Long Read: “What Does Pussy Riot Mean Now?”

Via the Atlantic, Miriam Elder at Buzzfeed with history lessons on Pussy Riot, “holy fool” protest artists, and the connivance between Putin, the Orthodox Church, and Russian biker gangs:

I asked Masha what this global tour, this Amnesty show, could achieve back in Russia. It’s a country ruled, for now, by the will of one man. Masha and Nadya have often said so themselves, not least when they called their release from prison a “PR stunt” carried out by Putin to win him points ahead of the Olympics. So when Steven Hawkins, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, says things like, “Amnesty’s network of activists were instrumental in the outcome of their case,” does that not undermine things?

“You can see it as naive or idealized,” Masha said, staring through the windshield onto the slushy streets of New York. “But with each action, you see that you’re doing what you exist for.”

Nadya was more blunt. She turned from her computer and said, “Why are you so cynical?”…

They would spend another few days in New York before finally flying back home to Moscow. What’s set to follow are endless days of filing documents with Russian judges, prison administrations, and human rights ombudsmen. Masha’s and Nadya’s days will be filled with papers and stamps and fax machines as they seek to make incremental improvements in the lives of Russia’s growing number of political prisoners. It’s a thankless task, but one to which they’re committed.

Masha took to Facebook late Thursday night to voice her frustration, linking to a piece in The New Yorker about the Amnesty show. They’re talking and no one is listening, she wrote. People focus on the messenger not the message.

“We start every interview abroad with the fact that people in Russia are being jailed politically for the May 6 case. And there have definitely been more than 50 interviews this week,” she wrote. “Then we see how afterwards, the subject of May 6 is consistently wiped out from the final texts and we decide to talk only about this case. We turn any talk about the Olympics or Ukraine toward our political prisoners,” she continued. “And they don’t hear us.” She thinks she understands why. It’s “not by any fault of their own, but because it’s our domestic political problem.”

But maybe the real reason lies deeper. Pussy Riot always insisted on anonymity, not wanting their faces or personal backgrounds to interfere with their message. Now that they’ve been unmasked, they are rock stars.

I remembered what Masha said, standing in the Amnesty International office, right after having landed at JFK. On the drive into the city, she’d received news from a prison in Mordovia and managed to write a quick complaint to the prison administration; a small success. Meanwhile, New York City was streaming past her outside the car window. “There was a certain dissonance,” she admitted. “Of course my head is spinning.”

37 replies
  1. 1
    James E. Powell says:

    Anyone who sets out to make changes in an oppressive regime, or even to talk about making changes, is going to be punished both by the regime and by the indifference of the general public. One would think that anyone familiar with Russian history would know this.

    I’m not saying that people should not work for change. I’m just saying that such people should not expect victory or congratulations.

  2. 2
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    Can anyone who is a better historian than I am explain why Russia, despite years of upheaval and attempts to change, still seems to have a Czar?

  3. 3
    jl says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate: Anyone who can answer that might also answer why the U.S., after seemingly endless painful economics lessons, and repeated political reforms, still has crony capitalism, with mindlessly greedy and corrupt financial scammers running huge chunks of the economy.

  4. 4
    Botsplainer says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate:

    Can anyone who is a better historian than I am explain why Russia, despite years of upheaval and attempts to change, still seems to have a Czar?

    Cultural predisposition, combined with the fact that it was a place, even under communism, with an unpredictably manifested and deeply held social conservatism.

  5. 5
    Botsplainer says:

    As someone who is nominally Orthodox and about as dogmatically Christian as an apostate, doubting Unitarian, I agree with goals of freedom and personal autonomy. However, I draw the line at disruption of worship services, particularly by conduct commonly understood as profane. It is performance art done as shock, and not well-received by those who you could persuade.

    Years ago, when Act-Up targeted an ordination in New York, all it did was alienate people – I still think they’re assholes for doing it, and those friends and family in attendance did nothing to deserve being subjected to that nonsense.

    If pussy riot wants to protest Putin, the Duma and Kyrill’s chancery, be my guest – I’ll support it. Services, no.

  6. 6
    Betty Cracker says:

    But maybe the real reason lies deeper. Pussy Riot always insisted on anonymity, not wanting their faces or personal backgrounds to interfere with their message. Now that they’ve been unmasked, they are rock stars.

    Ding! Ding! Ding! It’s a catch 22, though. You have to create a compelling image to get anyone to listen to your message, but then you run the risk of people focusing on the image at the expense of the message.

