Reverence, Revolution and Pussy Riot

Please visit our fantastic new website by clicking this link!

By Maria Padhila

In February, three women got up on an altar in a Moscow cathedral and sang a prayer. The prayer went like this: “St. Maria, Virgin, Drive Putin Away!” It had some fierce guitar work as well as sweet choral portions. And they sang it wearing masks and short dresses.

Poly Paradise at Burning Man. Photo by Eric.

Poly Paradise at Burning Man. Photo by Eric.

They’re now looking at up to seven years in jail. They’ve been in detention since March. Last week, they were denied bail, and their trial is set for July 20. Such is the penalty for speaking out about gender, relationships, LGBT rights and politics in Russia today (and maybe here, tomorrow).

Last month when I was doing my volunteer shift picking up trash at Artomatic, a DC open arts event where a building slated for demolition is given over to un-juried, first-come-first-served art installations, I saw a backdrop with an elaborately decorated gothic-style altar and the words “Free Pussy Riot!” I started talking to the artist, and that’s where I learned the story.

Pussy Riot is a free-floating (except when jailed) band of punk rockers and activists in Russia. Their punk protest issues include LGBT and gender rights, as well as opposition to Putin and the government. They’re usually anonymous, and they change their assumed and actual names and personnel on a whim. They perform in balaclavas that hide their features, and wear bright-colored tights and plain, skimpy dresses, so anyone can easily don Pussy Riot gear. Hair, makeup, even gender — doesn’t matter. This is not rock star territory. Men can be members of Pussy Riot; so can anyone on the spectrum. They do not perform in clubs or theaters or at music events. Every performance is a guerrilla one.

This inspired the artist to create her stage at Artomatic where, she said, anyone could be Pussy Riot. She made a backdrop resembling the church and supplied balaclavas, dresses and tights. Dress the part and lip-synch to the song, and she would shoot a video. The YouTube videos posted from the event show groups of all sizes, men and women, and me dancing around with a garbage bag.

In an interview before the arrest, in Vice magazine, they explained the name: “A female sex organ, which is supposed to be receiving and shapeless, suddenly starts a radical rebellion against the cultural order, which tries to constantly define it and show its appropriate place. Sexists have certain ideas about how a woman should behave, and Putin, by the way, also has a couple thoughts on how Russians should live. Fighting against all that — that’s Pussy Riot.”

Conservative press has twisted itself in knots trying to figure out how to refer to the group, with one newspaper reportedly translating the name as “Uprising of the Uterus.” (I wonder if they’re friends with the indomitable and outspoken Fe’s Uterus? Because all you uteri know each other, right?)

The photos out of the trials are particularly disturbing, as it’s apparently the Russian way to put the defendant in an actual cage in the courtroom. Outside, protests have included men locking themselves up in cages and a woman tying herself to a cross for an hour. If you want to do a little something, here’s a link to a petition from Amnesty International seeking free speech rights for the three arrested.

A report in Salon explains what’s really behind the harsh smackdown:

The women are arguably as much religious prisoners as they are political prisoners. … Over the past few years, Putin has cultivated a close relationship with the Orthodox Church, giving it the ability to amass fabulous wealth in return for its support. In return, the church exhorts the young to fight in Chechnya, consecrates new nuclear missiles as the nation’s ‘guardian angels,’ and praises Putin’s return to the presidency as ‘God’s miracle.’

The Pussy Riot song also condemns the Orthodox Patriarch Gundyaev Kirill as worshiping Putin over God, and that seems to have really pissed all three of those guys off. I think it’s a glimpse at what could be in store if political power here goes to people with close ties to evangelicals.

Pussy Riot has tangled not only with the rules of the church, but the rules of relationships. The stakes are high for love in Russia. In St. Petersburg, police have broken up two recent gay rights protests against a law against “spreading homosexual propaganda,” which crime can carry fines up to $15,000 (unless, I suppose, you pay the right people off beforehand and get the mobster discount). Gay rights have been decriminalized, but discrimination, hate, and selective enforcement abound, say news reports.

