Pussy Riot Verdict

08.18.12

Pussy Riot, Modern Russian Women Trapped in Putin’s Time Machine

The Moscow trial of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot, which ended Friday with a two-year jail sentence for ‘felony hooliganism,’ showed just how far Russia is traveling back in time. Masha Gessen on the 17th-century court.

On the eve of the verdict I found myself in New York City, at a reading of some of the Pussy Riot members’ statements, letters, and poems. I was on vacation with my kids, but being away from Moscow, where everyone I know was protesting outside the courthouse, made me feel even more helpless than I did when I was there with them a few days earlier. So I asked if I could help with the reading.

The next day three members of Pussy Riot would be convicted of felony hooliganism and sentenced to two years in penal colonies—for a protest they staged inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior on Feb. 21. The cathedral had been virtually empty during the morning hours, and the protest lasted all of 40 seconds before the women were removed by security. But church staff members testified during the trial that they were deeply traumatized by observing the young women in brightly colored dresses and balaclavas lip-sync to a recording of what Pussy Riot calls its punk prayer: “Mother of God, cast Putin out.”

I listened to one of New York’s performance artists read a Pussy Riot manifesto sent from jail. “Patriarch Kirill [head of the Russian Orthodox Church] has repeatedly evangelized on behalf of the figure of Putin—clearly no saint—and continues to urge his parishioners not to participate in protest rallies...We respond to the political activity of the faithful, and counter the patriarch’s efforts to distort the truth on behalf of all believers. And we needed to sing it at the altar, not on the street in front of the temple—that is, in a place where women are strictly forbidden. The fact is, the church is promoting a very conservative worldview that does not fit into such values as freedom of choice, the formation of political identity, gender identity, or sexual identity, critical thinking, multiculturalism, or attention to contemporary culture. It seems to us that the Orthodox Church currently lacks all of these virtues.”

I suddenly realized these texts sounded better in English than they do in Russian. It wasn’t that the translators had improved the quality of the writing: the originals, which I had read in Russian, had been clear and cogent and surprisingly erudite for three very young women—they range in ages from 22 to 30—who had been known for staging radical actions, not for writing political commentary. The problem with the writing in Russian was that the women were speaking the language of the modern world in a country that is rapidly traveling backward in time.

Those of us who live in Russia often feel like we have been forced into a time machine. Now the rest of the world has seen it happen: three women shaped by 20th-century thought tried by a 17th-century court. Consider the testimony of altar warden Vasily Tsyganyuk, classified as a victim because he claimed to have suffered psychological trauma as a result of the performance.

VICTIM: “Those who are possessed can exhibit different behaviors. They can scream, beat their heads against the floor, jump up and down...”

DEFENSE ATTORNEY NIKOLAI POLOZOV: “Do they dance?”

VICTIM: “Well, no.”

JUDGE: “Stop questioning him about those who are possessed. Tsyganyuk is not a medical professional and is not qualified to render a diagnosis.”

Imagine what would have happened if the judges in the Salem witch trials had encountered not their contemporaries but ours.

Or the testimony of another altar warden, Pavel Zheleznov, also classified as a victim. He described trying to restrain the women at the cathedral. One of them, he said, broke free and began crossing herself.

JUDGE: “Did she cross herself the way all citizens do?”

VICTIM: “I don’t remember exactly. But in essence it was a parody of crossing herself, a satire. People should cross themselves with piety and without rushing. She crossed herself kind of rapidly. This was not the sort of cross with which Orthodox Christians should bless themselves.”
Or consider this. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the informal leader of the group—and also the youngest of the three women—asked many of the prosecution’s witnesses and “victims” whether they considered the word feminist to be obscene. All gave the stock answer: yes, if it is said in a church. “For an Orthodox believer it is an insult, an obscenity,” said cathedral security guard Sergei Beloglazov. When Tolokonnikova asked him whether he knew the meaning of the word, the judge disallowed the question.

Imagine what would have happened if the judges in the Salem witch trials had encountered not their contemporaries but ours. Or just read the verdict rendered Friday by judge Marina Syrova. She quoted a court psychiatrist who had concluded that Tolokonnikova suffers from a “mixed personality disorder” with symptoms such as “stubbornness and a tendency to insist categorically on her own opinion as well as a tendency toward oppositional forms of behavior.” Sound awkward in English? That’s because it’s not just from a different world but from a different era.

Fifteen minutes after quoting the psychiatrist, the judge announced the women’s sentences. The members of Pussy Riot, seated behind a Plexiglass partition lest they escape or attack someone, laughed. Outside the courthouse, where a protest had been underway for hours, some people cried.

Being transported back to the 17th century is kind of funny. But mostly, it’s heartbreakingly sad.