  7. 7
    Botsplainer says:

    As I think about it, here’s a little more about my gripe about disrupting services – there are people in attendance who have genuine personal crises – illness, age issues, depression, despair over the plight of another, relationship issues – they are simply there for solace. They didn’t ask for that disruption, and don’t deserve it.

  8. 8
    Betty Cracker says:

    @Botsplainer: I’m sure it pissed the people in the respective churches off, but both the P Riot and Act Up protests did raise consciousness about the complicity of the institutions in the injustice the groups were protesting. The churches weren’t innocent parties in either case.

  9. 9
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Botsplainer:

    If pussy riot wants to protest Putin, the Duma and Kyrill’s chancery, be my guest – I’ll support it. Services, no.

    The infamous “protest” didn’t take place during a service — the church was empty; the complaint was that the women ‘profaned a sacred space’.

    And, if you RTFA, the Orthodox Church is very politicized in Putin’s Russia; not in our lazy ‘All good ‘Mericans are Christians’ sense, but using the Church as a specific enforcement tool of the state. My faith is not at all nominal, but part of that faith is the understanding that once “religion” becomes a political weapon, it’s lost its immunity to political action.

  10. 10
    Cervantes says:

    @Anne Laurie:

    The infamous “protest” didn’t take place during a service — the church was empty; the complaint was that the women ‘profaned a sacred space’.

    Yes, and as someone else put it:

    To put into perspective our hypocrisy, ask yourself what would happen if a punk band snuck into the National Cathedral and sang “Holy Sh-t” while blasting Obama policies and the Pope. Or if they made a similar “punk prayer” against Benjamin Netanyahu and Judaism at the Temple Emanu-El, the world’s largest synagogue, in New York.

    (Repeating myself, I know.)

  11. 11
    Botsplainer says:

    @Betty Cracker:

    The churches weren’t innocent parties in either case

    No, they weren’t innocent.

    I’ll also say the Act-Up thing offended me, and I’ve never had a lot of kind things to say about the Roman hierarchy.

    I will add that the congregants in attendance were innocent, and didn’t deserve that. I’m just imagining going to a service out of a sense of loss or crisis, or to mark a special occasion (anniversary crowning, infant churching, a relative’s ordination), and having to contend with those jerks.

    There is a time and place for everything.

  12. 12
    Suffern ACE says:

    @Cervantes: well for one thing, the rector would say “I know, That Pope, huh. Makes me glad I’m episcopalian.”

  13. 13
    Suffern ACE says:

    @Botsplainer: you’re the guy who doesn’t really mind it if homeless people are beaten, and you get offended if your precious church’s somber piety is questioned? As if you pay attention anyway.

  14. 14
    jl says:

    The article skims over some reasons why Russia is a mess and was a breeding ground for authoritarianism. Economic disaster and hardship is a good breeding ground for authoritarian government that can get people food, jobs, money and transportation. The transition from communism to capitalism in the Soviet Union, and what was to become Russia was an economic disaster.

    Notably, the transition was a guided by a ‘shock therapy’ approach that advocated selling every damn thing that could be sold to the highest bidder, no questions asked. And it was advocated by fanatical free market economists. I was in grad school as the disaster unfolded and remember the debates. I also remember the predictions made by the shock therapy proponents, which they are trying to cover up or disown now.

    I don’t believe the line that there was some clever plan by Putin to use release of some of P * ss * riot to split the group and dilute its effectiveness. If it was a plan it seems neither clever nor effective to me. If the article is going to (perhaps implicitly) snigger at holy fool style protests, well, then the supposed strategy transformed some of the band into what promises to be effective dedicated and quite organized protesters and organizers.

    And what big split? I read a piece about the split, and in their announcement the remaining band members simply said that the two who appeared on Colbert broke the band’s rule and should not be considered members anymore. Then it said the remaining band members admired the work the two were doing, and wished them well, but, just, they had their rules and they wanted the members to follow the rules.

    My conclusion, which I hope is not too insulting, is that this piece would go quite well in the NYT Style section (or whatever it’s called now).

  15. 15
    Cassidy says:

    @Botsplainer: Sorry dude, but bullshit.

  16. 16
    TheMightyTrowel says:

    @Botsplainer: As a lapsed catholic, a queer person and a woman let me be the first to say to you that the congregants were in no way innocent. In supporting the catholic hierarchy through financial donations and through their continued presence they lend it an aura of respectability and implicitly support its doctrinal and political statements even if they disagree in their own minds. The only way to break down the super-structure of opression is to remove its foundations and in many cases those foundations are made up of innocent individuals who don’t realise the scope of the organisations they support or how seriously those organisations take their doctrine. Protests in catholic spaces against pedophile priests shocked my mother and her sisters, but it also made them look more closely at the church they had been supporting for decades with their time and money. 10 years later, none of them are practising Catholics anymore. In my mother’s case, her donations go to feminist Christian organisations these days.