Reports are also careful to mention that gay rights protests as well as those against the Pussy Riot trials are “sparsely attended.” I think I’d be a bit nervous about venturing out to speak my mind in such a climate as well.

Here in the United States, I see an echo in the Vatican denouncement of American Catholic nuns. The ‘Nuns on the Bus’ have been cruising through DC often lately, and they’re based here. There are often protests outside the Vatican embassy. Here’s the lowdown, from the Women’s eNews site (which also still publishes the Sylvia comic strip, if you’ve missed that, as I have):

In April, the Vatican concluded an investigation of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, an organizing body that represents 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in America. The Vatican criticized the leadership’s ‘radical feminist themes’ and its focus on social services at the expense of other issues. It took particular issue with the leadership’s relative quiet on same-sex relationships and abortion. … The [Nuns on the Bus] tour’s stated mission was to stir up outrage over what the nuns called the immorality of lowering taxes for the wealthy while attacking the poor through cutting food stamps and Medicaid, as outlined in the budget plan crafted by Paul Ryan, a Republican representing Wisconsin’s 1st District in Congress.

These nuns are more like the lefty types I remember from my Catholic folk mass girlhood. Their protest has the same feel to me as Pussy Riot’s: We’re going to speak out on what matters to us and what action we’re going to take is based on our own relationship with the divine.

I remember talking once with a Catholic friend about what would be difficult about taking holy orders — a telling phrase there! The vows are of poverty, chastity and obedience; the hard one for him, he said, would be chastity. For me it would be obedience. (I’m Venus in Virgo. We can sublimate ’til the cows come home. And that didn’t sound right, did it.)

Maybe I’m just too American, but unquestioning obedience to anything doesn’t work for me — and that’s probably at the heart of my unconventional relationships.

What made things clearer for me was reading another piece of news, from the Sandusky/Penn State child abuse cover-ups. One factor that made these crimes possible, the report said, was a “culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.” That “culture of reverence” phrase nails it for me.

Never mind that it’s reverence for a game (which is actually reverence for money and power, of course). How insane do you have to be to care more for that than for a child? “Reverence” becomes a convenient plug-in for not seeing, not asking, not changing.

For myself, I contrasted “reverence” with “relationship.” In my own spirituality, I don’t have reverence for the gods. I have respect for them (though not always) and I have a relationship with them. It’s fun sometimes to pretend I worship someone I love, and it’s fun to play at obeying them (especially when they tell me to do something I want to do anyway). But reverence and obedience, to either a person or a model, is not my way. Relationships require constant change and growth. Reverence demands stasis — or death?

This entry was posted in Polyamory. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Reverence, Revolution and Pussy Riot

  1. Lizzy Huffy says:

    Apologies for being off topic, but you’re right Paola – the nasty gnome is back. Knew he would be….

  2. Lizzy Huffy says:

    Great links! Thanks, liminali.

  3. liminali liminali says:

    “Conservative press has twisted itself in knots trying to figure out how to refer to the group, with one newspaper reportedly translating the name as “Uprising of the Uterus.” (I wonder if they’re friends with the indomitable and outspoken Fe’s Uterus? Because all you uteri know each other, right?)”

    Fe’s Uterus, meet Helen’s Octogenarian Vagina

    http://margaretandhelen.com/2012/06/21/vagina-is-a-6-letter-word/

    Uterus Uprising commences! Uteri of world unite!

  4. liminali liminali says:

    Been following the Pussy Riot story since March when I first learned of their arrests. These young women are smart smart smart. Their music as political protest is brilliant. Their music as punk rock is AWESOME!!!! :)

    FREE PUSSY RIOT (dot org)

    Kropotkin-Vodka (I don’t know Russian but I totally get this video, and dig it to the max!)

    Poly Styrene might well be one of their guardian angels (search Xray Specs/Oh Bondage, Up Yours! for reference if needed)

    http://youtu.be/CZUhkWiiv7M

  5. Lizzy Huffy says:

    Yes, really interesting comment, Brendan. And then of course, there’s this horror:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2012/mar/11/journalist-safety-vladimir-putin

  6. Geoff says:

    Another of Puketin’s policies is to ban LGBT people from applying for permission to hold Pride rallies in Moscow for the next 100 years. Does he really think he’s going to be around that long? No, he’s mad.

