Essay//An Explanation for the Severe Treatment of Pussy Riot

The Severe Treatment of Pussy Riot

In the year 2011 a group of young women found themselves to have similar objections to Putin plus the interconnectedness of the church and state in a supposedly secular state. They formed a feminist punk protest group called Pussy Riot. The women collective protests by performing in a peaceful non-violent manner with the use of art, metaphor, music and provocative texts at uncommon and unexpected places (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer 09.50). On the 21st of February 2012, five young women dressed in colourful dresses and balaclavas performed an unexpected punk concert at the altar in the usually silent and peaceful Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, Russia. The Pussy Riot members were singing a self-styled punk prayer with sneering background guitars ‘’asking Virgin Mary to deliver Russia from the impending re-election of its former President Vladimir Putin’’ (Rourke and Wiget 234). After twenty seconds, the church workers and security pulled the girls away from the altar and two weeks later they were handed over to the police (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer 04.11). The three women were convicted for an act of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, which was not their intention as they were protesting against the Putin regime. After six months of being held in custody, the trial finally started and attention for the case spread throughout the world, which led to numerous protests against their custody. In the end, Nadezhda and Mariya were given two years of imprisonment, which is incredibly long for a crime that they did not commit. In this essay, the reason why the Russian government treated a minor provocative yet nonviolent protest so harshly and repressive will be explored by looking at theories of religion and examining the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.
Pussy Riot’s performance in the recently rebuild Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was not executed out of religious hatred or hooliganism, their true intention was to protest against the interconnectedness of the church and state in Russia. “Did you see where the Easter services were held? This Cathedral symbolizes the union of church and state. That’s not how it should be’’ (Nadezhda, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer 6.11). The participation of political leaders in services of the Church is usual in countries that follow Christian traditions, such as England, where important events are held in Westminster Abbey. The novelty of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow makes Putin’s presence at ceremonies extraordinary and it illustrates the new marriage between church and state (Denysenko 1066). In other words, in England attendance of politicians at Church ceremonies is based on traditions before secularism, whereas in Russia this has become a new tradition created in an already supposedly secular state, which is remarkable. So, one could say that the stern punishment of Pussy Riot is an effect of the formation of a desecularising regime in Post-Soviet Russia, which is characterized by the merge of church and state (Schroeder and Karpov 1). Moreover, Pussy Riot claims that Patriarch Kiril of the Russian Orthodox Church uses his power in church to support Putin’s position in the government. This could be true, as Kiril has been spotted with a watch worth more than 30.000 euros. One could speculate that this watch has been funded by the state as an act of reciprocity (Walker 1). Nevertheless, the Russian government charged the three women for wearing inappropriate clothing in a space for holy rituals and disrupting social order by acting out of hooliganism. The question remains, why were they treated so sternly and repressive by parts of society and the Russian state?

To start off, concepts like ‘the holy’ and ‘sacred’ explain part of the behaviour of Pussy Riot, the Russian state and Patriarch Kiril’s followers (Fasching). Hostility to the stranger is part of the sacred, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is a sacred space since opposing statements are received unfriendly in this space. Moreover, it is considered a taboo to deliver critique on the morals of this sacred society since these morals –or sacred customs- are the way they should be. In other words, the situation is like this since it is ought to be like this, ‘’is = ought’’. A sacred society consists of a finite set of answers because the world is the way it is. Having doubts about morality is therefore something that is discouraged in a sacred society and is given a powerful response to, just like what happened with Pussy Riot. However, the experience of the holy encourages hospitality to the stranger and it consists of ethics, which apply more to the whole of society. For example, ‘’do no harm’’ is an overarching ethic that should be applied to all living humans. In holy communities therefore, there is room for and encouragement of doubt and openness to the infinite. The way things are is opposed by questioning the sacred order of things – Is vs. Ought. This dichotomy of the sacred and holy could explain why Pussy Riot was treated so harshly by the Russian state. Pussy riot consists of people who do not agree with the current politics (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer 1.20), so they were acting out of the holy by questioning and criticising the sacred order. For instance at their fourth performance on Red Square in Moscow they sang: ‘’Riot is here to abort the [sacred] system!’’. This is an attack on the Russian society’s sacred doctrine of ‘’is = ought’’, since they are actually criticising the sacred order where there is absolutely no room for doubt. Pussy Riot is seen by the Russian state as the profane chaotic sphere of danger to its sacred order; they are therefore being seen as strangers and treated inhospitable. Patriarch Kiril even speaks of them as doing Satan’s work; therefore they should be punished harshly (Walker 1) and he calls for a mass prayer against the Pussy Riot movements. In this mass prayer, however, people spoke of Pussy Riot as their enemy by saying that they are witches or demons and that they should be hanged. These kind of hostile responses to the stranger belong to the sacred. Besides not being open to critique, the Russian state punishes the ones delivering critique and therefore, one could safely say that the Russian state and Patriarch Kiril are acting out of the sacred, which explains their firm reaction against the holy Pussy Riot.

