Pussy Riot filming at Christ the Savior Church

Last Friday, three members of the punk/protest collective Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a Russian labor camp. In reading the verdict, Judge Marina Syrova recounted the reason for their arrest:

It was identified that on Feb 21 2012, Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alekhina unlawfully entered a sealed part of the Christ the Savior Cathedral reserved for a religious ceremonies and hoisted themselves in front of the altar which is reserved specifically for clergy members, occupied the cathedral, and read prayers and other religious texts, and inserted dancing and chanting which were insulting for religious believers.

That might make it seem as though authorities arrested Pussy Riot on charges of having violated the ritual space of the altar. That’s oversimplifying matters, but the association with ritual is by no means arbitrary. The more one looks at the circumstances of the Pussy Riot trial, the more rituals appear at every turn. Whether or not their bravery will result in the expansion of free speech in Putin’s Russia depends largely on society’s ability to break free of those rituals going forward.

“We Expect a Guilty Verdict”

Putting aside for the moment Pussy Riot’s parody of the Russian Orthodoxy Church, the most obvious ritual venue in the case was that of the court itself. Judicial proceedings are, as a matter of course, full of ceremonial and ritual forms — oaths, rulings, objections, verdicts. In corrupt circumstances, that nature lends itself to proceedings that mimic without credibility the mere form of justice.

The sharpest indication that the court had enacted the ritual of a trial, with no intention of rendering actual justice, was the severity of the verdict. The performance in Christ the Savior had lasted less than a minute and had done no physical harm. Apart from trespassing on normally restricted space, there was hardly any crime to speak of, and certainly nothing that would have, in any other European nation, justified sentencing the perpetrators to two years in a labor camp.

Courtroom ritual can be divided into two categories according to purpose. The first category is concerned with building the legitimacy of the court and its process — it includes the division of the space into docket, bench, stand, etc.; the deference paid to the judge; the swearing of oaths, and so on. The other category is structured to facilitate the main activity of a trial: the building of cases.

Normally, that’s a matter of arguing for the guilt or innocence of the accused, according to the rules of order. In the Pussy Riot trial, the court turned those rituals to a significantly different end. The guilt of the accused was taken practically for granted. At any rate, the band members were never likely to challenge the material facts. Having assumed their guilt, the court set about building a case for handing down a verdict out of all proportion with the actual crime.

In order to do so, the court had to ignore the issue that nearly every spectator already accepted as central to the trial. The invasion at Christ the Savior Church had made waves, but the arrests had not come until footage of the performance resurfaced in a video for the song Pussy Riot had briefly performed there. Titled “Punk-Prayer (Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away),” the song and video were intended as a protest against the cosiness between the administration of President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church. But with increasing scrutiny from international circles focusing on the trial, the court had to avoid any suggestion that the trio was on trial for expressing political dissent.

That explains why the court paid scant attention to the political content of the song, insisting rather on the religious offense. Judge Syrova claimed to “find a religious hatred motive in the actions of the defendants by way of them being feminists who consider men and women to be equal.”

Ostensibly, their crime was “hooliganism.” The identification of religious hatred in their motive was critical to the structure of the charge. As Judge Syrova explained:

An act of hooliganism can be understood as being driven by hatred or degradation of any given social or national or religious group. Therefore the charge of hooliganism can be sustained when a defendant has expressed open disrespect and defiance against the communally expected norms and the tastes of others.

To navigate the contradictory political demands of hamstringing dissent while simultaneously impersonating a high degree of civil law before the international community, Judge Syrova has hammered out a rather crude compromise. Dissent itself is not a crime, according to the verdict, but its expression is cited as evidence of the band’s intolerance. Technically, this preserves the citizen’s right to protest against the government, but not in practice, since the court is free to construe such protests as an attempt to suppress the rights of others.

In effect, then, the Russian Orthodox Church is protected from protest. And if, as Pussy Riot alleges, the relationship between church and state allows the Putin administration to act through the Church, then the government is likewise protected from any protest touching on that relationship.

