Pussy Riot Convicted!

by Matthew Payne on August 17, 201228 comments


So, Just Who is the “Hooligan” in this Picture? (c/o UK Telegraph)

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Pussy Riot was convicted in a Russian court:

Judge Marina Syrova convicted the women of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, saying they had “crudely undermined social order”.

Well, then.  It would almost be comical to read the deliberate stupidity of this verdict, with its schoolmarm’s hectoring tone, if it were not so tragic.  Pussy Riot is many things, mostly a committed bunch of political activists in the Riot Grrl mode, but hooligans they are not.

There is a long tradition in Russia of infantilizing and delegitimizing social resistance to the state precisely by deploying this term “hooliganism.”  While the term, and its later deployment in Soviet legal codes definitely targeted social deviance that would be viewed as malign in most modern societies—such as sexual harassment and gang violence—it was also used to maintain traditional social mores in a time of radical social change.  It is hardly surprising that “hooliganism” first entered the Russian vocabulary around the time of the 1905 Revolution and would be used to suppress actions, such as withholding deference or mocking the clergy, which would later be lionized after 1917 as expressions of proletarian consciousness.   Hooliganism was borrowed by the new revolutionary legal order only after the Bolsheviks became concerned with “law and order,” especially as a tool to discipline the hordes of abandoned children produced by the Civil War and the recalcitrant peasants in the countryside.  Hooliganism was hardly a legal atavism for Russia’s new masters, however, but became a highly effective tactic of state terror.  When starving mobs attacked the railroads in search of food, Stalin ordered the secret police to execute all such “hooligans” “on the spot” without trials as, you guessed it, hooligans.  In Stalinist parlance, hooligans went from a nuisance to public order to an unredeemable mass of social deviants who need not be treated as anything else than a pack of sub-humans.  The vast “mass operations” of the Great Purges also targeted hooliganism.  But it was really in the post-Stalin period that the present crime of “hooliganism” as an assault on “public order,” became cemented as a tool of social control, especially in response to mass protest.  Simply put, Stalin’s heirs (among whom Yeltsin and Putin certainly number) understood that terror as a form of social discipline was counter-productive–the targets of hooliganism prosecutions were harshly punished after widely publicized “show trials” but you can only terrorize a society so long.  By the 1950s and 1960s the Soviet urban population, especially its young, would no longer defer to “public order” and engaged in open social deviance (including cultivating a taste for bourgeois fashion and music), which led to a major revision of the hooliganism statutes.  Henceforth, millions of Soviet “outsiders” would be given relatively mild punishments (usually from six months to several years in a work camp, but also the Soviet equivalent of probation and administrative supervision).  It is from these “reforms,” which were adopted without major revision into Russian Federation law, that Pussy Riot could be convicted of “crudely undermining social order.”  The law was, and is, a powerful tool used by a totalitarian and post(?)-totalitarian state to police what it believed to be social deviancy, mainly by depoliticizing acts of social resistance.  The two-year sentence given to Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, is consistent with this strategy of depoliticizing social rebels.  It is within this effort to depoliticize clearly political speech that Putin’s recent comment to the UK’s credulous Cameron, needs to be read: “There is nothing good in what they [Pussy Riot] did,” he said. But “I don’t think they should be judged too severely.”  Just some rude girls who need to be made to conform to social norms—this is, of course, the essence of the hooliganism charge and effectively conveys both state paternalism and contempt to the convicted.

