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Post-Soviet Body Politics: Crime and Punishment in the Pussy Riot Affair

 

On the crisp morning of February 21, 2012, five young women walked into the Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Situated in the heart of the Russian capital, the cathedral is one of the tallest Orthodox churches in the world. Wearing a blaze of color in sleeveless dresses, neon tights, and their signature balaclava ski masks, they jumped on the altar, turned their backs to the lavish icon screen, took out their electric guitars, and began a song that was a mix of punk-rock riffs and traditional Orthodox chant. The lyrics criticized the close relations between the Russian Patriarch Kirill and President Putin, the Orthodox Church’s conservative anti-woman and anti-LGBT rhetoric, while the refrain—styled as a traditional Orthodox prayer chant— addressed the Mother of God directly, pleading her to “oust Putin” and “become a feminist.” The women were apprehended by security before they could finish—a key moment in the trial that would follow, when a judge determined that it mattered very much just which of their lyrics were leashed upon confused onlookers. Following their initial release from the church, they mixed a video of their performance with a more elaborately scored soundtrack and scenes recorded elsewhere days earlier, and released their work on YouTube. Less than two weeks later three members of the group were arrested, and a long trial commenced that would make this “punk prayer” world famous.[1] The members of the all-female collective known as Pussy Riot were eventually found guilty on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and received two-year prison sentences in distant, all-female Russian labor camps.

While global press coverage was quick to describe the conflict in classic terms: believers against atheists, nationalists against internationalists, or the liberal intelligentsia against the conservative narod (people), local debates presented a far more complicated picture. Although most Pussy Riot supporters indeed generally belonged to the intelligentsia, even the most staunch defenders made sure to clarify that they separated the act itself from the state’s response to it. Although the frequent consensus among the band’s supporters was that the performance venue was a decidedly poor choice, most very much disagreed that such offences should be punishable with a prison sentence. As the trial progressed, there eventually appeared within Russia a vocal opposition to Pussy Riot’s imprisonment; however, a large part of the population was still clearly hostile to the women, with many demanding even harsher punishment, calling for the maximum seven-year prison sentence. Still others, while hostile to the group, did not think Pussy Riot should serve a prison sentence at all, invoking, instead, a radically different kind of punishment.

Strikingly, the Pussy Riot affair provoked unprecedented debates over the usefulness and varied meanings of corporal punishment in Russia, from flogging and birching, to even tarring and feathering. As time passed, the narratives around the trial increasingly came to focus specifically on the three convicted female bodies. These bodies first appeared to the public as anonymous and hidden behind their colorful balaklavas. They later came unmasked, only to be hidden again, this time behind iron bars and inside the glass cage where Russian courts keep defendants during hearings.

What these bodies thematized and made increasingly visible to contemporary Russians and their observers around the world was the spectacular violence of sovereign power. Indeed, many Russians interpreted these young women as a threat to the very core of the Russian state and especially its recently elaborated doctrine of “sovereign democracy.” Drawing on the scholarship on sovereignty and the body—with an added attention to notions of gender at work in “the political”—I argue that under conditions of postsocialist transformation in Russia, the bodies of the Pussy Riot participants became vital sites for the enactment of sovereignty for a wide range of citizens.[2] These three female bodies, which became increasingly vulnerable during the trial and subsequent imprisonment but at the same time stunned the audiences by their stubborn vitality, were remarkably multivalent. For some, their punishment ratified and strengthened the legitimacy of the Russian polity, while for others it revealed both the brutality and ultimate impotence of the Russian state. What united these diverse perspectives, and what invites us to reflect here on their consequences for contemporary sovereignty in Russia, was an implicit narrative of sacrifice—the legitimacy and desirability of which is still hotly debated—through which sovereign violence inscribed itself upon Pussy Riot’s bodies.

The Bodies of the Condemned

In the days immediately following the performance in the cathedral and before the arrest of the two women,[3] the punk-prayer was a subject of discussion among diverse if sometimes otherwise arcane Moscow circles, including members of the arts world, select Orthodox clergy, grassroots Orthodox and nationalist groups, and the radical feminist community. These particular publics were created and brought in virtual dialogue by the series of conflicts between contemporary artists and the Orthodox Church that have been going on since the late 1990s, when the first post-Soviet art trial found a well-known Moscow conceptual artist guilty of “inciting religious hatred.” The case became notorious as the first post-Soviet “blasphemy trial,” a stunning reversal of course in a country where militant blasphemy against religion was something that was close to official ideology for most of the twentieth century.[4]

In the case of Pussy Riot, a surprisingly unanimous negative reaction ensued from all of the above communities, albeit for largely diverse reasons. The celebrated gallery owner and art critic Marat Guelman, who previously supported artists condemned by the Orthodox Church, wrote that the punk-prayer was offensive and inappropriate, as it was done in a “sacred” space, as opposed to the “profane” space of a gallery.[5]  Indeed, all of the artists previously condemned by the church had performed in galleries and museums. The feminist community took issue with one member of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova, who as part of another well-known radical art-collective, Voina, had participated in a notorious stunt titled, “Kiss the Cop,” whereby members of the collective forcefully kissed policewomen on the street. Some feminists viewed this controversial performance as constituting violence against women.[6] One of the most unexpected responses, however, came from a religious intellectual, a senior deacon Andrei Kuraev, who wrote the following on his blog on the day of the Pussy Riot performance:

I would offer them some bliny (traditional Russian thin pancakes), pour them a cup of honey wine, and invite them to come back for the forgiveness ceremony. And if I were a layman elder, I would also give them a fatherly pinch… To bring them back to their senses. . . . And it’s Maslenitsa time (the week before Lent in the Orthodox calendar, similar to Mardi Gras): the time for the social cosmos to turn upside down.[7]

While this turned out to be by far the most benevolent response by a senior Orthodox leader, his seemingly playful message strategically depoliticized Pussy Riot’s performance in his choice of mythical and carnivalesque imagery. It further delegitimized the women by infantilizing them, portraying them as children who committed a prank that should be at best ignored. But it is the idea of “pinching” the “girls” as an appropriate reaction of an adult Russian male that resonated, spiraling the symbolic violence and drawing their bodies further into the orbits of the state.

On the same day, a well-known journalist and TV presenter, Maksim Shevchenko wrote: “I think Orthodox women should catch and flog these little bitches with birch rods. Let them also have a ‘performance’.”[8] An influential conservative intellectual, Egor Kholmogorov, opined that, “If I was working for this church, I would first call the TV crews and then undress them, cover them with feathers and honey, shave their heads, and kick them out to the freezing cold in front of the cameras.”[9] In the coming days and months, the blogosphere exploded with cruel fantasies, often of a sexual character, such as the calls “to strip them naked,” ”to have them tarred and feathered,” “to strip them naked and tie them to the whipping post,” to “spank” (otshlepat’), “flog” (vyporot’), “whip” (vysech’), and “birch” them (otkhlestat’ rozgami), or to “give them “a fatherly spanking” (otecheski otshlepat’). Speaking outside the courthouse on the first day of the trial, Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician and leader of a liberal-democratic coalition that is regularly critical of Putin, said, “If I could get my way, I would spank these girls and let them go. What is going on here is sadism and cruelty.”[10] On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Gennadii Ziuganov, the leader of the Russian Communist Party and the main opposition to Putin’s “United Russia,” stated: “I would take a good leather belt, give them a good spanking, and then send them back to their children and parents. This would be a good administrative punishment for them. And I would tell them not to engage in such blasphemy anymore.”[11] Putin himself referred to the performance in the Cathedral as “witches’ gathering” (shabash) and did not fail to mention that he was informed of the women’s involvement in group sex during one of their previous performances. In an awkward attempt at humor, he quipped that group sex can be better than “individual” sex, because one can always “slack off” (sachkanut’).[12] Indeed, the Russian left, the right, and the centrists became unwittingly united by drawing Pussy Riot’s bodies into these discourses of desire.

 

The Return of the Repressed?

Indeed, Many Russians were dissatisfied with imprisonment as an appropriate form of “reeducation” for Pussy Riot. As if to illustrate the erotic and phantasmatic dimension of political domination, the initial violent reactions by public figures triggered heated debate on the return of corporal punishment. The results of a survey conducted by sociologists from the Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion in the wake of the trial scandalized liberal circles revealing that 27% of the population would support the reintroduction of corporal punishment for defendants such as Pussy Riot.[13] Russia’s oft-remarked split identity, once again, became the focus of debate, as bewildered liberal commentators sorrowfully concluded that finally, “we are more definitely the West of the East rather than the East of the West.”[14]

Medieval precedents aside, over the course of the nineteenth century Russian spectacles of sovereign violence, such as theatrical corporal punishments, were gradually being replaced by the disciplinary practices of the penitentiary system—not unlike the trajectory that Foucault famously traced for western Europe.[15] A quintessential instrument of imperial sovereignty, the knout, a stiff thong of rawhide fastened by a bronze ring to a braided leather whip attached to a wooden stick, also served as a boundary establishing mechanism between various social groups, ethnicities, and genders. Thus, already in 1795, the wealthier estates were exempted from being whipped with a knout. While lower-class women were flogged as much as men, the redefinitions of gender eventually led to their exemption.  It was argued that not only women were biologically weaker than men, but the shame of being naked and lashed in public compromised their femininity and maternal roles and therefore threatened the broader social order.[16] While women were viewed as crucially important to the empire given their reproductive capacity, they were also increasingly viewed as dangerous as a result of their potentially uncontrolled sexuality. Thus, it was believed that public punishments might exacerbate the case, as the sense of shame would make women “turn to depravity,” destroying “family happiness” and corrupting “the morals of her female intimates and friends.”[17] As reproductive function became increasingly important in discourses on women and the nation, at first pregnant women, then breast-feeding women, and then, during the Great Reforms, [18] in 1863 most women became exempt.[19]

Yet, despite the arguments against reforms advanced by conservative Russians such as writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (he insisted that, counter the spirit of the Great Reforms, there was a certain authenticity in pain suffered from the birch-rod, which led him to oppose the cold rationality of the European legal system and “bourgeois hypocrisy”[20]), women’s exemption from corporal punishment did not lead to liberation. On the contrary, women’s punishment essentially became privatized, as they became subjects to punishment only by their husbands, thus reinforcing the status of a peasant male and “constituting the family as his inviolable domain and reinforcing the wife’s ‘private’ status.”[21] Given this historical background of women’s corporal punishment in Russia, what do we make of the current calls to violently punish Pussy Riot? Are we witnessing, to use Freud’s auspicious phrase, a “return of the repressed,” a coming back of the socially and judicially unacceptable desires, a kind of affective counter-modernity?

A closer look at the punitive discourses around Pussy Riot reveals an interesting range of perceptions across varied modes of punishment and suffering. Contemporary champions of flogging argued that while administrative punishment, such as a fine, would be too little, prison would be too much. Prisons do not re-educate people, they break them or make them into real criminals.[22] Corporal punishment in these discourses inevitably emerges as something more authentic, more sincere, a sign of Russian national distinctiveness, superior to the  “western” bourgeois rationality of the judiciary system, similar to the way wife-beating was praised by Dostoyevsky as “part of Russian folkways.”[23] Yet, unlike other contexts where whipping has been advocated as a way to ritually purify the violator with the purpose of his or her subsequent reintegration into the community,[24] re-inclusion did not appear to be the issue at hand. Prison, it was argued, needs to be avoided, because it would might make the women into heroines and martyrs while corporal punishment—where as some proponents stressed, shame is more important than pain—would humiliate them and make everyone forget the “dumb prank.”

As some of Pussy Riot’s opponents argued, it was preferable that the women suffer a certain kind of social death through the shame of corporal punishment and subsequent societal forgetting, as long as perceptions of sacrifice and martyrdom were avoided. Thus Pussy Riot may (or rather should) have been killed (or whipped, or tarred and feathered), but they were not to be sacrificed. Yet, killing without sacrifice (despite what Agamben famously argued) proved an impossibility in this context, as such acts of sovereign violence necessarily create sacrificial victims.[25] Indeed, as the case continued to stir Russia, multiple sacrificial processes revealed themselves as essential to the reconstitution of political sovereignty through the Pussy Riot’s bodies, first degraded and then reconstituted, much as the moral nation itself, in a sanctified domain. But first, as all sacrificial victims, they required purification.

In my article in Critical Inquiry 40 (Autumn 2013): 220-241, I demonstrate that this purification was achieved through a deliberate evacuation of what is often understood as “the political” in Russia. As the trial progressed, the prosecution consistently denied what they referred to as a “political motif,” resulting in the final charge of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” I also make the case that despite the calls of those who warned that the women should not be turned into martyrs, their punishment—although arguably following the letter of the law—ended up acquiring a distinctly sacrificial character. Some stressed ascetic denial and martyrdom, emphasizing Christian-like self-sacrifice, while others emphasized the ways in which Pussy Riot became an inadvertent medium for ritual action and communication between multiple actors. What these discourses seem to share is a rather well worn theme throughout human history: the use of women’s bodies as the means of communicative practices—sacrifice, hierarchical discipline, and legal warnings. Pussy Riot’s bodies, almost inevitably, became appropriated and saturated with signification as they became objects of violence and, at the same time, sites of its vital resistance. In the end, it was not the extensive international support or the condemnation of the government by its vocal opponents at home, but a public recognition of the sacrificial undertones to Pussy Riot’s trial that turned out to be so challenging for the Russian government’s triumphant pageant of sovereign rule.

 

Read more in:  Anya Bernstein, “An Inadvertent Sacrifice: Body Politics and Sovereign Power in the Pussy Riot Affair,Critical Inquiry 40 (Autumn 2013): 220-241.

Anya Bernstein is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Social Studies at Harvard University. Her book “Religious Bodies Politic: Rituals of Sovereignty in Buryat Buddhism” will be published by the University of Chicago Press this fall. Bernstein’s current project focuses on religion and politics in contemporary Russia, exploring the issues of secularism, body politics, and imaginaries of death and immortality.

 

Notes

[1] There were five members of the group in the Cathedral, but only three were arrested. Pussy Riot does not have a fixed membership, and many participants remain anonymous.

