Pussy Control

New York

Left: Protesters at the march in solidarity with Pussy Riot, New York, August 17, 2012. (Photo: Kate Sutton) Right: Pussy Riot members Ekaterina Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Maria Alyokhina. (Photo: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)

IN SEPTEMBER 2008, a little-known group by the name of Voina descended on an unsuspecting hypermarket on the outskirts of Moscow, blocking off one of the massive aisles with shopping carts and staging a lynching of three hired gasterbaiters (a derogatory but prevalent term for migrant workers from Central Asia). These workers-cum-performers had agreed to be paid for their services, and the happening might have effectively addressed the city’s callous labor system had it not been for the added distraction of two hot-panted “homosexual” comrades-in-nooses, who spent most of the video documentation prancing and giggling into their feather boas and angel wings while the workers looked on bewildered. It was supposed to speak to gay rights, but it felt like a fraternity stunt.

Two years later and Voina was up for the state-funded Innovation Prize for spray-painting a giant penis on the drawbridge across from the former KGB headquarters (now home to the FSB, Russia’s military police). The puerile accent to the collective’s less-publicized high jinks—from tipping cop cars on Palace Square to setting fires under parked buses on New Year’s Eve—suggested that Voina was something of a boys’ club. To call their actions involving women “empowering” you’d have to subject them to the most convoluted interpretations. An oft-cited orgy in a museum reduced women to reproductive props, while How to Snatch a Chicken: A Tale of How One Cunt Fed the Whole of the Group Voina, 2010, offered a highly sophisticated statement about the capacity of a woman’s vagina to shoplift. The photo spread of a blond girl in a supermarket aisle, stuffing a raw chicken into her perfectly waxed genitalia, read more as fetish porn than feminism.

In 2012, tables turned, and the women of Voina took center stage with their offshoot group Pussy Riot, whose catchy name has arguably garnered them more fans than their purposefully abrasive music has. The “band” had been performing guerrilla-style “concerts” since last November, screaming songs from store windows, the rooftops of a public tram, and a detention center, and even on Red Square, where they spouted calls for Tahrir in Moscow (“Egyptian air is good for the lungs”). They wore balaclavas to cancel out the distraction of female beauty—and perhaps rightfully so. Once unmasked, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s pouty prettiness—even after five months in prison she looks like she just patted off her face in a Noxzema commercial—earned her an international following, as well as an invite to pose (unpaid) on the cover of Ukrainian Playboy.

Pussy Riot’s performances made the social networking rounds as campy videos, but the general public—then preoccupied with pre-election protests—barely took note. That is, until lady-Voina targeted the country’s unspoken second-in-command. Not Prime Minister Medvedev (he already had his orgy), but the Russian Orthodox Church and its Patriarch Kirill Gundyaev, a former KGB colleague of Putin’s who was promoted to the church’s head when he assumed leadership, and who promptly mobilized God and his congregation in support of Putin. Under this regime, the church has increasingly intervened in state matters, forming a kind of Second Kremlin in the Church of Christ the Saviour, the seat of Russian Orthodoxy, or—as the Moscow court would continuously refer to it—“God’s personal address.”

Left: Madonna in concert in Saint Petersburg, August 7, 2012. Right: Voina, How to Snatch a Chicken: A Tale of How One Cunt Fed the Whole of the Group Voina, 2010.

Irina Prokhorova—who, if anyone, deserves to be the face of feminism in Russia, as one of the country’s strongest and most steadfast advocates for an educated civil society—has publicly stated that there can be no such society so long as “hurting the Orthodox’s feelings” trumps any other crime. This was the case when courts ruled in favor of Orthodox marauders who destroyed artworks from the 2002–2003 Moscow exhibition “Watch Out! Religion!,” and instead opted to fine the curators for irresponsibly inciting strong emotions. And it’s the charge Madonna is now facing after the fresh filing of a $10 million suit citing “moral damage,” prompted by her August 9 performance in Saint Petersburg, during which the Material Girl spoke out against recent city laws aimed at curbing “homosexual propaganda.” (“While speaking of tolerance, she abuses the feelings of believers,” a spokesman for the case explains. In other words, not enough tolerance for intolerance.)

While regularly pimped on Russian TV, the Orthodox Church could probably use a little international PR. In April, Patriarch Kirill adamantly denied that he owned a $30,000 Breguet watch, which sent the church scurrying to Photoshop away evidence of said accessory. (Unfortunately, in their rush, they forgot to wipe out the watch’s reflection, a problem when you’re going to wear something so damn shiny.) If this weren’t already a communications nightmare, the church has also recently come under fire for operating a series of (literally) underground enterprises in the bottom floors of the cathedral, including an elite car wash, dry cleaning service, paid parking, and a number of kiosks peddling Walgreens-style knickknacks, all at unregulated prices. What’s more, if you like what you see upstairs, several of the cathedral’s grand halls are available to rent out for private events.