Additionally, Fasching’s concept of doubling could also explain the stern treatment of Pussy Riot. Doubling entails the detachment and deniability of responsibility and having a dual personality in personal and professional life. The judges in the Pussy Riot case might deny responsibility since it is their public duty to follow the regime and its laws. They are in the end the ones that gave the harsh verdict, however, personally they might not agree with Pussy Riot’s punishment. The concept of doubling could obviously apply to all roles played in the conflict; for example, Pussy Riot also takes on a different role when performing.

Secondly, Durkheim’s theory on religion can be used. He also uses the sacred in his theory of religion, however in a different way than Fasching. According to Durkheim, the sacred is explained by its unifying function in society. Religion has social cohesion as its underlying function, which is absolutely necessary; he even claims that without the presence of religion there would not be a society. By worshipping the sacred, the community is actually worshipping itself and thus reviving and strengthening the importance of community. The Pussy Riot movement caused society to be imbalanced because the opposing reactions and protests they evoked by their performance and following imprisonment. Because Pussy Riot is perceived as a massive threat to society’s religion, which could actually be seen as the Russian community following Durkheim’s line of reasoning, the strong reaction against their protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is explained. As mentioned above, mass prayers were organized against the Pussy Riot movement (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer 28.56) at this Cathedral, which could be seen as an act of making people feel part of the community again and to stress the importance of community, in order to strengthen society. Pussy Riot being seen as a threat to community could therefore cause the severe reaction of the Russian State and Patriarch Kiril and his followers.

Thirdly, Marx’s theory on religion could be applied to this case. According to Marx, however, this ‘’religious distress is at the same time expression of real [economic] distress and the protest against real distress’’ (Pals 134). In other words, the suffering the prayers devote to Pussy Riot is in fact caused by emotions flowing out of class struggle. Religion is, therefore, ‘’the opium of the people’’ since it provides them with an illusionary, comforting reason for their misery and an escape route. A woman at the mass prayer called the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour ‘’the heart of Russia’’(Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, 31.50), which refers to Marx statement of religion being ‘’the heart in the heartless world’’ (Pals 134). Religion acts as a sunbeam on a cloudy and rainy day, it dazzles one from the actual situation. Pussy Riot seems to be a few steps further than others in Russia since they abandon religion and realise that they are being oppressed, as a woman and as a citizen, so they rise up and protest. Moreover, Marx argues for abolishment of religion since this is the only way the real and economic misery could be solved. Pussy Riot adapts this statement in a more sophisticated manner, they do respect religion however, they do not agree with state and church to be merged and still they use texts like ‘’God is shit’’. So, Pussy Riot’s view on society and religion could be explained by Marx’s theory on religion.

