Smartypantses On Trial

Or should I say, smartydresses on trial.

Or should I say, punk rock on trial.

Or should I say, how can a nation look anyone in the eye after this?

So we know that the Pussy Riot trial is a sham. We know that Madonna’s support renders the group morally and politically unbesmirchable.

But it turns out that my earlier indignation about the Times’ Style section, fashion-based coverage of the trial is one hundred and a billion percent justified.

Their clothing is as much on trial as their words and their choice of religio-politically charged venue.

And this is where listening to some riot grrrl music, or understanding the world through feminist methodology, or generally thinking that women have rights, can help us.

Because there is really no other way to interpret the exchange between the defendants and the first prosecutorial witness, a church employee named Lyubov Sokologorskaya. Being a woman is a criminal act.

Yes, Sokologorskaya said, their clothing was mostly tight and bright and generally inappropriate for a holy place. She spotted a bra strap; one dress had bright stripes. The worst, though, was that they had fooled her: two of them, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, she said, had approached her and asked her which icons to pray to for various blessings. In the meantime, she realized, their co-conspirators were climbing the railing blocking off the steps leading to the altar, steps on which no woman is allowed to stand. Then they shed their coats and began to jump around, movements she described as “devilish jerking.”

“Have you ever seen any devils?” defense attorney Violetta Volkova asked.

The judge interceded and struck down the question, as she would for most of the defense’s questions.

“I just wanted to clarify, how does she know how devils jerk themselves around?” Volkova yelled, as she would for most of the trial.

The question was struck.

“They raised their legs so high that everything past their waists, you could see,” Sokologorskaya almost moaned. “They were egging each other on, to see who could raise her leg the highest.”

And later, members of the band were allowed to question the witness:

“Is ‘feminist’ a bad word?” Tolokonnikova asked, referring to the part of the punk prayer in which they implored the Virgin to become a feminist.

“In a church, yes.”

“What dress was I wearing?”

“You know what your dress was like,” Sokologorskaya snapped. “It’s probably why you wanted to raise your legs.

“Feminism” is a blasphemous word in a church. Which, you know, we knew. That’s not just in Russia. That’s not part of every religion, or every religious experience, or even, perhaps, a majority opinion. Maybe.

But raise your hand if you are surprised to learn this legal, recorded trial testimony against some artists making a political statement, drawing of a rich legacy of protest art and performance with deep roots in Western culture.

That’s right. No hands are up. No one is surprised.

And not that it matters, but the dresses in question were pretty modest. Again: it doesn’t matter. The absurdity of the trial overrides my feminist brain so that I want to shout wait! their dresses were fine!

And not that it matters again, but punk rock dancing is just about the opposite of a strip tease. Which is the point.

And not that it matters again again, but these women are extremely smart. N+1 published translations of their closing statements, which may restore ones faith in the concept of citizenry.

Yekaterina Samutsevich reminds the courtroom of Putin’s cynical manipulation of the church’s role in Soviet history, contextualizing their choice of performance venue.

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. In our performance 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.

Maria Alyokhina implicitly comments on the fact that they have been starved and sleep-deprived while in prison.

Another element [of this process] is becoming aware of this government functioning as a performance, a play. That in reality turns into chaos. The surface-level organization of the regime reveals the disorganization and inefficiency of most of its activities. And it’s obvious that this doesn’t lead to any real governance. On the contrary, people start to feel an ever-stronger sense of being lost—including in time and space.

And then busts out some old time religion to make a new time critique:

The 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—in any of its documents, for any of their purposes.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova describes the ways that the trial has connected them with unknown supporters globally and domestically–including some of their own jailers. And the ways that punk’s emphasis on simplicity, populism, and protest will eventually triumph.

We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [the holy foolishness] of punk.

Passion, total honesty, and naïveté are superior to the hypocrisy, mendacity, and false modesty that are used to disguise crime. The so-called leading figures of our state stand in the Cathedral with righteous faces on, but, in their cunning, their sin is greater than our own.

Every day, more people understand that if the system is attacking three young women who performed in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior for thirty seconds with such vehemence, it only means that this system fears the truth, sincerity, and straightforwardness we represent.

I love that description of punk performance art as “holy foolishness.” Love it.

And for more on-the-ground context of the trial and the current protest movement, check out statements from those who translated Pussy Riot’s words for us.

The trial is a spectacle, but so is the government persecuting these women.

Beyond the translated page is the stern voice of Judge Marina Syrova, who reminds the audience not to applaud the defendants, for, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are not at the theater.” The press has often made use of formulas like “courtroom drama” and “show trial” to describe the ongoing proceedings against Pussy Riot, but it was not until August 8, 2012, the day that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevitch delivered their closing statements, that one began to sense that we were witnessing the penultimate act of a full-blown romantic tragedy. Pussy Riot is a performance art collective and their latest “action” is above all a brilliant performance. The women’s wide-ranging, erudite, impassioned speeches—with their urgent calls for truth, justice and freedom—evoke a recognizable tradition of idealistic, civic-minded dramatic heroes, who, through their defiant words and deeds, demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice everything in order to prove their inner freedom in the face of “so-called” necessity.

—Maksim Hanukai

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2 thoughts on “Smartypantses On Trial

  1. innamazing says:

    Very interesting. I enjoyed learning more about this polemic. My blog is about Russia, you can visit if you want, although I don’t really talk about the pussy riot episode. Cheers, Inna.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you, Inna!

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