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Supporting Pussy Riot – for All the Wrong Reasons?

In this week’s shameless FPA self-promotion, my piece about Pussy Riot somehow infiltrated today’s International Herald Tribune and got a few angry looks.

So, is it hypocritical for Western mainstream media to champion a group of anarchist feminists over in Russia for behaviour that it would almost certainly not approve of at home? Read on and chime in!

From Madonna to Bjork, from the elite New Yorker to the populist Daily Mail, the world united in supporting Russia’s irreverent feminist activists Pussy Riot against the blunt cruelty inflicted on them by the state. It may not have stopped Vladimir Putin’s kangaroo court from sentencing them to two years in prison on charges of hooliganism, but blanket international media pressure helped turn the case into a major embarrassment for the Kremlin.

Yet there is something about the West’s embrace of the young women’s cause that should make us deeply uneasy, as Pussy Riot’s philosophy, activism and even music quickly took second place to its usefulness in discrediting one of America’s geopolitical foes. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, are dissident intellectuals once again in danger of becoming pawns in the West’s anti-Russian narrative?

Back in the ’70s, the United States and its allies cared little about what Soviet dissidents were actually saying, so long as it was aimed against the Kremlin. No wonder so many Americans who had never read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s books cheered when he dissed the Soviet Union later felt so shocked, offended and even betrayed when he criticized many of the same shortcomings in his adoptive homeland. Wasn’t this guy supposed to be on our side?

Using dissidents to score political points against the Russian regime is as dangerous as adopting a pet tiger: No matter how domesticated they may seem, in the end they are free spirits, liable to maul the hand that feeds them.

How many fans of Pussy Riot’s zany “punk prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s erudite and moving closing statement were equally thrilled by her participation, naked and heavily pregnant, in a public orgy at a Moscow museum in 2008? That performance, by the radical art group Voina (Russian for “war”), was meant to illustrate how Russians were abused by their government. Voina had previously set fire to a police car and drew obscene images on a St. Petersburg drawbridge.

Stunts like that would get you arrested just about anywhere, not just in authoritarian Russia. But Pussy Riot and its comrades at Voina come as a full package: You can’t have the fun, pro-democracy, anti-Putin feminism without the incendiary anarchism, extreme sexual provocations, deliberate obscenity and hard-left politics.

Unless you are comfortable with all that (and I strongly suspect 99 percent of Pussy Riot’s fans in the mainstream media are not), then standing behind Pussy Riot only now, when it is obviously blameless and the government clearly guilty, is pure opportunism. And just like in the bad old days, such knee-jerk yet selective support for Russian dissidents — without fully engaging with their ideas — is not only hypocritical but also does a great disservice to their cause.

A former Soviet dissident and current member of the anti-Putin opposition, Eduard Limonov, knows such cynicism too well. Thrown out of the Soviet Union and welcomed in New York as a Cold War trophy, Limonov soon learned that it wasn’t the dissent part that the United States loved about Soviet dissidents, but their anti-communism. A bristly and provocative anti-Soviet leftist, he got to work doing what he did best — taking on the establishment — and quickly found himself in hot water again, this time with the Americans. Limonov concluded that “the F.B.I. is just as zealous in putting down American radicals as the K.G.B. is with its own radicals and dissidents.”

At the core of much of the media fever over Pussy Riot lies a fundamental misunderstanding of what these Russian dissidents are about. Some outlets have portrayed the case as a quest for freedom of expression and other ground rules of liberal democracy. Yet the very phrase “freedom of expression,” with its connotations of genteel protest as a civic way to blow off some steam while life goes on, is alien to Russian radical thought. 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.

Anyone who has bothered to see them beyond their relevance as anti-Kremlin proxies will know that these young people are as contemptuous of capitalism as they are of Putinism. They are targeting not just Russian authoritarianism, but, in Tolokonnikova’s words, the entire “corporate state system.” And that applies to the West as much as to Russia itself. It includes many of the fawning foreign media conglomerates covering the trial, like Murdoch’s News Corp., and even such darlings of the anti-Putin “liberal opposition” establishment as the businessman and anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny.

Pussy Riot’s fans in the West need to understand that their heroes’ dissent will not stop at Putin; neither will it stop if and when Russia becomes a “normal” liberal democracy. Because what Pussy Riot wants is something that is equally terrifying, provocative and threatening to the established order in both Russia and the West (and has been from time immemorial): freedom from patriarchy, capitalism, religion, conventional morality, inequality and the entire corporate state system. We should only support these brave women if we, too, are brave enough to go all the way.

