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Dynamite or détournement?

One year after Pussy Riot’s “punk rock prayer”

Figure 1: Pussy Riot performs in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow (February 21st, 2012)

I. Détournement

When members of the Russian femme-punk outfit Pussy Riot ascended the altar inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior around this time last year, few seemed to notice the physical space in which their performance was taking place.  This is perhaps understandable, after all, given the spectacle unfolding before their eyes.  Less than a minute into their gig, the band was unceremoniously carted “offstage” by officers of the Moscow militsiia.  It was an absurd scene: the frenetic punching motions of the five musicians, colorfully clad in their trademark balaclavas, clashed sharply with the sterile, Neoplatonic immobility of the gilded iconostasis and paneled Carrara marble chapel behind them.  The sole video documenting the event, which went viral almost immediately thereafter, featured a tiny Orthodox nun herding the crowd of bewildered onlookers away from the nave with far greater success than the burly cop who meanwhile attempted to assail the band.  After eluding his clutches several more times — one member even managed to kneel and cross herself before being arrested — all five were jailed and made to stand trial for “blasphemy” and “hooliganism” (an oldie-but-goodie harkening back to the days of Stalin, and before him, the tsars), of which they were eventually convicted.  A few months later, on August 17th, 2012, they were sentenced to two years in prison.

Outside Russia, news of the verdict was met with widespread uproar and scathing criticisms, roundly condemning the Putin government’s callous disregard for the most basic democratic freedoms.  These were for the most part justified, if a little poorly expressed at times.  Slavoj Žižek’s contention that “the true blasphemy [in the blasphemy allegations] is the state accusation itself” is one of his clumsier dialectical inversions to date — a category mistake, even if it’s a nice sentiment.  The few dissenting voices that warned against lending uncritical support to Pussy Riot’s shenanigans, such as Vadim Nikitin in The New York Times, may have been right in parts (especially about the hypocrisy of Western observers’ puffed-up indignation at the fact that such things “still happen”) but generally had their emphasis all wrong (Nikitin’s shocked moral and aesthetic sensibilities at some of the band’s past stunts).  These complaints were by and large drowned out, and rightly so.  Still, one year on, two of the women from Pussy Riot remain locked up, their sentences increased in both extension and duration, relocated to “far-flung prison colonies” in the Urals with a few extra months tacked onto their terms.  Little, if anything, seems to have changed in the country.  Putin’s judo death-grip on Russian political life has been decisively reasserted.  No major challenges present themselves to his continued administration.

Figure 2: Pussy Riot frontwoman Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, surrounded by police, raises her fist

Figure 2: Pussy Riot frontwoman Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, surrounded by police, raises her fist

Pussy Riot’s sad fate should call into question the prevailing political imagination of the Left, both in Russia and abroad, however.  This may seem an odd claim to make, as the general public still largely considers the band’s defiance of Putin a courageous, if not heroic, act.  As such, their high-profile performances have even been regarded in some circles as a success, despite (although precisely because of) their subsequent imprisonment.  In the final analysis, this is a consequence of decades of impotent protest politics.  For many activists today, the assurance that “action will be taken” is enough to allay any anxieties they may have that nothing can be done.  The experience of mobilization and coordinated demonstrations is a virtue unto itself, and arrest only grants false legitimacy to the idea that such pseudo-activity poses a threat to existing structures of power.  Whether or not an action contributes in a meaningful way toward its purported goal — e.g., if an anti-war march actually helps bring an end to war — the sheer fact of mass participation is (mis)taken as a sign of its success.  The experience of defeat has become so naturalized for the Left that it no longer even recognizes its defeats as such.  The most miserable failures are held up as the most shining triumphs, and no one is better off for it. Continue reading