On February 21, 2012, five masked girls sang about exactly this corruption, pleading with the Virgin Mary to drive Putin and his cronies from her church. The girls entered the cathedral as any other members of the flock, but once inside, they stripped off their coats and donned colorful masks, in flagrant disregard of the cathedral’s code of conduct. The invaders then broke into the altar (an area reserved for the priests and thus expressly forbidden to women), where they performed some aerobics-y maneuvers for all of thirty seconds before being chased out by security. When a retooled video of the events appeared on YouTube (accompanied by the song “Virgin Mary, Drive Putin Out,” and edited so as to seem much longer), the state was forced to act. In early March, three of the performers— Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich—were arrested and officially charged with felony hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, an offense carrying a sentence of up to seven years in prison.

Pussy Riot, Punk Prayer, 2012.

Notoriously delayed for months after the original trial date accidentally coincided with Putin’s election day, the case grew in popularity (partially thanks to the surefire search engine terms “Free” and “Pussy”). In response to the barrage of international attention, the trial itself was to be conducted with unprecedented transparency, in full view of journalists and streaming feeds, all in dedicated contrast to the infamous trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which took place in the same courtroom a few years ago. Thus the world was given front row seats to the theater of the absurd that is the current Russian legal system.

In one of her court statements, Tolokonnikova cited the early-twentieth-century avant-garde collective OBERIU as a precedent for Pussy Riot. That group’s surrealist spirit certainly prevailed over the courtroom proceedings, where inconvenient evidence was ignored, defense witnesses denied, and “dialogue” emerged that rivaled the brilliant inanity of Ilf and Petrov. One witness, having elaborated the emotional suffering brought on by the thirty-second sight of the girls in the church, was questioned as to why he would masochistically repeat that torture by watching the performance on YouTube. The judge overruled this question before it could be answered, as she did the following questions, which hinted that the same witness had testified on the church’s behalf in other notable cases and that the young man may be professionally offended. Another witness was dismissed as inadequate to determine whether or not the girls might have been possessed after it was revealed that he was not, in fact, a medical expert trained in the field of demonic possession. Meanwhile, the court allowed the presumably “expert” prosecutor to rant on the downward spiral of “so-called contemporary art,” which he saw as ushered in by “artists like Oleg Kulik and Ekaterina Degot.” The announcement set the art community to speculate what kind of clandestine art practice the latter, an esteemed critic and curator, may be practicing.

Without witnesses, the defense found consolation in the escalating gestures of support from international icons on the outside, including Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono (who may as well be deities within secular Russia). During her August 7 concert, Madonna one-upped Anthony Kiedis’s homemade Pussy Riot T-shirt by having someone Sharpie FREE PUSSY RIOT directly on her back. These heartfelt displays were welcomed, but with Russian celebrities keeping suspiciously quiet, and with statements like “punk rock is not a crime” bouncing around the Web, one had reason to wonder how well these pop stars understood their new pet cause.

After all, this wasn’t about Pussy Riot’s musical sensibilities or even their right to protest; it was about whether blasphemy, or “offending the feelings of the Orthodox church,” is criminal under Russian law. Pussy Riot describe their transgression as “having said a prayer in a church in the wrong intonation.” (Those who have watched the video clip understand that this was a very strategic understatement.) They insist that their misstep was ethical, not criminal. The “Punk Prayer” was a plea to the Virgin Mary to become a “feminist” and drive Putin out of the church, destroying the neo-Byzantine alliance of church and state that they see as harmful to the former. As one line snarls, “Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin /
 Better to believe in God, bitch.”

K8 Hardy reading at the Ace Hotel, August 16, 2012. (Photo: Mark Kendall)

In her concluding statement, Alyokhina said she realized Pussy Riot did not have any chance of “winning” the trial, but that she still considered the group victorious for revealing the extent of corruption under Putin. “Thousands of people will now hear our statements,” she prophesized. And so it was that August 16 and 17 were declared Global Pussy Riot Days, with readings of the court proceedings taking place around the world. One of these readings convened Thursday night in the Liberty Hall of New York’s Ace Hotel, a speakeasy-style basement where invited guests took turns on the modest, candlelit stage.

