Rethinking secularism:

Pussy Riot’s punk prayer

posted by Colin Jager

On February 21, 2012, five members of a Russian punk collective called Pussy Riot entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Singing “Mother of God, Chase Putin Out!,” and clad in brightly colored dresses, leggings, and balaclavas, the women danced, kneeled, and crossed themselves in front of the Cathedral’s high altar. Within less than a minute they were apprehended by security guards and removed from the sanctuary. On March 3rd, the day before the controversial re-election of Vladimir Putin, three members of the band were arrested. They were charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” And in August they were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.

Aided by social networking sites, blogs, and popular YouTube videos (found here and here), Pussy Riot’s plight became something of an international media sensation. Amnesty International and Madonna took up the cause, and British Prime Minister David Cameron questioned Putin about it in a face-to-face meeting. Indeed, as some commentators noted there did seem something almost pre-packaged about the whole event, as though it were designed for western consumption.

Fascinatingly, however, religion played a central role within this media event. Many orthodox clergy were quick to label the performance blasphemous, noting its “sacrilegious humiliation of the age-old principles aimed at inflicting even deeper wounds to Orthodox Christians”; claiming that the women’s “chaotically waving arms and legs, dancing and hopping…cause[ed] a negative, even more insulting resonance in the feelings and souls of the believers”; and describing the performance as “desecrating the cathedral, and offending the feelings of believers.”

The Orthodox Church occupies an odd space in relationship to the secular power of the state. Historically aligned with the czars, it was driven largely underground during the Soviet era, thus becoming one site of opposition to politics as usual. In recent years it has emerged as a potent political force in Russia, one largely aligned with Putin’s hold on power. In her closing statement, Yekaterina Samutsevich, one of the members of Pussy Riot, positioned their performance in precisely this way. The cozy relationship between church and state in contemporary Russia, she claimed, “has required considerable quantities of professional lighting and video equipment, air time on national television for hours-long live broadcasts, and numerous background shoots for morally and ethically edifying news stories, where the Patriarch’s well-constructed speeches would…help the faithful make the correct political choice during a difficult time for Putin preceding the election….Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” violated the integrity of the media image that the authorities had spent such a long time generating and maintaining, and revealed its falsity.”

So far, the performance feels like a classic punk gesture: a mixture of aesthetic, political, and religious dissidence inserted deliberately into spaces of order and control. Perhaps its most obvious precursor is the intervention staged by several young lettrist poets at Notre Dame Cathedral, on Easter Sunday, 1950. In the middle of the service Michel Mourre, dressed as a Dominican monk, climbed into a pulpit and began to read a sermon/poem that condemned the Catholic Church for “infecting the world with its funeral morality,” and announced that God was dead “so that Man may live at last.” As Greil Marcus details in Lipstick Traces, the response was dramatic: the Cathedral’s guards attacked the four with their swords, and the crowd chased them out of the Cathedral and down to the Seine, where they were apprehended by the police.

The afterlife of these two events, however, is remarkably different. Though the Notre Dame incident was much more shocking and disruptive, it drew a light response from the authorities: of the conspirators, only Mourre was held for 11 days and then released, and the event itself quickly faded away. By contrast, the disruption caused by Pussy Riot, though more modest in every sense, has had the more dramatic afterlife: the two-year sentences, the international attention, and the clear belief on the part of the authorities that, the accusation of blasphemy notwithstanding, the real stakes are political. As one of the prosecution lawyers put it in a remarkable example of official paranoia: “Lurching behind [Pussy Riot] are the real enemies of our state and of the Orthodox Christianity; those who instigated this multipurpose provocation are hiding behind Tolokonnikova’s group, and [there are also others] hiding behind those who are hiding behind them.”

While there are doubtless many reasons for the divergent responses, the really striking difference is that while Mourre’s group had conceived its gesture as boldly and simple-mindedly anti-religious, in the spirit of French atheist anti-clericalism stretching back to the Revolution and the philosophes, Pussy Riot categorically refused the government’s claim that they were motivated by religious hatred. Indeed, all three women used their closing statements to engage in a debate over the meaning of the gospels themselves. In Catholic France, even in 1950, blasphemy was apparently separable from a threat to the state. Not so, apparently, in the Russia of the twenty-first century.