(C) Agence Global

 
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Comments (9)

  1. Anselm Hartman Wednesday - 22 / 08 / 2012 Reply
    Thanks for stating the even better reasons to support Pussy Riot.
  2. Tina Friday - 24 / 08 / 2012 Reply
    Just today I read a translation of this article in a Dutch newspaper. The article gave me a very weird feeling. Maybe smething got lost in translation, so I decided to look for the original. The strange feeling however, did not go away. I cannot seem to get clarity on what the author's motives are. What is his point!? I cannot help but getting the feeling that the author himself feels very uncomfortable with what these women are doing and what they stand for. It seems that he wants to warn the assumingly ignorant (!) supporters of Pussy Riot by informing them about their actual views and behaviour. Obviously he thinks Pussy Riot fans cannot see the truth, while he is able to see it.He seems to think that Pussy Riot fans are blinded by categorical anti-Russian sentiments (are those the wrong reasons he talks about in the title?), no proof needed.I suppose there is hardly any American that you need to explain that supporting freedom of expression means you have to allow and tolerate other people's opinions and views even when you don't agree with them. That is exactly the opposite of having to fully engage in someone's ideas before you support them. Or is the author's point that Americans don't understand the real meaning of freedom of expression, when you look at how they suppress any radicalism? So, what is it? Is this article anti american-hypocracy, anti Pussy Riot, pro freedom of expression ... or even something different? I just don't seem the find the message.
  3. G W Eccles Friday - 24 / 08 / 2012 Reply
    Of course two years in a penal colony is somewhat excessive for Pussy Riot, but surely outpourings of grief and disapproval at the verdict by the media and celebrities who had never heard of them before the group's performance in Christ the Saviour Cathedral is equally excessive. After all, what did the group do? Running up to the front of the church wearing their trademark balaclavas, the three girls shouted "Mother of God, drive out Putin!" in front of the altar. Not a very clever thing to do in today's Russia - not a very clever thing to do anywhere, some would say. As my new novel 'The Oligarch: A Thriller' makes it clear, you would have to live on Mars not to know that offending Putin in this public way would lead to reprisals, and choosing to do it in this Cathedral managed to upset a lot of people who might otherwise have been on their side. Quite frankly, they have only themselves to blame. http://www.theoligarchthriller.com
    • EricR Friday - 24 / 08 / 2012 Reply
      "They only have themselves to blame"... I think the same was said about a lot of people who stood up against those in power and had to pay for it with their life or even their freedom. And in all cases it was wrong. It's like saying that a wife who gets beaten up by her husband for talking back to him only has herself to blame. After all, she knew what was going to happen.
      • EricR Friday - 24 / 08 / 2012 Reply
        "their life or even their freedom", hahaha - well, perhaps there's something to it, actually.
  4. EricR Friday - 24 / 08 / 2012 Reply
    So... we should only defend somebody's freedom of speech if we agree with what he or she is trying to say? What nonsense. Pussy Riot deserves our support because they have been prosecuted and sentenced for the wrong reasons, not because what they are saying is so valuable.
  5. Tina Saturday - 25 / 08 / 2012 Reply
    Thanks EricR, for stating so clearly what it is actually about. It not about supporting Pussy Riot for the wrong reasons, but about being against the fact that they got sentenced for the wrong reasons. Exactly my point. Of course they wanted to stir up things in a big way and were knowingly taking a risk, but I do think they got more than they bargained for. I don't think they completely foresaw the size of it all, but in fact their action has been a huge success. Loads of international attention and Putin in the hot spot, squirming to keep up appearances; what more could they want!? If they are real rebels, they would be willing to pay the price, unreasonable as it is. Let the rest of the world now discuss how fundamentally unreasonable it is. I'd love to hear a comment from the author, because I'm still wondering about his real opinion or conclusion on all of this. To me his article seems like an interesting mix between the freedom loving westernised journalist and the leftover Russian authoritarian core...
  6. Maria Schetynska Sunday - 26 / 08 / 2012 Reply
    Thank you! Great article. I hope more people understand your point of view.
  7. fra frà Sunday - 02 / 09 / 2012 Reply
    1)I don't care for what celebrities say. should we? 2) the right of speech is a human right and should always be preserved for any speech, even if anyone could not agree! (as the journalist, for example) 3) I totally disagree with this article till the point that pussy riots' protest really goes beyond Putin to embrace a peaceful RIOT (they just played a song!!!!, can we believe they're in jail for that??) against the sistem, named capitalism, which wants us to be all the same in any country, with less money, less rights and less democracy, too...so, at the end, less FREEDOM, even the freedom of a speech!!!! that's why their actions attracted so many peoples' attention all over the world; 4) they're women...why don't you men go to action as well?? what are you afraid of?..that we can be smarter and even braver than you?? woman is not jus the pussy gave you life...:))unfortunately, women still need to fight 50 times more than men to get what they want in life..for all of these RIGHT reasons, FREE PUSSY RIOT, all women are close to you, now!!!!!!!!!

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Author

Vadim Nikitin
Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs

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