Punk veteran and cultural critic Johanna Fateman got the evening started, looking the part in pink leggings and a bright green dress. Actress ChloŽ Sevigny, wispily demure in a white eyelet baby doll frock, was the perfect choice to read Alyokhina’s solemn description of prison life. (“Nina keeps saying it won’t get any worse.”) Cult heroes Mx. Justin Vivian Bond and Eileen Myles both drew hoots and catcalls from the audience, delivering their statements with a conviction that felt as though they had composed the sentiments themselves. Artist and activist K8 Hardy—wearing a shirt that featured Reagan and Gorbachev jacking each other off to the caption MISSILE VERIFICATION—received no less a response for her impassioned delivery of Pussy Riot lyrics. Hardy was a natural, pausing to raise an eyebrow after her enunciation of “discontent with the culture of male hysteria,” and clearly reveling in the phrase “Orthodox religion of a hard penis.” Karen Finley read everything in a voice that wavered between someone telling scary stories in the bunk at summer camp and someone trying to whine her way out of a long-overdue breakup, while writer Masha Gessen made for a welcome surprise guest, pulling excerpts from her own coverage of the trial as if it were a stand-up routine. The bumbling cast of characters—the security guard, so traumatized by the thirty seconds that he has been unable to report to work for two months; the janitrix, who, when asked if feminism is a bad word, replies, “In church, it is”—inspired more and more raucous laughter, until it started to sink in that This Is Real Life.

The selected texts—ranging from court documents to letters to some of Alyokhina’s poetry—repeatedly returned to biblical citations. Alyokhina in particular flaunted her mastery of scripture, pointing out that the definition of blasphemy the church used in their accusations was a quotation of the charge the Jews leveled against Jesus. (“You might want to have checked your Bible before quoting it,” she chided.) The accused scored more points when she objected to the prosecution’s constant refrain of “so-called”—a modifier once flung in court against poet Joseph Brodsky—but concluded, “This trial is a so-called trial. I am not afraid of you. The only thing you can deprive me of is so-called freedom.”

“Sometimes maybe it just takes actions like Pussy Riot’s to make way for meaningful dialogue,” curator Pati Hertling observed from the seat beside me. “Think back to the moments that started revolutions. They weren’t always the most intelligent ideas, but they allowed for those ideas to be heard.” Irina Prokhorova would agree. In a statement released before the trial, she admitted that it’s “amusing that the catalyst for the maturing of an intellectual revolution comes not from the underlying efforts of Russian Kants, Voltaires, or Adam Smiths, but from the antics of the girls from Pussy Riot. Then again, what can we say? We’re living in a postmodern era.”

Left: A protester at the march in solidarity with Pussy Riot, New York City, August 17, 2012. (Photo: Kate Sutton). Right: ChloŽ Sevigny reading at the Ace Hotel, August 16, 2012. (Photo: Mark Kendall)

On Friday, August 17, by 3 PM Moscow time (8 AM in New York), the verdict was live-streamed across the world. The accused traded small smiles and rolled their eyes as Judge Syrova recounted the trial line by line, particularly when she read aloud the lyrics to their Punk Prayer, essentially reperforming it. Before pronouncing the sentence—two years in a penal colony for each of them—the court acknowledged the catalogue of potential attenuating circumstances, including the fact that both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina have small children. Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich could not stifle their giggles when the court declared that they had minor mental deficiencies (evidenced by their “ambition” and “stubbornness,” among other traits). Alyokhina, previously established as “a good person” (“She writes poetry”), was deemed to have no disorder but was pronounced “emotionally unstable” and “too easily manipulated.”

If “confidence” and a “proclivity to expressing one’s opinion” are now signs of a mental disorder, the ruling in the Pussy Riot case was enough to challenge anyone’s sanity. (Perhaps this explains how chess champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov could be arrested for allegedly biting a police officer outside the Moscow courtroom.) To gauge New York’s reaction, I turned off trial coverage and headed to the Russian Consulate on Ninety-First Street and Park Avenue, where the crowd was smaller than anticipated, and certainly smaller than the lines that had snaked outside the Ace. A woman in an acid-yellow dress explained that part of the protest was already en route to Times Square, while police rounded up any masked protesters who tarried behind. (There’s an antiquated “anti-mask” law in New York City that is used against protesters sporting balaclavas.) A girl with a guitar and a pink LEGALIZE GAY! T-shirt strummed a Pussy Riot–themed song that sounded an awful lot like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” It felt a little that way too, as I watched officers march a newly arrested protester to the van, unceremoniously stripping off her mask. She unleashed a Pantene-ready smile-and-hair-toss, a vision of radical chic.

Kate Sutton