Maria Alyokhina, for example, asserted that for the Orthodox Church “[t]he Gospels are no longer understood as revelation, which they have been from the very beginning, but rather as a monolithic chunk that can be disassembled into quotations to be shoved in wherever necessary.” Noting that Jesus himself had been accused of blasphemy, Alyokhina goes on: “I think that religious truth should not be static, that it is essential to understand the instances and paths of spiritual development, the trials of a human being, his duplicity, his splintering. That for one’s self to form it is essential to experience these things.” And she makes the link to contemporary art explicit: “all of these processes—they acquire meaning in art and in philosophy. Including contemporary art. An artistic situation can and, in my opinion, must contain its own internal conflict.” Here Alyokhina mounts a defense of dissidence, intervention, rupture, and conflict—the aesthetics of punk, to be sure, but not far removed from the language of “contradiction” favored by critics like Theodor Adorno—by aligning them with what she calls “religious truth:” namely, the splintering and the spiritual development that become manifest only when the Gospel is treated as a process of revelation rather than a “monolithic chunk.” Moreover, Alyokhina’s distinction between process and monolith implicitly reflects back upon the long history of doctrine in the history of Western Christianity. Historians have noted, for example, that questions of doctrine and belief achieve a new importance during the early modern period, or what is sometimes called the “confessional period,” when the chaotic politics of Western Europe in the aftermath of the Renaissance and Reformation led to an emphasis on religious uniformity. Some scholars have further proposed that this process of reform and uniformity is a secular development, insofar as its real goal is not religion per se but the consolidation of state power and control over its subjects. When she aligns monolithic doctrine with state power, Alyokhina implicitly offers a similar diagnosis.

The radical power of that diagnosis becomes most clear in Yekaterina Samutsevich’s closing statement: “In our performance,” she writes, “we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture, thus suggesting that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch, and Putin, but that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia.” Most striking here, perhaps, is the language of “uniting” orthodox and protest culture, rather than setting them against each other. This is done, Samutsevich suggests, in the name of a democratic ideal: both orthodox and protest culture are properties of the people rather than of one group or another. The performance, on this analysis, becomes a visual and aural demonstration of what Alyokhina had called “internal conflict,” something posed by all three women as the space in which religious revelation happens. Thus art, religion, and the state are not conceptually separated here but deliberately mixed up, in the name of religious truth.

The sincerity of these various statements is of course an open question. While the women were careful to acknowledge their “respect” for what they called “Orthodox culture,” their words came far short of a confession of faith. Perhaps they also hoped that the repudiation of anti-clericalism would help their legal case. Moreover the statements themselves, which draw on a series of iconoclastic heroes from Socrates to Solzhenitsyn but return, again and again, to the figure of Jesus, might seem over-cooked. Was Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” really analogous to Socrates’ risky performances in ancient Athens, or to Jesus’ confrontations with worldly authorities? For his part, the theologian Harvey Cox, writing in the Boston Globe, is happy to place Pussy Riot in a prophetic tradition; “The prophet Isaiah walked through the streets naked and barefoot for three years to warn his people of their impending captivity. Hosea married a prostitute to shame people into recognizing their infidelity to God. Ezekiel baked and ate bread he made of cow dung. These prophets often chose the temple area in which to act out their warnings and denunciations. Jesus followed suit. He overturned the tables of the profiteers in the temple courtyard itself.…Protests and reforms often begin in religious venues. When an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted his complaints against the papacy…, he tacked them up on the door of the cathedral itself. The Scottish Reformation started in Edinburgh when an angry woman hurled a stool at the head of a preacher…”

Emphasizing that Christianity does not have a patent on such religious innovators, Cox also references Gandhi, who “led nonviolent bands of “untouchables” into the Hindu temple precincts from which the higher castes banned them.

It may seem a bit much to compare thirty seconds of amateurish dancing and shouting with such heroes of the faith. In most cases, the dramatic interventions of true religious revolutionaries are the result of long-standing oppositional practices. Though the stool-throwing woman in Edinburgh might be a distant ancestor of Pussy Riot, Cox is closer to the mark when he notes that the group stands within the Orthodox tradition of the yurodivy, or “holy fools.” “Orthodox theologians for centuries have recognized this as an authentic from of asceticism. Holy fools are not dismissed as crazy or criminal, but as people who, in using annoying or provocative acts, are saying something people need to hear.”

Does Pussy Riot hate religion or love it? Or merely respect it? Are they threats to the state or its victims? Is their Gospel-inflected self-defense opportunistic or genuine? Are they punks, prophets or holy fools? Is the event itself an example of a resurgent secularism or a resurgent religion? These questions and—to use Alyokhina’s word—conflicts are playing out simultaneously in a Russia lurching toward modernity and in a media sphere that exists (almost) everywhere but nowhere in particular. This suggests how much we need a truly global analysis of both secularism and religion.

[Thanks to Anahid Nersessian for first calling my attention to the religious and secular dimensions of this event.]

Tags: , , , , ,

Printer-Friendly Version


Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.