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What Does Pussy Riot Mean in Russian?

• August 17, 2012 • 10:52 AM

How does a protest that wouldn’t turn a head in the West manage to distract Putin, unnerve the Orthodox church and pick at the scab of Russia’s gender politics? A Western scholar just back from Russia explains the Pussy Riot phenomenon.

In the West, and in English, today’s verdict in the Pussy Riot trial—guilty of hooliganism to inspire religious hatred, with two years in jail for the band’s three members—is about measuring Putin’s tolerance for free speech. Inside Russia, the story is a little more complicated. To help understand the events, we turned to Kevin M.F. Platt, a professor of Slavic Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Platt returned three days ago from a year’s residence in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Pacific Standard: Where did Pussy Riot come from?
Kevin M.F. Platt:
They came to my attention in the context of the general activist and protest movements elicited by political events over the course of the last twelve months. What happened, in short, is that Russia held parliamentary elections in December, the beginning of December, which were basically rigged. And there was a large protest immediately afterwards of the obvious falsifications of the election results. This led to a series of mass protests during the winter months, and also sparked all kinds of other activism. Pussy Riot was part of that.

Kevin M.F. Platt said Pussy Riot first came to his attention after the group did an anti-Putin performance at Red Square’s Lobnoe Mesto (Place of the Skull), a medieval landmark once used for executions and also for public addresses by the czar. (PHOTO: DENIS BOCHKAREV)

What was interesting about them, compared to anyone else who might have been out on the street during that period?
Well I think the interesting thing about them is first of all they are highly self-conscious conceptual artists, and also feminists, and the combination of gender political protest with general political protest is somewhat unique, at least in the course of the events of last year. I can’t think of any other example of feminist protest against Putin last year of this prominence.

Why is that?
Feminism in Russia is extraordinarily contested. It’s not as though a standard anti-regime person is necessarily going to think at all about feminism, or if asked, identify herself as a feminist or a feminist sympathizer. Feminism represents a peculiarly marginalized set of political concerns in Russia.

Feminism makes them nervous?
Russians for whatever reason are sensitive about gender issues. It’s an unreformed patriarchal society and people get really upset when they get critiqued for gender imbalances and for the peculiar hyper-genderization of people in Russia. And so here are these feminist activists: they make great scapegoats.
From the Kremlin perspective it might have seemed one more reason that this would be a winning situation for them. These are “bad girls” who can be punished. But it’s remarkable the extent to which even people who argue against the criminal prosecution of these women describe them in highly condescending gendered language. One of the standard phrases that I keep running across is that they should not be sent to prison, that the maximum punishment for their punk prayer should have been a fine, after which they should have been ‘spanked on the ass and sent on their way.’

What does that mean in a Russian context?
That the way to express an “enlightened” position that supports freedom of expression, while at the same articulates a certain distance from their feminist views, is to diminish their accomplishments and these women themselves by putting them in their place.

How do we make the leap from a street protest, to three young women in balaclavas playing electric guitars in a church asking for the Virgin Mary to drive out Putin, on feminist grounds? How does that speak to the Russian public, if they really don’t get this sort of thing?
I’m not sure it does speak well to the Russian public, to tell you the truth. Russia is a very peculiarly organized social space. The protest movement itself is a large phenomenon, but it’s one that’s confined to very specific demographic and geographic zones. It’s a really an urban intelligentsia revolt. By intelligentsia I mean here not just artists and writers, but also what the Soviet Union called the “technical intelligentsia.” It’s the technical intelligentsia of the new Russia that has been mobilized in this protest movement.

Who are they?
People who work in offices doing web design. Architects, bloggers, editors, photographers, legal assistants, etc. People who have cell phones and Internet access and are on Facebook. People who live largely in Moscow, somewhat less in St. Petersburg. And then there are little shreds and fragments of this population scattered across other urban spaces in the rest of Russia.

Pussy Riot protesters

In July, Pussy Riot supporters sat locked inside a mock defendants cage outside court where a hearing on the band’s fate was being heard.