[2] For approaches to sovereignty that focus on the body as the site and object of sovereign power, see, for example, Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, 1998); Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (Vintage, 1979); Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003):11-40; Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat, Sovereign Bodies: Citizens, Migrants, and States in the Postcolonial World (Princeton, 2005).

[3] They were arrested March 3, 2012. The third convicted participant, Ekaterina Samutsevich was arrested on March 16, 2012.

[4] As of today, Russia does not use the word “blasphemy” as a legal term. Instead, until 2013, the court deployed a law roughly parallel to the European hate speech laws, as per Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code. After the Pussy Riot trial, a new law on “offending religious feelings” was proposed and approved relatively quickly, making public offenses of religion punishable with fines and imprisonment up to three years. For the discussion of the art-trials from 1998-2010, see Anya Bernstein, “Caution, Religion! Iconoclasm, Secularism, and Ways of Seeing in Post-Soviet Art Wars.” Upcoming in Public Culture Fall 2014.

[5] Marat Guelman, blog entry, February 21, 2012, http://maratguelman.livejournal.com/2558067.html

[6] “Oni nazvali sebia feministkami,” March 2, 2012, http://feministki.livejournal.com/1560428.html?thread=59057772

[7] Andrei Kuraev, “Maslenitsa v khrame Khrista Spasitelia,” February 2, 2012, http://diak-kuraev.livejournal.com/285875.html

[8] “Smeshenie neba i preispodnei,” Vzgliad: delovaia gazeta, February 21, 2012, http://www.vz.ru/opinions/2012/2/21/563022.html

[9] Quoted in Vladimir Abarionov, “Sviato mesto Pussy Riot,” Grani.ru, February 27, 2012, http://grani.ru/opinion/abarinov/m.195956.html

[10] Elena Kostiuchenko, “V Khamovnicheskom sude zavershen pervyi den’ slushanii po delu Pussy Riot,” Novaya Gazeta, July 30, 2012, http://www.novayagazeta.ru/news/58666.html

[11] “Ziuganov: Vyporol by Pussy Riot khoroshim remnem,” Vzgliad: delovaia gazeta, August 21, 2012, http://vz.ru/news/2012/8/21/594406.html

[12] “Vladimir Putin: Interview telekanalu Russia Today,” September 6, 2012, http://kremlin.ru/news/16393

[13] “Bit’ ili ne bit’, vot v chem vopros, ili o vozrozhdenii telesnykh nakazanii v Rossii,” September 19, 2012, http://wciom.ru/index.php?id=459&uid=113045

[14] Ekaterina Dobrynina, “Chetvert’ rossiian toskuet po rozgam,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, September 19, 2012, http://www.rg.ru/2012/09/19/nakasanie-site.html

[15] Foucault, Discipline and Punish.

[16] Abby M. Schrader, Languages of the Lash. Corporal Punishment and Identity in Imperial Russia (Northern Illinois, 2002).

[17] Laura Engelstein, The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-De-Siecle Russia (Cornell, 1992), p. 73.

[18] The1860s and 1870s are known in Russia as the period of the “Great Reforms,” which resulted in the emancipation of serfs and the progressive changes in the judicial, military, and administrative systems introduced during the rule of Alexander II.

[19] Schrader, p. 144. The only women who were still subject to corporal punishment at that time were exiled convicts. The practice of punishing the banished women persisted until 1893, and all corporal punishment was abolished in 1903.

[20] Svetlana Boym, Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea (Chicago, 2012), pp.103-159.

[21] Engelstein, The Keys to Happiness, pp. 74-75. Similar privatization of punishment was applied to minors.

[22] “Surov ili spravedliv prigovor Pussy Riot?” Komsomol’skaia Pravda, August 17, 2012, http://www.kp.ru/radio/stenography/41898/

[23] Boym, Another Freedom, p. 115

[24] Mark Goodale and Sally Engle Merry, The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the Local and the Global (Cambridge, 2007), p. 221.

[25] Agamben 1998. I thank Jean Comaroff for bringing this point to my attention. She makes this argument in Jean Comaroff, “Beyond the Politics of Bare Life: AIDS and the Global Order.” Public Culture 19, no. 1 (2007): 197-219.


2 Responses to Post-Soviet Body Politics: Crime and Punishment in the Pussy Riot Affair

  1. Really nice Anya!
    It seems to me that apart from the pinching there is yet another bodily aspect of what Andrei Kuraev said. His suggestion that the performers should have been fed with bliny, offered honey wine and invited back for the forgiveness ceremony refers to clearly bodily encounter of food consumption. What more, such consumption seems to me a kind of communion via which bodies of the activists were meant to become one with the body of Christ’s Church. So the guy speaks about the body so-well described in the contemporary kinship studies (e.g. by J. Carsten).

  2. Pingback: Beyond the blog: 2013 in review | Somatosphere

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