There is reason to suppose that the ritual enacted by the court extends beyond the courtroom. Russian Orthodox clerics have forgiven Pussy Riot for the performance. Putin himself called for moderation, but has not yet stepped in with a pardon. Increasing pressure from foreign embassies might sway him, but if, as many suspect, his administration pressured the courts to make an example of the band, then there’s little reason to see such sideline protestations as anything more than an elaborate washing of hands.

Observing the Pieties

An acquittal might have given the rest of the world reason to suppose that things were not so grim in the Russian judicial system, but virtually no one expected that. Nevertheless, the trial was watched with keen interest by the foreign media, almost as though its eventual outcome were seriously in doubt.

Surely there was some element of hope in the attention we gave to the trial. Full-blown optimism would have been remarkable, if not naive, given the challenges free speech has endured in Russia as of late. Cynicism would seem a natural response to a judicial imbroglio like the acquittal of three men accused of assassinating anti-corruption journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The more we see critics of the Russian government killed or incarcerated, the more difficult it is to sustain hope for the country. And yet, that there were so few confident predictions of the Pussy Riot verdict suggests an unwillingness to gainsay the nation’s potential for change.

At the same time, there is a ritual component to the way that the English-language news media covers a trial like this one. A certain measure of equanimity not only makes for prudent journalism, it also allows us to give a more carefully maintained response.

If nothing else, it justifies greater coverage. Even if the majority of the people watching the case took it for granted that Pussy Riot would be found guilty, acknowledging as much in media reports would have undermined the reception of further reporting. Where an outcome is given, interest in coverage of a case can be counted upon to wane quickly. Audiences want a cliffhanger.

Yet, coverage of the trial started early and remained consistent. NPR, in particular, has issued more than 50 updates since last June (their first report on the band, back in February, dealt with a previous protest and arrest). The New York Times has published dozens of op-eds on the case. Increasingly, coverage has taken on something of the character of reality television, as when both The Guardian and NPR live-blogged the verdict, presumably to avoid losing scoops to rival news organizations.

Along with the ability to extend coverage, the press’ reluctance to state the obvious has another ritual function: catharsis. It allows us to reserve our disdain so that it emerges all the more palpably when finally revealed. News of the verdict lit up Twitter and Facebook on Friday. The already extensive coverage of the case has nearly doubled since then. Even the U.S. Embassy felt compelled to express its disapproval of the verdict. It is as though we have spent the summer carefully hiding our approbation of Russian corruption, nurturing it so that, at the proper moment, we could reveal it as full blown outrage.

Ritual as Protest (and Vice Versa)

Pussy Riot did, in fact, rush the altar. The band itself provided evidence on that point when it videoed the performance. The explicit purpose was to gather footage for inclusion in a music video. Yet it could also be said that a secondary purpose, inexorably tied to the first, was to testify against the band itself.

That’s paradoxical if you take it for granted that the band were the defendants in the case, but Pussy Riot seems to have had something else in mind. Far from presenting a final defense, their closing statements took a Socratic turn, citing the state’s conduct of the trial as an indictment against the system.

That’s consistent with Pussy Riot’s modus operandi. As pointed out by the Associated Press, “the entire oeuvre of the women’s punk band is made up of six songs and five videos.” All things considered, it might be more accurate to say that the group has deployed six strategies for protesting the state of Russian politics, and that the songs were written and recorded primarily as the soundtrack to each strategy. By parodying the rituals of the Church, the band indicted the institution itself, insinuating that its relationship with the government has already made a mockery of its rites. Only a small step is required to take one from parodying the rituals of the church, to parodying those of the court.

Because the three members sitting in their glass box in court look so much like the punk trios we see in the English-language rock scene (one imagines them as a Russian Sleater-Kinney) it’s easy to mistake this as the trial of musicians whose enthusiasm sometimes leads them to pull politicized stunts. It would be more accurate to call Pussy Riot a political collective using music as a focal point of their protests. An American band like Rage Against the Machine may have staged very visible protests, but they spent most of their time recording albums and performing music in traditional venues. Pussy Riot reverses that priority, rarely playing their music in public save as part of their anarchic eruptions into civil disobedience. The differences that distinguish Pussy Riot from the rest of the music industry might have been clearer to the general public had Alekhina, Samutsevich, and Tolokonnikova been joined in the docket by the other members of the group. They might still.

