part of God’s plan. A clear separation of antagonists…. [But we must] always direct our action toward opening people’s eyes to the truth, and if they are blinded, we must try to be sure we did nothing specifically to blind them.

    Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence…. In our acceptance of vulnerability … we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time … all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds, race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation…. We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact, we must be careful how we “use” truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way around.”

    (Letter to Jim Forest, February 6, 1962; published in The Hidden Ground of Love, pp 263-64.)

    * * *

    http://www.jimandnancyforest.com

    * * *

Trackbacks

  1. Faith on Friday: Pussy Riot in Moscow @ SusanCushman.com
  2. Orthodoxy and culture « Khanya
  3. Pussy Riot — the verdict « Khanya
  4. Faith on Fridays: The Holy Foolishness of Punk and the Suppression of Critical Thought @ SusanCushman.com
  5. A taste of their own medicine? « Khanya

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