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Aaron Leaf: Pussy Riot’s Closing Statements

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August 13, 2012

Instead of using her closing statement to express remorse, Yekaterina Samutsevich of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot talked about Putin, power, and the subversive potential of images.

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Image from Flickr via somiz

By Aaron Leaf

It gave me chills the first time I saw streaming video of Pussy Riot performing outside in tights and balaclavas striking rock and roll poses and getting run off by security guards. When the music video of them bum-rushing Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral in the same ski-masks came out, the one that got three of the half-dozen or so members arrested, I thought it was fake. Who would dare such a thing in Putin’s Russia?

They would. And when the verdict comes down next week, they’re expected to get three years each for hooliganism and inciting religious hatred.

Through their acts of guerrilla feminism and their thoughtful anti-authoritarian politics they’ve become global stars, inspiring solidarity from both rock star do-gooders and grassroots activists. Unsurprisingly, much of the international coverage has obsessed over their style—attractive young women, neon lycra, rock-and-roll protest—and glossed over what they’re protesting.

On the one hand, we now expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won.

The most eloquent description of their mission comes from one of the three members currently being detained, Yekaterina Samutsevich, who used her closing statement in their recent show trial as the chance to remind the world of Pussy Riot’s politics.

Below is the full text of her statement, reprinted with permission from the blog chtodelat news.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: During the closing statement, the defendant is expected to repent or express regret for her deeds, or to enumerate attenuating circumstances. In my case, as in the case of my colleagues in the group, this is completely unnecessary. Instead, I want to express my views about the causes of what has happened with us.

The fact that Christ the Savior Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of our powers that be was already clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former [KGB] colleague Kirill Gundyaev took over as head of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Savior Cathedral began to be used openly as a flashy setting for the politics of the security services, which are the main source of power [in Russia].

Why did Putin feel the need to exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetics? After all, he could have employed his own, far more secular tools of power—for example, national corporations, or his menacing police system, or his own obedient judiciary system. It may be that the tough, failed policies of Putin’s government, the incident with the submarine Kursk, the 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; otherwise, the citizens of Russia would help him do this. Apparently, it was then that he felt the need for more convincing, transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the helm. It was here that the need arose to make use of the aesthetics of the Orthodox religion, 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 shouldn’t any intersection of the religious and political spheres be dealt with severely by our vigilant and critically minded society? Here, apparently, the authorities took advantage of a certain deficit of Orthodox aesthetics in Soviet times, when the Orthodox religion had the aura of a lost history, of something 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 their new political project to restore Russia’s lost spiritual values, a project which has little to do with a genuine concern for preservation of Russian Orthodoxy’s history and culture.

It was also fairly logical that the Russian Orthodox Church, which has long had a mystical connection with power, emerged as this project’s principal executor in the media. Moreover, it was also agreed that the Russian Orthodox Church, unlike the Soviet era, when the church opposed, above all, the crudeness of the authorities towards history itself, should also confront all baleful manifestations of contemporary mass culture, with its concept of diversity and tolerance.

We dared to combine the visual image of Orthodox culture and protest culture, suggesting to smart people that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch and Putin, that it might also take the side of civic rebellion and protest.

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 in fact the Patriarch’s well-constructed speeches would be pronounced, helping the faithful make the right political choice during the election campaign, a difficult time for Putin. Moreover, all shooting has to take place continuously; the necessary images must sink into the memory and be constantly updated, to 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 this media image, generated and maintained by the authorities for so long, and revealed its falsity. In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to combine the visual image of Orthodox culture and protest culture, suggesting to smart people that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch and Putin, that it might also take the side of civic rebellion and protest in Russia.

Perhaps such an unpleasant large-scale effect from our media intrusion into the cathedral was a surprise to the authorities themselves. First they tried to present our performance as the prank of heartless militant atheists. But they made a huge blunder, since by this time we were already known as an anti-Putin feminist punk band that carried out their media raids 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 now expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. Now the whole world sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial. Once again, Russia looks different in the eyes of the world from the way Putin tries to present it at daily international meetings. All the steps toward a state governed by the rule of law that he promised have obviously not been made. And his statement that the court in our case will be objective and make a fair decision is another deception of the entire country and the international community. That is all. Thank you.

Aaron Leaf, the editorial assistant for Guernica’s art department, is a freelance writer and editor who has reported on human rights issues from Zambia, Liberia, Canada and Peru.

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One comment for Aaron Leaf: Pussy Riot’s Closing Statements

  1. Comment by Chalice Wilkerson on August 18, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Thanks for sharing this statement and refreshing to see emphasis placed on the intellect of these women – also makes more sense of their protest as more than just ‘youthful rebellion’ – and just makes me admire them more.

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