Pussy Riot (photo: Igor Wladimirowitsch Muchin/Wikimedia)

Punk Reflections about Pussy Riot

«This wasn't an act of humanity, this was a publicity stunt» Maria Alyokhina from the punk collective Pussy Riot said, when she came free from the penal camp in the middle of december. Three month before the end of the arrest, two month before the winter olympics in Soschti she and her band member were granted amnesty. The documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin tells what happend before and asks: Who should really be under scrutiny. The musicians or the society? The russian ex-punk Ivan Gololobov follows these thoughts.

Almost two years passed since the famous performance of Pussy Riot in the main Russian Orthodox cathedral on the 21st of February 2012. Subsequent arrest, trial of three, and imprisonment of two of the band’s members in August 2012, but the sound of the Punk Prayer does not seem to go quite. Massive international response and heated debates over what the women did on the altar of Christ the Saviour and what was done to them in the Moscow’s Khamovniki District Court in Russia show the significance of their action.

Lonely Hearts and Landscapes

A court in Russia no longer needs to appeal to a ridiculous in its essence charge of ‘blasphemy’: A new law passed soon after the performance of the Punk Prayer. It allows the prosecutors to charge anyone insulting «feelings of believes» with a prison sentence absolutely legally. Another regulation, adopted in the aftermath of the Pussy Riot case, allows prosecuting anyone for making a public expression with a suspicion in extremism under which, technically, any radical artistic discussion of social and political issues can go. So if you want to be successful in art in Russia nowadays, sing about your lonely heart, paint landscapes, or make abstract installations. But don’t touch upon anything social, which speaks to people directly, or religious. Would Marat Gelman, a Russian gallerist, promoter of contemporary art, and former advisor to Vladimir Putin, expect that even his exhibition ‘Icons’ staged in 2012 in a provincial Russian town of Krasnodar would cause of a fury of Orthodox activists simply because he dared discussing Christian values in an artistic space?

The exhibition «Icons»by Marat Gelman in Krasnodar, May 2012

Freedom and Spectacle

However, the story of Pussy Riot and the film of Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin is not about success. It is about two things, barely related at the first sight: freedom and spectacle. Katya, Masha, and Nadya made it clear in their final words addressed to the accusers: «We are separated by bars but it is you who are locked in, not us. We are free and we will always be free, unlike you, who will always remain in chains of your fears and slave mentality. And the horror of current situation in Russia is that many people chose to be locked in their grey suits because it is safer and it pays well»

Pussy Riot behind bars.

The second line of Pussy Right phenomenon, spectacle, is more controversial, and the film adds and plays on this controversy. If freedom is something which is inside, which is in your mind and in your soul, and something which you have to fight for on an everyday life basis, why does it need to be so spectacular? Visual contrast between the girls from the Pussy Riot and their opponents is indeed striking. Uniformly grey suits of the accusers versus bright and ‘provocative’ colours of balaclavas. There is the contrast in speech, too: Educated young women with an impressive knowledge of arts, literature, and philosophy, capable of expressing themselves in an intelligent way versus bullying and awkwardly speaking officials who seem to have no other expertise rather than administrative regulations they are bound by. And yet, for anybody, living through the Pussy Riot story inside of its context, and especially – coming from a punk background, like myself, the question remains: should the protest against the corrupt authorities be so spectacular?

Philosophy and Spirit

Most of the Russian punk and non-conformist scene are far from being so. Back in the 1970s Vassiliy Shukshin, a famous Russian film director wrote: «They have no brains, no truth, no real strength, not a single lively idea! ... But what make them ruling us then? There is only one explanation – our own stupidity. And this is what our art should hit at.» And Russian punk follows that advice. It hits to what makes those who rule remain in power : mediocrity, passivity, and weakness of an individual. Traditional Russian punk-protest is a philosophical, and, however surprising it may sound – spiritual war. It is enough to mention Grazhdanskaya Oborona, probably the most influential band in Russian punk, with their line «there are no atheists in trenches under fire».

Punk and Unpunk

Although Pussy Riot call themselves a punk band and acknowledge influence of British and American anarcho-punk, they do not really belong to the punk scene in Russia. Their performance is too theatrical and their critique is too straightforward for the Russian punk. However, their message is exactly what punk seems to be all about: no Gods, no Masters, just individual responsibility’. And in this regard Pussy Riot, probably, became the most sincere punk band in Russia, taking responsibility for their performance with their own freedom, doing it gracefully and with the courage few of the male punk heroes could show.

Published on January 07, 2014

Last updated on June 11, 2019

Biography

Ivan Gololobov (b.1975) has previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs (1998) and at the Institute of International Law of Peace and Armed Conflicts, University of Bochum, Germany (2004–2006), and taught at the University of the West of England in Bristol (2007). He has participated in a number of international research projects including «Far from the cities: Social transformation of the post-Soviet village» (German Research Council 2002–2005) and «The role of regions in transforming post-communist societies» (INTAS 1999–2002). He is currently teaching and working as a Research Fellow on the AHRC funded project on ‘Post-socialist punk’ at the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick.
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