This is what makes establishment commentary on Pussy Riot’s protest so odd for me to read.  In fact, much of the “analysis” of the trial comes off as so much pearl-clutching by commentators who are quick to announce their commitment to free political speech but accept the Putinian frame of tut-tutting such rude girls acting up in a church. Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova, and Samutsevich are nearly always identified with their ages in media accounts, all the better to indicate what callow youth twenty-somethings they are.  Moreover, by highlighting the umbrage of various religiously identified commentators, these accounts reduce their act of pre-meditated political criticism, aimed at a highly political Church hierarchy (not believers), a trope has developed about Pussy Riot’s “stunt” or “prank” which is alleged to have attacked deep-felt Russian sensibilities.  Think I’m making that up?  Read Anna Nemtsova of The Daily Beast to get a flavor of this trivialization of dissent:

In the rest of the world, they’ve been hailed as heroes; young and brave freedom fighters in a society where political liberty is slowly being eaten away. But in Russia, their prank concert at the holiest spot in the Russian Orthodox Church at which they wore short sexy dresses, colorful tights and their now-famous bright balaclavas, angered a great many people. It was as if a group of men had mooned the Wailing Wall or a band had played kazoos during a Catholic wake—a provocative and deeply offensive act to Russian believers.

Well, then!  Yes, because appealing to a corrupt hierarch not to legitimate a tyrant is exactly the same as the Westboro Baptist Church protesting at military funerals (well, not really, since, after all, the Westboro Baptist Church is protected by the first amendment and if Ms. Nemtsova has a problem with them, the old Google machine can find no reference to it).  Just to make the point all the stronger about the consequences of her irresponsible “prank,” Nemtsova interviews Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s husband and paints him as an anguished husband now responsible for raising their daughter alone:

While his wife remains detained, he is bringing up their four-year-old daughter alone. The girl may have to do without her mother for a while given that her mother and the others face up to seven years in prison.

You get the feeling Nemtsova would like nothing better than to wash Pussy Riot’s mouth out with soap and have them write “I will not sing in a church” on a white board (be nice to know if Nemtsova identifies herself with Russian Orthodoxy and the present Patriarch, don’t you think?).  Of course, Nemtsova’s own account shows something far more interesting than a naive “prank” and could sketch a portrait of a young women acting in the finest traditions of the Russian intelligentsia, including long philosophical debates as to whether it was right to target the Church, even if it had become complicit with an increasingly anti-democratic regime.  Pussy Riot has itself accepted that such targeting was unethical, but necessary and not criminal to save the Church by debasing itself with politics (which, of course, the Russian Orthodox Church has about a millennium’s worth of experience in doing). Nemtsova, however, goes much further than screaming condescension towards Pussy Riot; she reports without comment the ridiculous assertions of a Kremlin-connected hack “scholar” that the government is actually doing the defendants a favor, because if they were not in jail, they would be assassinated by Russian nationalists.  As if gangs of Russian nationalists don’t dominate Russia’s prisons, Ms. Nemtsova. . . Do note, as well, that Nemtsova does not correct this hack’s reference to the women as “girls,” thus naturalizing Russian society’s constant infantilization of women (“devushik” should set off radar alarms like the use of “boy” for African-American men).

Nemtsova’s acceptance of the Kremlin’s hooliganism frame here, is actually quite typical of Western reporting on Pussy Riot, much of which insists on treating them as a “punk band” and not a committed cell of political activists.  Nemtsova and most other commentators have avoided the discussion of the actual charge under which Pussy Riot was charged, as well—blasphemy.  It is hard, after all, to make the Church look like a victim, when the most medieval concepts are being used to persecute dissent. One way (and probably the right way, in my view), to read the Pussy Riot case is as a power grab by hyper-nationalist elements in the Orthodox Church to push religious fundamentalism on a far too secular population.  Astute Russians, at least, understand the ludicrousness of the charge and what it portends for personal liberty:

“This is all nonsense,” said Boris Akunin, one of Russia’s best known authors. “I can’t believe that in the 21st century a judge in a secular court is talking about devilish movements. I can’t believe that a government official is quoting medieval church councils.”

What did Voltaire call the Church?  L’infamie?  Maybe Russians should acquaint themselves with Candide.

Moreover, the media has also been extremely credulous in repeating alleged truisms like “they chose the most sacred site in the Russian Orthodox Church” for their protest (um, no; that might be Cathedral Square in the Kremlin, St. Basil’s or Sergiev Posad, but it sure ain’t the monstrously ugly send-up to nationalist excess that doubles as the Patriarch’s aka”Christ the Savior Church”), or that sixty-five per cent of Russians identify as Orthodox (try to find if any of those actually went inside a church in, oh, the last decade).