    I know we all like that quote about being A RACIST vs DOING RACIST THINGS so I’m going to put my sentiments in those terms: attending a church and giving it physical and financial support when it is actively working to oppress specific people and groups is DOING AN OPPRESSIVE THING whether or not you the congregant believes in that oppressive thing in your heart. Protesting that oppression may be shocking, but it’s not rude, inappropriate or a bad decision.

  17. 17
    kc says:

    @Suffern ACE:

    Yeah, no shit.

  18. 18
    Cervantes says:

    @jl:

    The transition from communism to capitalism in the Soviet Union, and what was to become Russia was an economic disaster.

    Abel Aganbegyan, economic adviser to Gorbachev, hoped for a slow transition through perestroika but the G7 refused to help on the necessary scale; and soon thereafter the attempted coup against Gorbachev put an end to hope. What followed was corruption on a massive scale, legitimized by …

    … a ‘shock therapy’ approach that advocated selling every damn thing that could be sold to the highest bidder, no questions asked. And it was advocated by fanatical free market economists. I was in grad school as the disaster unfolded and remember the debates. I also remember the predictions made by the shock therapy proponents, which they are trying to cover up or disown now.

    Here’s Jeff Sachs:

    Far from preaching a miracle cure, I was trying to preach realism to the United States — that market reforms could not, by themselves, solve deep structural and societal problems, and that large-scale help would be needed from the West. […] The three main areas where my direct advice went unheeded were the following: (1) the need for large-scale financial [assistance], which I deemed (and still deem) to have been essential to molding a political consensus around reforms, and to bolstering the financial situation enough to achieve a modicum of success in the fight against hyperinflation; (2) the need for strong monetary and fiscal policy to achieve a rapid end to inflation; and (3) the urgency of establishing a social safety net, especially in health care and pensions, to ensure an adequate social and political base for societal transformation and democratization. The lack of Western assistance was grim and was my greatest frustration.

    More from Jeff here, for what it’s worth.

  19. 19
    Botsplainer says:

    @Anne Laurie:

    The infamous “protest” didn’t take place during a service — the church was empty; the complaint was that the women ‘profaned a sacred space’.

    Oh, like squatters?

    Sorry, but there were people there, and it is clear from the video. The Orthodox are very big on multiple daily cycles of liturgy for the laity and clergy alike (even if only a few attend) and will allow people to come reflect in between. Plus, unlike wholesome ‘Murkans, they view the consecration of space very seriously. I can remember what happened when the altar behind our iconostasis was vandalized and blessed sacramental wine drunk, it caused a lot of extra work for the priests in terms of blessing the space so profaned.

  20. 20
    p.a. says:

    @Botsplainer: not really a lot of convenient times or places to protest authoritarianism.

  21. 21
    PIGL says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate: After the cataclysm, western “experts” helpfully “encouraged” the wholesale transfer of state assets to a clique of former spooks and gangsters, which became the Russian Mafia and Putin’s powerbase.

    I think that’s it in a nutshell. More explanatory and testable than nonsense about cultural predispositions and the darkness of the Slavic soul.

    EDIT: I just noticed that the learned Cervantes made my case in more detail and with extra-special supporting evidence. Thanks for that!

  22. 22
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Suffern ACE:

    Yeah, that was my thought, too. Why would Episcopalians care about the Pope being denounced in their church, other than it being somewhat impolite these days?

  23. 23
    gogol's wife says:

    @Botsplainer:

    And you think the penalty for disrupting a church service (although I think Anne Laurie is right and there was no service in progress at the time) should be two years in a labor camp? (could have easily been 5, by the way, but there was too much uproar)

  24. 24
    Cervantes says:

    @PIGL: Well, jl did most of the work. I piped up mostly because I did not want the “cultural predisposition” thing to go by silently — but there again, you took care of that.

    I will add one thing: what happened to the Russian people after Gorbachev and glasnost and perestroika was unimaginably painful. Many friends of mine suffered in the tumult, some died. It’s not entirely clear to me that Bill Clinton (never mind Bush) could have done anything differently — in 1993 we were not a people looking to solve anyone else’s problems — but to have had that opportunity and to have lost it was … heart-breaking.

  25. 25
    gogol's wife says:

    @Cervantes:

    I don’t see what the hypocrisy is. Do you think that a person doing the things you mentioned would be thrown into a labor camp for two years? I don’t. How many journalists here have been shot in the head or poisoned by people working for the government?

