Is Punk Rock the Crime? Pussy Riot and Putin’s Church
Art & Australia, Sydney, February, 2013
‘Punk Rock is Not a Crime!’ was Amnesty International’s slogan in support of Pussy Riot. But Western assertions of the sanctity of free expression have been as unhelpful as the Orthodox Church and Russian state’s putative defense of religious beliefs. The general tone of the debate surrounding the group’s action has served to obscure the concrete politics of the gesture. To better understand Pussy Riot’s intervention one must examine the wider context – including the site, Russia’s ongoing culture wars, and the relationship between the Orthodox Church and Putin’s government.

Should young ladies be able to burst into a church and sully its sacred pulpit through unhinged gestures and a show of bare arms? To begin to answer this question we must ask whether Orthodox activists should be able to storm a museum and destroy the works on display. This is what happened at Moscow’s Andrei Sakharov museum in 2003, when the exhibition Caution, Religion! was defiled by persons objecting to artists’ reflections upon the rise of religion in post-Soviet Russia. When the director called the police to report the disturbance it was he who ended up in court. Later, in 2007, another show at this location featuring works that had been censored in numerous state exhibitions caused the curator – a senior figure at the Tretyakov, one of the country’s most important museums – to lose his job. It is against this background that we must view Pussy Riot’s action as the latest salvo in an ongoing fight for the last vestiges of civil society.

Central to this dispute is the question – what kind of art does Russia need? It is a query that was being asked in 1917 by the avant-gardes, and one that was answered all too finally in 1934 at the Soviet Writers Congress, when Socialist Realism was proclaimed the official style. It is interesting to note that, today, both Putin and the Church seem to favour Zurab Tseretseli – the most prominent exponent of monumental Soviet-style sculpture still working. The man who is well known for depicting a bronze Putin in his judo uniform was also responsible for creating the high reliefs of the Christ the Saviour cathedral, an addition to the original decorative scheme. His is an art in the service of official power, and a far cry from the practice of the Voina group from which Pussy Riot sprang. Though Stalin is long dead, such echoes of ‘official’ art reverberate deeply, only faintly counterbalanced by the oligarch-friendly baubles produced by easel painters such as Dubosarsky & Vinogradov and the cynical realism of video works by the AES+F group. The space for alternatives beyond this rock and a hard place is filled by performance. With the left-wing conceptualism of Chto Delat running a bit too dry, and the macho shock tactics of the Moscow Actionism of the early 1990s – pioneered by Oleg Kulik and Alexander Brener – a spent force, Pussy Riot’s politics, passion and eye for showbiz has finally drawn media attention to one possible answer: Russia needs art that will not acquiece to the hegemonic triad of State, Church and Oligarchy.

Just as the Christ the Saviour Cathedral showcases work by the nearest thing to an official state artist it also serves as a platform for the sacralization of Putin’s government and the re-alignment of Church and State redolent of imperial Russia. Rebuilt in 2000 at great expense to taxpayers after its 1931 destruction at the hands of Stalin’s goons, it now serves as the seat of Russia’s pope – Patriarch Kirill, a former KGB general. From beneath its onion domes he has blessed Russia’s nuclear arsenal and admonished young men to join the war in Chechnya. Perhaps this is okay. But the church has also been profaned, some say, by its extensive business interests in tobacco and alcohol, amongst other lucrative areas in which it pays no tax. Patriarch Kirill wears a $30,000 Breguet watch. ‘The Missionary's in class for cash’, go the lyric’s to Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer, ‘Meet him there, and pay his stash.’

Even so, there is do doubt that Pussy Riot challenged the religious mores of Orthodox believers by staging their performance in an area of the cathedral in which, traditionally, only male priests may enter. But whatever one’s views on gender-normative religious practice, the wider relevance of the group’s feminist provocation was set into sharper focus during the public debate that ensued. That the Deputy Prime Minister saw fit call Madonna a ‘moralizing slut’ for her pro Pussy Riot statements during a recent Moscow concert is but one example. The group has clearly picked a scab from which all manner of social concerns have begun, finally, to seep into the open.

Of course the West loves it. The ladies’ writings from prison recall the Soviet pantheon of dissident literature. The performance may have begun in the Cathedral but it continued – and became more sophisticated - in the courtroom, with their grace under show trial and eloquent statements. But whatever we may think, the West will not change Russia. That requires citizens as a committed as the two women currently in prison.