Alan K. Henderson's Weblog


Old comments migrated to Disqus, currently working outtechnical issues

Monday, August 20, 2012

Russia's Weirdest Dissident Group

Language warning. Quoting Wikipedia, Pussy Riot is "a Russian feminist punk-rock band based in Moscow [that] stages politically provocative performances about Russian political life." They costume themselves in bright clothing and color-slashing balaclavas.

Very recently they were sentenced to 2 years imprisonment for "hooliganism," for staging a performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, protesting against the subject of their usual target - Vladimir Putin - and against Orthodox Patriarch Kirill's vocal support for the Russian President.

The performance has been branded as "blasphemous." Chicago Boyz contributor TM Lutas explains why the charge is accurate with regard to Orthodoxy. In Orthodox cathedrals, the iconostatis is a wall of icons separating the outer and inner sanctuary. The icons depict Christ, the Apostles, and several chief saints (including that for whom the cathedral is named, if applicable). The women danced and sang directly in front of the iconostatis, a place forbidden to laypersons. Even the non-Orthodox may perceive the performance as an act of upstaging Jesus and the saints.

TM Lutas argues that the two-year sentence is appropriate, using criminal trespass law in Indiana for a comparison. "[Trespass] is punishable between 6 months and 3 years with a fine up to $10,000. As this wasn’t Pussy Riot’s first case of trespass and outrageous behavior, this is exactly the sort of case that would tilt towards the heavier end of the penalty range."

Eugene Volokh makes the case for trespass, but find the sentence too harsh. "Though the church was open to the public at the time, it was pretty clearly open only to prayer or quiet observation, not for people to use it for their own loud musical performances. It strikes me as quite right to prosecute them for trespass, and a fairly egregious form of trespass at that: The people weren’t just (say) overstaying their welcome at a normal business establishment, but disrupting the quiet of a place that many other people were using for quiet contemplation"

Present at the sentencing, chess grand master Garry Kasparov, himself a Putin critic, was accused of biting a policeman's hand. He tweeted this reaction: "I am sorry if the policeman who was beating me on the head had hurt his hand."

The band has attracted worldwide support from within and without the entertainments. relatively sane folks like Paul McCartney and cartoon characters like Madonna and Yoko Ono.

The sad thing is that Pussy Riot wouldn't matter if it weren't for a sentence that carries the appearance of political persecution. To call the band the musical equivalent of an Internet troll is an insult to Internet trolls. Read the lyrics to Putin Lights Up the Fires ("Father Lukashenko" refers to Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko) and three other songs ("Patriarch Gundyaev" refers to Patriarch Kirill - born Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev). This is vulgar drivel, less substantive than the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen.

Protesters should take at least two lessons from all this ado. First, semi-coherent rants make lousy protest media. It gives the impression that the protesters, while they might have a genuine grievance, really don't know what they're talking about. Snappy one-liners are nice, but they must be accompanied with some detail about what is being protested - explanations of what bad stuff is being done and why it's bad.

Second, don't unnecessarily alienate your potential allies. Clownish performance art runs into immediate public relations problems, but it's not an automatic deal-breaker. How seriously the weird gets taken varies. A vulgar protest group name is a huge turn-off; besides offending the sense of propriety of many, it portrays the protesters as folks you can't sit down and have a rational conversation with.

Pussy Riot's worst PR offense is its mockery of an entire religion - the act of profaning the iconostasis. The women say Kirill is a toady for the State. If the Orthodox doctrine of Symphonia ("which posits that church and state are to be complementary and exhibit mutual respect") fails to distinguish between respect and sycophancy, then that doctrine alone is at fault; giving sanctuary rules the finger is just scapegoating (at best). If Symphonia does not commit that failure, and if Kirill is a toady, then Kirill is at fault. Is he? You be the judge of that.

Update: If Pussy Riot is lamer than an Internet troll, and if there was a political motive behind the sentencing, that makes Putin (by association) look really small.

Update: Keeping with the second principle is very difficult when protesting against revered leaders or formal doctrines (religious or secular) - especially if the challenger has no clout in the belief system in question. In this case both could have been avoided, because the central problem is Putin. If he is a tyrant, spell out the tyranny and leave the Patriarch alone. Let the Orthodox faithful figure out the flaws of the Patriarch's political wisdom on their own.

Then again, I'm treating these women as if they were consciously interested in influencing opinion - the proper reason for protest. A lot of people protest simply to vent. I don't see a lot of attempted persuasion in their lyrics.

Labels: , ,

Site Meter