  26. 26
    jl says:

    @Cervantes:

    ” health care and pensions ”

    Those were two areas of extra special disaster. Lots of people died because of of the breakdown of public health services and access to medical care. Lots of pensioners lost everything.

    Estonia veered away from the shock therapy approach, and put some thought into how a weak emerging, and relatively dinky country, could collect enough revenue and keep social services functioning well enough to stave off disaster. Ironically, but perhaps predictably, some of these measures were later claimed by the shock therapists as exemplars of free market shock therapy reform. But they were adopted by the Estonians precisely to avoid shock therapy. As I heard at a seminar from one of the people who designed it, there was fear the country would fall apart since Estonians would never accept the horribly low level of social services that they saw in Russia.

  27. 27
    jl says:

    @Cervantes: And thanks for the link so Sachs and the providing the details of who and what and when.

    I have to disagree if you are saying that Riots’ punishment fit the crime. I don’t know what would happen in Israel, but if something similar happened in mainline Christian Church in the U.S., I can’t see much hard jail time coming out of it. As some one who has been a member of that kind of church, with big old fancy building and stuff, I would certainly make a huge stink if the congregation advocated that kind of punishment.

  28. 28
    Cervantes says:

    @Suffern ACE: Maybe, but Jurkevich isn’t asking you to imagine the Rector’s reaction:

    In the U.S. such acts are covered by hate crime laws which can easily carry two [years’] jail time.

    That’s his argument, anyway.

  29. 29
    JGabriel says:

    But maybe the real reason lies deeper. P*ssy Riot always insisted on anonymity, not wanting their faces or personal backgrounds to interfere with their message. Now that they’ve been unmasked, they are rock stars.

    Maybe there’s an even deeper reason: the attention Nadya and Masha bring to prison injustices in Russia may simply not carry as much weight in the US, a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, a country that accounts for less than 5% of the global population but 25% of the world’s prisoners.

  30. 30
    Cervantes says:

    @jl:

    I have to disagree if you are saying that Riots’ punishment fit the crime.

    Good, because that’s not at all what I’m saying!

  31. 31
    Mnemosyne says:

    @JGabriel:

    Americans are always willing to become morally outraged by the bad things other countries are doing even when we’re doing worse ourselves. It’s part of our American exceptionalism.

  32. 32
    Cervantes says:

    @gogol’s wife:

    I don’t see what the hypocrisy is. Do you think that a person doing the things you mentioned would be thrown into a labor camp for two years? I don’t. How many journalists here have been shot in the head or poisoned by people working for the government?

    Yes, I wasn’t clear, sorry. That quotation (which I repeated here from a previous thread) is from Mark Jurkevich. By all means disagree with his “hate crime” assertion, or with his accusation of hypocrisy, or with his larger argument.

  33. 33
    PIGL says:

    @Cervantes: The transition to a functional social democracy with a socialist-leaning economy would have been a wonderful thing. I suppose preventing that at all costs was part of the evil disaster-capitalist plan. I am sorry for your friends….some colleagues of my late father, scientists, also came to sad ends in the collapse.

    There is a line in a Le Carré novel, Russia House, I think, where a fomer KGB spook is saying how he had believed “we are on the side history….the future of mankind is safe with us.” It was certainly in no more danger than it now finds itself, in the hands the ruthless triumphalist western oligarchs.

  34. 34
    Cervantes says:

    @PIGL: Thanks.

    I don’t know the women of Pussy Riot, of course, but many of the people I’ve known in and from the former Soviet Union have been dissidents. Over the decades, their lives were never comfortable, their bravery always stark. Here is one particular group of Russians still risking everything to fight the good fight; and here’s a piece by David Remnick about them.

  35. 35
    mainmata says:

    “Mordovia”, a little unconscious connection with Tolkien? Should be Moldovia. What P**sy Riot and others are doing is resisting the re-Sovietization of Russia. NPR had a great segment today on the unholy alliance of the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin’s conservative, nationalist and authoritarian policies. Reminded me of….hmm…the oh yes, the Southern Strategy and ALEC.

  36. 36
    mainmata says:

    Ok I have heavily edited the offending word, which is anyway now part of official public discourse in the News. So….FYWP

  37. 37
    Cacti says:

    The communists went overboard in their crackdown on the Orthodox Church, but their grievances with that institution were quite real, as it always abetted the worst abuses of the Tsars.

    Since the end of the cold war, they’ve regained their historical place as oppressor rather than oppressed.

Comments are closed.