17 August 2012

A friend of a friend she got beaten

Of course just because the London Olympics could proudly boast that this was the first Games in which every participating nation counted women amongst their competitors (though some countries took an awful lot of arm-twisting to comply and even then allowed only a single token female athlete to compete) does not mean that we have entered a long dreamed of era of equality and rights for women, for less than a week after the closing of the Games comes the conclusion of the Russian show-trial of members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot.

Three members of the band, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich stood accused of hooliganism motivated religious hatred by demonstrating in a Moscow cathedral against the rule of Vladimir Putin and the collusion between the Church and his political machine. The group perform anonymously, with a fluid line-up clad in brightly coloured clothes and balaclavas, and the three women in court today, imprisoned for the last five months for speaking out against the totalitarian narco-state their country has become and Putin's apparatus that controls it with a murderous fist, were to the surprise of no-one found guilty and sentenced to two years in a penal colony in an outcome almost certainly dictated personally by Putin himself.

Show-trials and gulags are alive and well and living in Mother Russia.

Throughout the trial the women have been attacked and demonised by Russian authorities for their music, politics and feminism, and at times the show trail has resembled nothing less than a Salem witch trial with the trio being attacked as much for their feminism as for their anti-Putin protest. When sentencing the trio today the judge declared that "The group's feminist beliefs are not compatible with church norms" and, given the privileged position the Church holds in Putin's Russia, by association their feminism is also unacceptable to the State. The contempt for women held by Putin's government was visibly directed not only towards the band, but to their many female supporters both anonymous and those more famous, with former Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogonin labelling Madonna an ageing "ex-whore" for speaking out in support of the accused trio.

Of course Western governments will do little to support the trio, being both unwilling to offend the man who can single-handedly turn off the entire natural gas supply to Western Europe and leave the cities of Germany and France shivering to death this winter, and too preoccupied at the minute with their own efforts at shredding the last tattered vestiges of due process and diplomatic precedents as they too try desperately to silence critical speech. There is an irony that 99% of the content of in any US newspaper article on Pussy Riot is completely interchangable with 99% of any RT.com post on Julian Assange, both nations have seized upon the other's outrages as the latest weapon in their new Colder War, their bugled condemnations masking their deafening silence on the subject of their own judicial travesties.

Despite all that has occurred in the trial, Russia still cannot claim to be the worst place to be if you are a woman in the 21st century, for let us not forget that bastion of Middle East stability and stauch US ally in the war on everything, Saudia Arabia, a nation whose two token Olympic female athletes were labelled "Olympic whores" at home for taking part and which seeks to solve its "women problem" by constructing gender-based industrial ghettos where uppity women can toil away out of the gaze of morally pure men.

Of course we here at home are in no position to cast the first stone, for as long as our Constitution declares that a woman's place is in the home making babies and the dinner and our bread-winner tax system reenforces it, as long as the election of just 23 female TDs out of 166 deputies with only two of the fifteen Government ministers being women (and even then they are confined to the tokenistic portfolios of Welfare and Children) can be viewed as acceptable, as long as the Church and State can continue to collude to control the reproductive rights of women even when their lives may be in danger, and as long as a police officer sworn to protect all the citizens of the country can openly call for a woman to be violently sexually assaulted and suffer no repercussions at all, there is no moral high ground for any of us to smugly stand upon.

The final word in all of this must go to Pussy Riot, and specifically to Yekaterina Samutsevich, who delivered one of the strongest and most eloquent closing statements we have ever seen. Their story isn't over, collectively Pussy Riot may just become the Emma Goldman of our age.
In the closing statement, the defendant is expected to repent, express regret for their deeds or enumerate attenuating circumstances. In my case, as in the case of my colleagues in the group, this is completely unnecessary. Instead, I want to voice my thoughts about the reasons behind what has happened to us.

That Christ the Savior Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of the authorities was clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former [KGB] colleague Kirill Gundyayev took over as leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Savior Cathedral began to be openly used as a flashy backdrop for the politics of the security forces, which are the main source of power [in Russia].

Why did Putin feel the need to exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetic? After all, he could have employed his own, far more secular tools of power—for example, the state-controlled corporations, or his menacing police system, or his obedient judiciary system. It may be that the harsh, failed policies of Putin’s government, the incident with the submarine Kursk, bombings of civilians in broad daylight, and other unpleasant moments in his political career forced him to ponder the fact that it was high time to resign; that otherwise, the citizens of Russia would help him do this. Apparently, it was then that he felt the need for more persuasive, transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the pinnacle of power. It was then that it became necessary to make use of the aesthetic of the Orthodox religion, which is historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself.

How did he succeed in doing this? After all, we still have a secular state, and any intersection of the religious and political spheres should be dealt with severely by our vigilant and critically minded society, shouldn’t it? Here, apparently, the authorities took advantage of a certain deficit of the Orthodox aesthetic in Soviet times, when the Orthodox religion had an aura of lost history, of something that had been crushed and damaged by the Soviet totalitarian regime, and was thus an opposition culture. The authorities decided to appropriate this historical effect of loss and present a new political project to restore Russia’s lost spiritual values, a project that has little to do with a genuine concern for the preservation of Russian Orthodoxy’s history and culture.

It was also fairly logical that the Russian Orthodox Church, given its long mystical ties to power, emerged as the project’s principal exponent in the media. It was decided that, unlike in the Soviet era, when the church opposed, above all, the brutality of the authorities towards history itself, the Russian Orthodox Church should now confront all pernicious manifestations of contemporary mass culture with its concept of diversity and tolerance.

Implementing this thoroughly interesting political project has required considerable quantities of professional lighting and video equipment, air time on national TV channels for hours-long live broadcasts, and numerous background shoots for morally and ethically edifying news stories, where the Patriarch’s well-constructed speeches would in fact be presented, thus helping the faithful make the correct political choice during the difficult time for Putin preceding the election. Moreover, the filming must be continuous; the necessary images must be burned into the memory and constantly updated; they must create the impression of something natural, constant and compulsory.

Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” violated the integrity of the media image that the authorities had spent such a long time generating and maintaining, and revealed its falsity. In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture and that of protest culture, thus suggesting to smart people that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch and Putin, that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia.

Perhaps the unpleasant, far-reaching effect from our media intrusion into the cathedral was a surprise to the authorities themselves. At first, they tried to present our performance as a prank pulled by heartless, militant atheists. This was a serious blunder on their part, because by then we were already known as an anti-Putin feminist punk band that carried out their media assaults on the country’s major political symbols.

In the end, considering all the irreversible political and symbolic losses caused by our innocent creativity, the authorities decided to protect the public from us and our nonconformist thinking. Thus ended our complicated punk adventure in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

I now have mixed feelings about this trial. On the one hand, we expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial. Once again, the world sees Russia differently from the way Putin tries to present it at his daily international meetings. Clearly, none of the steps Putin promised to take toward instituting the rule of law have been taken. And his statement that this court will be objective and hand down a fair verdict is yet another deception of the entire country and the international community. That is all. Thank you.

- Closing statement of Yekaterina Samutsevich, translated from the Russian by hecksinductionhour at chtodelat news

Image: Josiv Gerasimovich, poster for The Third Wife of Mullah, a 1928 Soviet film attacking the lack of freedom for Eastern Women. On display at the Tate Modern in London, May 2010.

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