None of this Western media acceptance (outside of allegedly frivolous celebrities like Madonna) is shocking since similar infantilizing tactics are used to delegitimate protests in places as different as Spain and America. The constant drumbeat last fall from right-wing organs like Fox News for the violent suppression of the Zucotti Park occupation was accompanied with classic tropes of a “hooliganism scare”—unkempt appearance, lack of deference to authority, tolerance of drug use and sexual predation, all of which acted to define brave public protest as social deviance by a feckless class of ne’er-do-wells who mostly needed to “take a bath, get a haircut and get a job!” This is the same narrative defenders of “public order” (as if such a thing exists in Putin’s Russia—more correct to call it “privatized disorder”) have been screeching since at least the prosecution of Saint Simonians in 1830s Paris for being, essentially, “dirty freaking hippies.” 

Pussy Riot, at least, know what they did and they know why they did it (and not due to a “lack of respect” as the judge decided must be their motivation).  They, at least, have resolutely fought this public pillorying of them being a bunch of attention-seeking pranksters:

On Thursday, Tolokonnikova had said she was “not bitter about being in jail”. But, speaking through her lawyer on Twitter, she said: “Politically, I am furious.”

“Our imprisonment serves as a clear and unambiguous sign that freedom is being taken away from the entire country,” she said.

Yes, they sang a rude song in a cathedral in the cause of freedom, which contra Ms. Nemtsova does make them heroes, not “hooligans.”  They didn’t drop trou and make rude gestures in a sacred space.  They bared their souls in a corrupt temple and cried “Freedom!” to the entire Motherland in the finest traditions of Pushkin and Mandelstam.  And maybe, just maybe, Western commentary can stop treating them like petulant children as show a little respect.

28 comments

Andrew Loewen on August 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm. #

Thanks for this, Matthew.

Michelle on August 17, 2012 at 2:31 pm. #

Excellent points all, Matthew. Even Truthdigg refers to them as “Pranksters”….

Nick Glossop on August 17, 2012 at 4:12 pm. #

Great piece, Matt. Here, in trademark toplessness, FEMEN says ‘Hello’ to the Patriarch:

Michelle on August 17, 2012 at 9:32 pm. #

And here are FEMEN, felling a Crucifix.

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.401948363206369.97551.128165263918015&type=1

“On the day of sentencing, the women’s movement FEMEN expressed support and respect to Russian colleagues from the Group Pussy riot. In a sign of solidarity with the victims of Putin’s regime Femen activist Inna Shevchenko piled a monument cross on the Maidan of independence with a chainsaw. Femen demand from church to stop support the dictatorship and hinder the development of democracy and freedom of women. FEMEN says if russian activists will be sentenced to prison terms, FEMEN will show their chainsaw for Putin and Gundyaev.”

Michelle on August 17, 2012 at 9:36 pm. #

Just to elaborate on the significance of the cross monument:

“The cross — erected during Ukraine’s 2004-05 Orange Revolution in memory of the victims of communism — was located near the International Center for Culture and Arts in Kyiv.

Femen said in a statement, “On the day of the sentencing, the Femen women’s movement expresses its support and respect for its Russian colleagues from the group Pussy Riot. … By this act, Femen calls on all healthy forces of society to mercilessly saw out of their heads all the rotten religious prejudice that serves as a foundation for dictatorship and prevents the development of democracy and women’s freedom.”

http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-femen-cross-pussy-riot/24679942.html

Nick Glossop on August 17, 2012 at 10:50 pm. #

Further background on FEMEN from Finnish TV (hit the cc button for English subtitles.

We should probably build a post out of this and cover the group properly.

Matthew on August 18, 2012 at 9:53 am. #

Wow, chainsaws! This is not going to go away. I really do think this is a Zasulich moment and at least within the radical intelligentsiia feminism and democracy are firmly on the table. Like Pussy Riot, Femen is very clever about getting their message out. Be interesting to see if they are persecuted for this act or if Ukraine shows independence from Moscow.