So if Pussy Riot is the vanguard of a minority of wired, highly educated, university types, why doesn’t the government just ignore them? Those types of protests get ignored all the time around the world and they just fizzle out.
They’re an interesting case. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s husband and she herself are affiliated with the conceptualist activist group Voina, which is more or less defunct and in hiding now. But Voina is a group that had been active in the second Putin term, doing protest art of a slightly more destructive nature. And there are warrants outstanding for some of their members. Voina means “war”—they are really pretty hardcore. They claim to have modeled themselves on Banksy, but they were always a little more extreme. That group is affiliated with and was advised by Oleg Kulik, who is a late Soviet and early post-Soviet conceptual activist, known for doing all kinds of wild things, undressing and running around the streets channeling a dog. Kulik in turn was associated with late-1980s Moscow conceptualism.
So there’s this genealogy of extraordinarily smart conceptual art and groups that link these people together as part of a conversation, an ongoing conversation about protest art that leads back to the dissident movements and the underground anti-Soviet movements on the late 1980s.

And this actually works? Here in Spain we’ve had various street theater-ish efforts related to the financial crisis, and in New York, and everybody just rolls their eyes, while in Russia some dancing in a church provokes executive meetings in the Kremlin?
What makes this more serious in Russia is that the Russian leadership is acutely aware that their preservation of power depends on their ability to control the media space.

Any more so than anywhere else?
The relationship between political domination and corporate-controlled media in Russia is a little more extreme than it is in other places. In Russia, a very tiny bunch of extraordinarily rich and corrupt elite people actually flat-out own the mass media. The Kremlin, for instance controls all televised media. More or less directly. Not through intermediaries, not through buddy-buddy relationships, but in a straightforward chain of command. Additionally, Russia really has no party politics at all, in which different interests within government elites correspond to different interests among corporate elites, so that at least you can have Fox News versus CNN versus MSNBC. In Moscow we have a single user, the Kremlin, which broadcasts its single happy message.
Pussy Riot, Facebook, TV Rain, The New Times—these are all funny little fig leaves the Kremlin uses to cover its generally dictatorial control over public information, because it wants to be able to tell the West and whomever else asks: “Look, we have all this diversity of media.” And these outlets are also a fig leaf that it can show off to its own urban educated elites: “Look, you have your freedom of expression so now leave us alone,” But they want to keep it all within bounds. When something like this threatens to go viral, they respond, and they respond seriously.

Why did the Kremlin respond to this the way that it has?
It’s not all just a rational story. It’s very hard to disentangle three different types of protest in the Pussy Riot punk prayer. You’ve got protest against Putin, protest against the authoritarian structures of the church and its close relationship with the Kremlin, and feminist protest. And I think it’s the combination of those things that has really gotten people going, in a way that might not be rational.

Meaning emotional? When you were talking to your Russian neighbors a week ago, what were they saying?
My wife and I had some awful conversations with highly educated, otherwise sane people, who were really outraged by Pussy Riot, by this particular action [the church demonstration], because they perceived it to be in some sense an attack on the [Russian] Orthodox faith, and they take their faith very seriously.

It was an attack on their faith, wasn’t it?
The response of the Kremlin has been calculated to mobilize Orthodox believers to also become Kremlin believers, to present Putin as the Good Czar and defender of the Orthodox faith. And it that sense, that strategy might work for many people.
On the other hand there are a lot of people within this, again, closed circuit of Moscow enlightened cosmopolitan, wired types who think: ‘This is crazy.’ For them the trial of the Pussy Riot women only serves to increase their anti-Kremlin fervor. So I think it might contribute to a further polarization of positions between the protest movement and a much larger mass of people who are more or less behind the Kremlin in Russia right now.

How much is this about free speech? Western accounts of the trial say “these three young activists made the following critique, and got silenced by arrest.” You can also spin it as, “Three young women disturbed the peace.”
I think it’s entirely about freedom of expression. Many in Russia do not view it that way, however.