In some regards, then, the music video was superfluous; the performance itself was an act of protest. There was no album to promote, nor were there any residuals to muddy our perception of their intent. The purpose of the video was to document their violation of the boundaries that normally keep institutional spaces like the Church free from dissent.

It is, then, virtually impossible to suppose that they did not expect arrest — if not now, then after subsequent protests raised their profile even higher. Members of Pussy Riot had already faced brief detentions on previous occasions, including on a prior attempt to perform “Holy Mary” in another Russian Orthodox church. Assuming that the band was right about the politically repressive atmosphere of Moscow, the growing audacity of their protests almost guaranteed that they would eventually face charges. In all likelihood, then, they were anticipating their day in court.

They were, in short, enacting a ritual of dissent — a cycle of protest and arrest that would ultimately lead to the catharsis of a trial and, in all likelihood, a guilty verdict. It is impossible to say for certain whether or not their plans had always included something like this, but as their renown grew and the police response intensified, they must have recognized the possibilities, not only for incarceration, but also to turn the trial itself into a form of protest.

Nor did they let the opportunity pass. Each of the indicted members put their closing statements to Socratic effect. By way of explaining the performance in Christ the Savior, Yekaterina Samutsevich made explicit their objections to the relationship between Putin’s administration and the hierarchy of the Church.

“This trial is not only a malignant and grotesque mask,” Maria Alykhina declared, “it is the face of the government’s dialogue with the people of our country.” She continued in sociological terms on the theme of depersonalization, perhaps recalling the balaclavas that hide the faces of Pussy Riot members during performances.

The effect was to shift attention away from their own dissent, and onto the government’s reaction to dissent of all kinds. As Nedezhda Tolokonnikova put it,

the three members of Pussy Riot are not the ones on trial here. If we were, this event would hardly be so significant. This is a trial of the entire political system of the Russian Federation, which, to its great misfortune, enjoys quoting its own cruelty toward the individual, its indifference toward human honor and dignity, repeating all of the worst moments of Russian history.

Changing the Script

“I now have mixed feelings about this trial,” Samutsevich said in her closing statement:

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.

That was hardly a revelation, though; Pussy Riot was hardly alone in expecting a guilty verdict. The Socratic victory declared by the defendants was the result of more than just the trial or its verdict. The band, the judicial machine, the whole world — each played its part in the rituals. None broke from the scripts they had provided for themselves.

In doing so, we have all demonstrated part of the immense power of ritual. For the Russian court, it was the power to construct a passable logic in justification of the status quo. For observers outside of Russia, it was the power to mobilize a wide swath of society around a court case that might otherwise seem quite remote. For Pussy Riot, it was the power to gain the world stage, to plant victory in the rocky soil of a guilty verdict.

The problem with ritual, however, is that it often grows perfunctory. That’s a danger inherent in its very nature, since ritual practice is, almost by definition, subject to repetition without reflection. That also can be part of the power of ritual — having set a precedent with Judge Syrova’s definition of hooliganism, the Russian legal system may now exercise that logic indefinitely, without having to reestablish its validity.

Things are not so easy with regards to the virtual martyrdom of Alekhina, Samutsevich, and Tolokonnikova. Sustaining that high level of visibility will be difficulty. Since the news cycle that made it so effective last time thrives on novelty, repeating the ritual will yield only diminishing returns.

Likewise, the part played by our own reactions to the case requires modification if it is to contribute to the Russian struggle for expanding civil rights. We cannot simply repeat the cycle of scrutiny, hope, attention and catharsis. Those rituals have built an atmosphere conducive to international involvement, but the demands of the changed situation require that those who want to see the growth of free speech now shift to a more deliberate strategy.

It is, in other words, time to break free of the rituals of the last six months. Doing so is the only way to ensure that Pussy Riot’s baroque courtroom victory does not go to waste.


is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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