“Open all the doors, tear off your epaulets
Come, taste freedom with us.“
Russia’s literature and music has always had a political connotation to it. With no outlet to vent their frustrations, Russia’s artists, writers and poets have been some of their country’s greatest patriots and also its biggest critics. The recent controversy over the state’s punishment of a punk bands “concert” has ignited the passions of Russia’s youth about the issue of free speech. The band Pussy Riot performed a controversial anti-Kremlin concert in a Moscow cathedral to the delight of their fans and to the disgust of the authorities all the way up to Putin himself.
Hooliganism is an official charge that can carry a sentence anywhere between 3 to 8 years in prison and it’s the state’s official charge brought upon the bands member. It’s also likely to stick. This is Russia – and sometimes it shows just how different it can be.
What drives these young women’s hearts? Nadezhda Tolokonnikova explains in her closing statements.
“We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [holy foolishness] of punk. Passion, total honesty, and naivete are superior to the hypocrisy, mendacity, and false modesty that are used to disguise crime. The so-called leading figures of our state stand in the Cathedral with righteous faces on, but, in their cunning, their sin is greater than our own ” – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
The road to free speech in Russia has long known the heavy hand of the state. Demonstrations have historically been met with riot police, tanks, tear gas and paramilitary police forces. Yet today’s tech-savvy generation has given dissidents a new voice through social media. With the ability to organize protests through online services like Facebook and Twitter, Russian authorities have a hard time in reacting to the growth of such gatherings. Pussy Riots lyric’s might be considered crude by some but they deliver a powerful message of dissent that Dostoevsky would be proud of.
In a way, the band’s usage of Orthodox imagery signals a return to a kind of pure spiritualism that was pervasive amongst Russian literary legends. The nihilistic search for truth, a kind of purity and transparency guides the band’s political and spiritual goals.
“It was our search for truth that led us to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. I think that Christianity, as I understood it while studying the Old and especially the New Testament, supports the search for truth and a constant overcoming of oneself, the overcoming of what you were earlier.”
Pussy Riot’s case is easy to categorize as a simple matter of state vs. free speech, however Vadim Nikitin, a contributor to The New York Times in his article “The Wrong Reasons to Back Pussy Riot” points out that the band had a bad tendency to actually incite riots. Despite the apparent “Kangaroo Court” put on by the state, the band does have some legitimate criminal offenses to answer for. Nadezhda’s moving words in her closing statements seems to be an effective smoke screen for her participation in a public orgy – while pregnant as a form of protest – (Nadezhda’s profile). Vadim says,
“The members of Pussy Riot are not liberals looking for self-expression. They are self-confessed descendants of the surrealists and the Russian futurists, determined to radically, even violently, change society.” – source.
He may have a point as the bands message promotes rebellion against all state organizations not just corrupt ones.
An American expatriate blogger in Russia, Почемучка aka “Pochemuchka” (the one who asks a lot of questions) disagrees. The bands more racy activism is irrelevant in the context of their message. She points out that the sheer bravery to stand up so defiantly to the government and corrupt church officials is the real message that needs to be taken away from this case:
“Almost every Russian will tell you outright that the democracy of their country is a farce. But many also support sending these women to prison. In my opinion, seeing these two things as solid opposites prevents any kind of cultural analysis. However, “it’s part of their culture, so it’s okay” is a statement that disregards any universality amongst human beings–like the idea of “basic human rights”… my opinion on the Pussy Riot case is that the sentence these women received for what I see as a logistically simple act of civil disobedience far outweighed the physical damage actually incurred against the church.
This case gives a very exciting perspective into the younger Russian activists and the culture that they are promoting. Despite obvious flaws in their incendiary approach, their message remains the important takeaway. That voice of dissent – delivered through, somewhat unorthodox means was heard loud and clear in the Kremlin. It is interesting to see a new generation of Russia’s warrior poets and their influence on Russia’s historically closed off society. The question remains to be seen whether this unique approach to activism will lead to any changes in the Russian state’s attitude toward free speech and lend encouragement to others to voice their dissent.
Or will their efforts just promote a government crackdown while alienating themselves from the rest of Russia’s citizens?
Please comment and let us know what your views are on the subject. Is this type of behavior justified in the pursuit of free speech and how are these women punk rock activists unique amongst their community? Would this even be an issue in the United States or other countries?
Interesting links regarding this topic:
The Pochyemuchka Diaries – American Expat in Moscow
The Wrong Reasons to Back Pussy Riot – Vadim Nikitin’s Op-Ed in The New York Times
Pussy Riot profile: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – The Guardian’s story on the Pussy Riot’s “Evil Genius”