    Don’t forget that you can send messages of support to Pussy Riot through Amnesty. Sign up, send cash and, more importantly, send love. Just imagine how important it would be for you to receive messages of support if you were imprisoned for what you believe. Sisters and brother unite!

  7. paola paola says:

    (Not to make a gossip, but to underline what ‘would like’ to come back).

  8. paola paola says:

    You know, right, that Putin is Berlusconi’s best friend. Mr.B is very proud of this friendship and used to talk quite often about it. It’s history now (aka everybody knows) that he sleeps (…) in a big bed that is Putin’s gift. Glab!

    Just a color note.

  9. Brendan Brendan says:

    A big thank you, Maria! Putin’s kleptocracy is purely czarist in how it actually runs. Church behind you, check! Oligarchs in thrall to you, check! Military beholden, check! Peasants, not so much, but they don’t count anyway, check! Dissidents in jail, check! Giant palaces for the Czar, check! There isn’t much difference between 1912 Imperial Russia and 2012 Russian “Republic” in terms of how the society actually operates. At times I feel like the entire country has become Potemkin’s village, on show to the world as a success while hiding the utter poverty and desperation much of the country lives in.

    I regularly visit a photo-blog called “English Russia” that has a wide variety of subjects from across Russia. One pertinent thing is the unfortunate number of photo entries that are all about the pretty girls. They make you think the entire young female population has decided that there is no opportunity for them but to sell themselves for whatever they can get, and so you see exhibits of horrible plastic surgery touted as “beauty,” complete and utter dedication to being so identified with clothes and makeup, and a sense that money is absolutely everything. Bling is king, and too often it seems as if Playboy, Penthouse, and Maxim are considered the height of cultural aspiration.

    The blog has covered Pussy Riot to a small degree, and to a larger extent, the Ukrainian group “Femen.” That group has gained some fame for their topless protests in Ukraine, Russia, and western Europe over the sex trade, human trafficking, and the complete sexualization and degradation of women in the old east bloc. I tend to think the blog owners/contributors are of two minds about women, yes they like the new Russian woman, but no, it comes across (to them) as completely sleazy and demeaning. Perhaps it is the possibility of getting into serious trouble that keeps them from taking an absolute position, but at times a sense of strong cynicism about Russia as a whole gets through.

    It can be a weird blog, but there are entries that show parts of the world that are almost never seen in the west, still. I studied the Soviet Union in college when it still existed, I spent 2 1/2 years learning Russian, and I got to know and truly appreciate a culture rather different than our own. What I see now is social Darwinism gone berserk, and a government and society that simply exploits the people and the land, leaving nothing for any sort of future. When the hard landing comes for Putin’s gang, it won’t be easy for the world as a whole.

    Sorry, a bit O/T here, but we can see examples online of just what Pussy Riot and others are fighting against, and it is a very difficult struggle indeed.

  10. mystes mystes says:

    Agreed, very fine article. The whole idea of conservative religious & neo-liberals cuddling up just makes my head spin. All that gaud, all that power! How do they keep themselves in Chapstick with all that mutual butt-kissing going on?

    The thing about being young is that you really don’t have a clue about just how committed these assholes are to their agenda. Sigh. Fortunately, there’s Amnesty. Which reminds me: http://www.amnestyusa.org/ Every single dollar pushes a finger up the nose of these troglodytes. Give!

  11. Geoff says:

    Cheers for this, Maria. Pure 60s, may I say, as someone who was there.

    Ras Putin. I know Russians eager to get their money out of the country before he steals it. Says it all, really.

  12. Lizzy Huffy says:

    Thanks for this great report, Maria, and for the link to Amnesty. “Over the past few years, Putin has cultivated a close relationship with the Orthodox Church, giving it the ability to amass fabulous wealth in return for its support. In return, the church exhorts the young to fight in Chechnya, consecrates new nuclear missiles as the nation’s ‘guardian angels,’ and praises Putin’s return to the presidency as ‘God’s miracle.’” Ugh – it’s so revolting.

Leave a Reply