Pussy Riot

Beyond Language – 2

As one reads Masha Gessen’s telling of the story of Pussy Riot (Words Will Break Cement – The Passion of Pussy Riot), it becomes clear that the group’s distinctive quality is a reliance less on verbal statements than on visual and gestural ones. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour action on February 21, 2012 involved the performance of a song containing the “holy shit” (срань господня) line contributed by Andrei Tolokonnikov. Its main intended purpose, however, was to create a shock situation, something akin to the 1960s “happenings” of the American painter and performance artist Allan Kaprow. These were scripted events, consisting of visual  and aural cues that prompted both  performers and audience to create a work of art together.

Like other Pussy Riot actions, the Cathedral event was designed primarily as a live experience. It was also to be filmed and presented on video via the Internet, though the chaotic circumstances of the brief action made it hard to produce a coherent volume of footage. The action had a political element, but was essentially an act of prayer, with the title Богородица, Путина прогони! (Mother of God, Drive Putin Away!). Thus, in addition to being a work of New Media Art, it was consistent with being a religious ritual, and could hardly be described as blasphemous. The song’s opening melody and refrain were borrowed from Rachmaninov’s Богородице Дѣво (Rejoice, O Mother of God), from the All Night Vigil.

Masha Gessen presents a good and detailed account of the cruel and farcical Pussy Riot trial, as well as sympathetic portraits of the group’s members. Some of the book’s most instructive chapters are the early ones in which she discusses the development of the group’s artistic and aesthetic aims. These are elaborated further in the extracts from the members’ statements given during the trial, and one wonders if there might be a case for gathering them, along with others, in a separate volume, as they help towards a theoretical and practical understanding of the group’s artistic project. As Maria Alyokhina stated at the trial:

I am very irritated that the prosecution refers to contemporary art as “so-called art.” I would like to note that the same expression was used in the trial of the poet Brodsky. His poetry was referred to as “so-called poetry ” and the witnesses who testified against him had not read it. Just as some of those who testified against us did not witness what happened but only saw the video on the Internet.

Penal Colony No. 14

Radio Svoboda has published an interview (Russian) with Tatyana Osipova, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group who as a political prisoner in the 1980s and served her sentence in the penal colonies of Mordovia along with human rights activists like Irina Ratushinskaya and Tatyana Velikanova. Osipova makes particular mention of Penal Colony No. 14, where Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has been sent, saying that it in her time it had the most difficult conditions of all the labour camps in the area, and apparently still does 30 years later – indeed, the conditions may be even worse now.

– По-вашему,  тема политзаключенных и в ХХI веке еще не закрыта?

– Мне казалось раньше, что эта тема закрыта, а оказывается, в стране мало что изменилось. Может быть, и был период улучшения, но сейчас, похоже, все вернулось на круги своя.

– In your opinion, is the topic of political prisoners not yet closed in the 21st century?

– I used to think that this topic was closed, but it turns out that not much has changed in the country. Perhaps there was a period of improvement, but now it seems that everything has gone back to how it was before.

Alyokhina Denied Parole

Maria Alyokhina has refused further participation in the parole hearing at the Perm Regional Court, which she has been attending via videoconference from the remand center where she is being held, claiming that the proceedings are a travesty of justice and her rights are being fundamentally violated. As a sign of her non-participation, she turned her back to the camera.  Her request for parole has now been denied by the court.

Alyokhina ‘Beaten by Guards’

Khodorkovsky Center reports that Maria Alyokhina has been beaten by guards in the remand center in Solikamsk where she is currently being held, for refusing to be transferred to another prison without access to documents. More details from RAPSI.

Update 1: In a statement to Novaya Gazeta, Alyokhina’s lawyer Oksana Darova has denied that she saw her client being beaten.

Update 2: Alyokhina has written a letter to Novoye Vremya from the remand center in  Solikamsk.