Nick Glossop on August 18, 2012 at 10:59 am. #

Where the Pussy Riot legal defense insisted that theirs was not an attack on the church or the faith, only on the political use and corruption of church and faith – no such demurs from FEMEN:

Glad to see the goggles and safety gloves. (Both W. Bush clearing brush and Putin’s habitual shirtlessness come to mind.)

Andrew Loewen on August 18, 2012 at 3:18 pm. #

Given the recent house raids of Occupy organizers w/ warrants to search for “anarchist materials” and the increasing criminalization of protest, it strikes me that an American collective as fearless and confrontational as Pussy Riot would have trouble staying out of prison, too. Any performance staged in a location designated a “restricted space” by Homeland Security could land the group in prison for 10 years under the bi-partisan “Trespass Bill” Obama signed into law in March.

The support for Pussy Riot is refreshing, and testifies to the power of culture and music as uniquely suited to agitation, but also – perhaps – functions as an act of displacement from confronting tyranny and supporting dissent at home.

A couple days ago 6 activists including 3 Iraq war veterans were arrested for staging a sit-in at (occupying) Obama’s Oakland campaign office with the demand to free Bradley Manning. A militant feminist punk band/collective staging performances in such unauthorized spaces would probably make a much greater impact, but how long would they remain out of prison if they kept it up?

Matthew Payne on August 18, 2012 at 3:58 pm. #

You know Andrew, I as actually thinking of including the story of the Oakland protesters (and the nun arrested for an “attack” on nuclear weapons) but I thought the point about OWS made the argument. The issue is not simply the suppression of dissent but it’s “hooliganization”–sort of like that Batman movie I refused to watch. Obviously, even peaceful protest is some sort of horrible, horrible act of thuggery that needs to be met with mace, rubber bullets and long prison terms. Interestingly, this was precisely the strategy that Khrushchev chose after the Novocherkassk food marches (they were not “riots”) when sheer police state brutality threatened to crash the Party’s legitimacy. Of course, there’s a long history of demonizing dissent but I do think, and did link, Pussy Riot to a larger continuum of state-directed oppression at basic rights. That Trepass Law is a hideous example that not even Putin has in his armory of repression.

Andrew Loewen on August 18, 2012 at 4:36 pm. #

Yeah, you explicitly made the link to OWS within your broader contextualization of “hoologanism” in Russian history. I wasn’t suggesting otherwise. And the hooliganizing of OWS as hippies, etc, wasn’t limited to the Glenn Becks of the world as I witnessed many liberals make the point that occupiers should be in suits and ties if they wanted to be taken seriously. One of the major fractures within OWS was in response to the demonization of black blocs as “the cancer within Occupy” by Chris Hedges, which is interesting in the context of hooliganism. Meanwhile in actual revolutionary scenarios throughout the Arab Spring, protesters have always been painted as either unruly thugs or foreign agitators by the state.

Wasn’t the Cold War saying that in the Soviet Bloc nothing went and everything mattered while in the West everything went and nothing mattered? (following Solzhenitsyn?) It seems much less goes today in the USA of Homeland Security (or Charest’s Quebec for that matter) and I wonder if it matters more.

Ross Wolfe on August 18, 2012 at 9:50 pm. #

I have to say the charge of hooliganism struck me as something of a throwback. As if Putin hasn’t done enough already to conjure up the specter of Soviet authoritarianism. What struck me about using the charge of hooliganism («хулиганство», a notoriously vague and widely applicable sub-clause of Article 58, if I remember, featuring in a lot of GULag literature) is its obviousness. I mean, it almost seems to me like it couldn’t have been merely unconscious or an accident. It seems like he was actually inviting the parallels.

Matt, you might know this better than I would, but was the charge of “hooliganism” extended during the post-Stalinist (i.e., post-1956 Secret Speech) period to the archetype of the “Soviet dissident”? I know less about this later history. The dissidents of the 1960s and especially the 1970s in Russia strike me as having more in common with the Western counterculture movement (from hippiedom to punk rock), and thus more in common with OWS, insofar as it inherited part of that tradition. Pre-1956 “hooliganism” strikes me as being somewhat of a different nature, though as many have pointed out it’s a very hazy term.

Next thing you know they’ll be breaking out the real oldies-but-goodies when it comes to handing out anachronistic (and as always, baseless) criminal sentences: «враг народа», «вредитель», «саботажник».

Matthew on August 18, 2012 at 10:51 pm. #

Hey, Andrew, was kvetching–just saying I think your points are germane and I was actually thinking along the lines you did. The moment I knew OWS was truly subversive was when various liberal bloggers tried to hector them into behaving. So, so worried about the optics of Chicago ’68. Me, I haven’t got a problem with the black bloc with the exception that they are thoroughly directed by FBI moles. The guy that tells you to throw a molotov, that guy’s a Fed.
Ross, the issue is more complicated than the Stalinist golden oldies. The prisoners themselves made the Gulag completely ungovernable and the GB colonels were shitting bricks after Kengir and Vorkuta. Khrushchev had to ratchet down the terror, which was just making matters worst, so he hit on the expediency of depoliticizing resistance (some trick!) especially after Novocherkassk. The article in question is 213.2–very far indeed from article 58. It is the article that covers gangs, harassment, fighting and general “anti-social behavior.” And it’s been used from the early 1960s to depoliticize and infantilize resistance. The dissidents would never had made common cause with 213.2–ers, too many of who were working class proles with a taste for violence. However, those guys were the guys in the “scene” who dropped out, made music, worked jobs in Siberia and generally would jump a bunch of party “druzhina” at the drop of the hat. The secret history of the late Soviet Union is the fight for the soul of the hooligans. Some of which, maybe most, ended up as nasty folks noone would want to bump into late at night. But many more of them held on to something different, a goal and committment to not live under the boot. In August of 1991 those guys showed up in large numbers. Quite alot were killed in the storming of the White House in 1994 but they’re never far from the surface. I marched with these guys once upon a time and I know that they would think these Pussy Riot girls (sorry, that’s what they’d be called in Russia) have some backbone. It was a mistake to brand them hooligans instead of trespassers–Andropov would never have made such a crude error (internal exile would have done for them very nicely in his techniques). But to take an obviously political action and brand it banditry is simply to hoist the flag of Pugachev. Like Catherine, Putin made matyrs out of social rebels in attempting to reduce them to criminals. That won’t work out well for power. Never has. Never will.

Nick Glossop on August 19, 2012 at 12:26 am. #

I think whatever deliberate gestures in the direction of Stalinism there may be here, they are thoroughly hollow ones. Whatever the Putinocracy may be (a shoddy authoritarian petro/mafia state) it is certainly NOT a surging, collectivizing utopian/totalitarian project, and without the Plan you don’t really have wreckers, former people, deviationists (Moscow hates Trotskyists and anarchists as much as ever, but now it does so for the exact same reasons as do Washington and London). There is a Soviet echo to this deployment of ‘hooligan’ but the system being served and protected is one much more in search of pre-Soviet roots and justifications. Hence Orthodoxy, and the greater likelihood that we’ll hear more about heresy and sacrilege than about saboteurs or enemies of the people.

(Funnily, blaspheme богохульство looks like God-hooliganism, and it’s great to say if you roll it around in your mouth for a while, bo-go-khool-stva)

The counter-cultures of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, the stilyagi, bitniki, the hippies of the systema were certainly condemned for hooliganism (Punk didn’t get a lot of traction until late in the day; as a reaction against bloated super-groups and record industry practices, it didn’t make much sense in the Soviet context). In Pussy Riot we have smart savvy political activists employing the Punk Band schtick as camouflage and tactic, and it was brilliantly effective. In their being condemned, now convicted as mere Punks, as mere hooligans, there is symmetry, if little justice. But keep your bright Balaklava on the hat rack next to your Guy Fawkes mask and stay tuned for more emerging insurgent superhero identities. There will be more.

Ross Wolfe on August 19, 2012 at 7:12 am. #

Matthew,

Thanks for expanding on that. I generally agree.

Turns out we were both wrong regarding the statutes of the criminal code, however, though numerically you were considerably closer than I was. Hooliganism is, as you state, covered under Article 213.2 in Russia today, while under the old USSR penal code it would have been Article 206.2.

Nick,

You’re right, actually. This at times almost seems to harken back to the age of Count Uvarov in search of legal precedent. Great point about the echoes of blasphemy charges, too, as well as the homophony of «хулиганство» and «богохульство». I’d never thought of that.

In true Orthodox fashion, the charge of blasphemy has been surreptitiously “resurrected,” as it were. (The Orthodox have always been more into the resurrection aspect of Christian spookery than their Western brethren, preferring Easter/Pascha to X-mas). The charge of hooliganism is almost superficial, standing in for the older crime of blasphemy. Say what one will about the old USSR; at least under its official atheism blasphemy wasn’t considered a prime offense. Though I doubt Pussy Riot would have been tolerated even then.

Matthew on August 19, 2012 at 9:40 am. #

Oops, sorry about the code article–that’s what happens to a Prof. away from his books! Yes, Ross, I think you are right. This is not the ghost of Stalin, which fits in a comfortable Cold War sort of way into liberal/left critiques. No, Putin has more in common with Cameron than he does with Lenin and it is interesting that the historical figure he most identifies with is Stolypin. In general I should defer to Nick on all of this, who has forgotten much more on the Russian cultural scene than I ever knew. Nick, you should post that entire comment as a post on PS, because it is much more cogent and to the point than what I’ve been trying to get at.

Andrew Loewen on August 19, 2012 at 10:13 am. #

Agreed. If you two (Matt and Nick) were less busy it would be fantastic to see posts reflecting on your time in Russia. Or to have you interview each other! If you recorded a skype conversation, I’d transcribe it.

Ross Wolfe on August 19, 2012 at 5:59 pm. #

Nick and Matthew, I’d be very interested in hearing of your experiences as well. So I second Andrew’s suggestion.

Matthew on August 19, 2012 at 8:02 pm. #

Been going to Moscow and Almaty for more than twenty years–mostly grindingly boring trips to archives with the occassional interspersed moments of sheer terror. Just the usual stuff and as a foreigner, I was always privileged to some degree or another. Not worth the waste of pixels to gasbag about war stories. I will say the little of Russia I know (there are much better people, especially the anthropologists) to talk about this stuff, is not at all like the Russia portrayed in the media. Ditto Central Asia and Siberia.

Nick Glossop on August 19, 2012 at 9:57 pm. #

That’s the problem with you empiricals, Matt, you refuse to think anecdotally.

Nick Glossop on August 20, 2012 at 2:25 am. #

You want an anecdote: here is the voice teeth and face of Soviet underground rock and roll. Sasha Bashlachev playing Time of the Little Bells circa 1986-7. This is the Rosetta Stone of the Soviet Rock underground.

Andrew Loewen on August 20, 2012 at 9:36 am. #

That is one gnarly tooth.

Matthew on August 20, 2012 at 10:18 am. #

Hey, again, that should be a frontpage post. The basic story here, Nick, is my anecdotes are boring. So empirical or anecdotal, I’m a snooze. Now your stuff, that deserves some attention!

Nick Glossop on August 20, 2012 at 11:17 am. #

I do need to add that the state of his teeth, botched by a Ural dentist, is thought to have been a key factor in his suicide in 1988 (that and homelessness and general despair). And his suicide was a big a deal as that, say, of Ian Curtis.

df93gdepT32D on August 21, 2012 at 9:25 pm. #

absolutely great article & comments. please continue the hard work put into this site!

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