Are their closing statements, which we saw in the Anglophone press, available in Russia? Does it get out of the courtroom?
Sure, it’s been on the internet, on blogs. For those who belong to the protest-oriented group—this Moscow technical intelligentsia crowd, all of the trial coverage has been quite available through those same, somewhat marginalized media outlets I mentioned earlier.
Russia right now is a very strange place in terms of the relationships between aesthetics, political institutions and political decision-making. I think that the Kremlin, people like Putin, prefer in the parts of Russia that they frequent, to see a place that looks familiarly like the developed West. They like it that there are glossy magazines where there people state their opinions, Internet cafes, wired locations people running around with laptops. They like that there is an educated and well-off middle class, and even a fairly large well-to-do segment among the Moscow population. They don’t want to live in a peculiar little bubble where they have to do their shopping in Paris and come back to be surrounded by slaves. They want to live in a Moscow that they regard as their home, filled with nice looking, well-behaved modern people, where they can go out and get their lattes and feel like, ‘Yeah, we’ve done right, we’re part of the West now.’ And they also want to be able to steal billions and billions of dollars and retain power indefinitely.

But putting up with a group like Pussy Riot is part of maintaining that aesthetic, because that aesthetic requires saying that dissent exists.
There are moments when dissent goes too far for their tastes. Or where they think, maybe erroneously, that they can get more from crushing it in a very public way. And again, I’m not sure they have acted entirely rationally with regard to the Pussy Riot case.

I want to ask about the linguistics. The name Pussy Riot, do they say that in English or is that a translation from Russian?
The name is in English.

So they were trying to shoot over the heads of the Russian public?
I think at the start of all this, it flew over the heads not only of people who don’t speak English in Russia, but even of people who do speak English. This is jargon, right? Pussy? Riot? They don’t seem to worry about that. There are also places in their statements that seem to be somewhat dense with critical jargon—western- critical jargon. In their interviews for instance, they talk about LGBT. No one in Russia knows what LGBT is.

So who are they talking to? Are they just talking to each other?
They are talking to their own specific circle. Conceptual artists first and foremost, when they say things like that. But then a larger group of educated urban dwellers who it might be hoped will understand what they’re saying. They are oriented toward a cosmopolitan, Anglophone intellectual scene in some ways.

So can we really say this is a “Russian” protest?
It’s a cosmopolitan Russian protest, but that doesn’t make it any less Russian. Russia, as I mentioned earlier, has a somewhat “inside-out” social geography. The center sometimes becomes the least Russian place of all. Moscow is at one and the same time one of the most Russian places on Earth and one of the most cosmopolitan parts of Russia, where there is the highest concentration of people who travel regularly to the rest of the world, people with foreign educations, etc. So there’s no simple answer to whether Pussy Riot is “Russian.” I’d say they are in a sense typical of a certain brand of Russian intelligentsia that goes back to the 19th century or even the 18th century, who identified themselves members of a cosmopolitan intellectual scene. I don’t think there’s anything unusual about them in this sense.

Finally, why is any of this surprising? We’ve seen journalists shot in the head in Russia for writing editorials. It’s not a huge logical leap to understand that you will get in trouble for shouting intense things in a church.
I don’t think that Russians are all that informed, on the whole, about the dangers of journalism in Russia. And this sense that journalism is where free speech takes place is not necessarily what a typical Russian would assume to be the case, actually.
Activists’ statements in public, on the other hand, have a long and rich history in Russia. Public protest, and particularly public protest of a highly visible and outrageous sort, actually does have a fairly deep history in Russian political culture and in Russian folklore. Perhaps even going back to the middle ages—or at least this is the sense of things from a certain modern perspective on Russian political history. In the press it has been fairly common to compare the Pussy Riot punk prayer with the actions of Russian Holy Fools, who in church literature and folkloric literature protest against the actions of nefarious czars in highly unorthodox ways.

So they’re within a very Russian tradition, but in a foreign language and medium, talking about things that might be pretty obvious.
Certain parts of their message, I would say, relate to matters that are not widely known among the broader Russian public. Specifically the matter of the church’s relationship to power. I think the majority of Russians don’t realize the extent to which the church is being used by power, and furthermore that this doesn’t really mesh well with the ideals of a secular democracy.
These are novel and poorly understood problems in Russia’s political culture that the Pussy Riot activists have managed to bring to the forefront. Whether they’ve managed to change the opinions of anyone outside of their own demographic circle—that of the protest movement—is another question. Undoubtedly, their actions have brought the world’s attention to these matters, though. In this, they have achieved their goals in a manner that they hardly could have anticipated.

Kevin M. F. Platt is a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. He has just returned to Philadelphia from a year in St. Petersburg, where he was researching his next book about Russian historiography as a Guggenheim Fellow.

Marc Herman

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