Fourthly, Weber’s concepts legitimate authority could also help in understanding the severe treatment of Pussy Riot. According to Breuilly, Weber distinguishes three types of legitimate authority: traditional, legal-rational and charismatic authority (478). Traditional authority is confirmed by customs and might be patriarchal, personal or magical charisma, legal-rational authority is derived from bureaucratic domination and charismatic authority is validated by extraordinary characteristics or ‘’personal magnetism’’ (Pals 166 and Breuilly 478). Patriarch Kiril’s speech encourages his followers to be involved into what happened in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which has led to mass prayers against Pussy Riot (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer: 33.26). This could be seen as traditional authority, which could explain the strong reaction of Russian Orthodox Church followers. Moreover, Putin could be seen as a combination of legal-rational and charismatic authority. Putin entered the illegitimate Russian politics (Ossinovski 20) when he already has been a highly charismatic individual, as he used to have career in foreign intelligence (Tempest 23). This enabled him to play with the desperate desires of the citizens, by for instance visiting poor villages and censoring media, which lead to many people looking up to him. Additionally, he creates a framework of law in which he is the main legal authority where he tries to apply a more vertical executive power. Putin himself calls this the Dictatorship of Law (Kahn 2). These two types of charisma that Putin controls cause him to be extremely powerful and untouchable. Moreover, most Russian Orthodox followers perceive him as a good man due to his charisma and the marriage between church and state. Since the majority of Russia is Orthodox, the charisma of Putin and the Patriarch could explain why they are admired and should not be mocked. Pussy Riot could be treated so harshly because they are simply metaphorically attacking them while actually offending the current desecularising regime in Russia.

In the closing of the trial of the three members of Pussy Riot, they emphasize that they did not meant to offend the Russian Orthodox Church, that Russia is not the way Putin presents it, that they were performing oppositional art against the current regime and that the system fears the truth (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, 1:10.44). They clarify again that their performance wasn’t conducted with the intention of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred towards the Orthodox Church, but was intended to be a political non-violent protest for the repressive nature of the union of the church and state. Altogether, the harsh treatment of Pussy Riot by the Russian State and the Russian Orthodox Church could be explained by the fact that Pussy Riot was perceived as offending religion. Various possibilities of reasons for them being felt insulted are given throughout the paper: it could be that the sacred society has a strong response against doubt and critique of sacred morals; it could be caused by the concept of doubling; it could be that Pussy Riot was seen as a threat to religion and therefore community; it could be that religion deludes the system from seeing the truth; and finally, it could be caused by the charismatic authority and influence of the two leaders, which prevents them from being insulted.

Works Cited
Breuilly, John. “Max Weber, charisma and nationalist leadership1.” Nations and Nationalism 17.3 (2011): 477-499.
Denysenko, Nicholas. “An appeal to Mary: An analysis of Pussy Riot’s punk performance in Moscow.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 81.4 (2013): 1061-1092.
Fasching, Darrell J., and Dell DeChant. Comparative Religious Ethics: A Narrative Approach. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. 3-30. Print.
Kahn, Jeffrey D. “Russia’s” Dictatorship of Law” and the European Court of Human Rights.” Review of Central and East European Law 29.1 (2004): 1-14.
Ossinovski, Jevgeni. Legitimacy of Political Power in Putin’s Russia. London School of Economics and Political Science, Aug. 2010. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.
Pals, Daniel L. Eight theories of religion. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.
Pussy Riot : A Punk Prayer. Dir. Mike Lerner. Perf. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Mariya Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich. Roast Beef Productions, 2013. Film.

Rourke, Brian, and Andrew Wiget. “Pussy Riot, Putin and the Politics of Embodiment.” Cultural Studies (2014): 1-27.
Schroeder, Rachel L., and Vyacheslav Karpov. “The Crimes and Punishments of the ‘Enemies of the Church’and the Nature of Russia’s Desecularising Regime1.” Religion, State and Society 41.3 (2013): 284-311.
Tempest, Richard. “The Charismatic Body Politics of President Putin.” Journal of Political Marketing just-accepted (2016).
Walker, Shaun. ‘’Plight of Punk Rockers Turns Russians Against the Church.’’ Independent UK. Independent UK, 5 Apr. 2012. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *