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Pussy Riot vs. Chicago

Should Orthodox Christians be offended by the controversial Russian punk band? Not if they understand the band’s project.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot (right) with Sen. Ben Cardin (left).   Photo: U.S. Senate Democrats

After the Chicago Symphony Orchestra wraps up its well-programmed “Truth to Power” series—and by “well-programmed” I mean “lots of Shostakovich"—more contemporary musicians who have run afoul of Russian authorities will play another venerated local forum: Riot Fest, where two members of Pussy Riot are on the bill.

News that the Russian art/punk collective would play in Chicago—notably, the two members who were sentenced for two years in prison for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after an insurgent show at Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral—has Sun-Times reporter Dan Mihalopoulos arguing that the city should turn its back on these hooligans motivated by religious hatred.

An Orthodox Christian, Mihalopoulos perceives Pussy Riot and their in/famous performance the same way the Russian authorities did. Unlike the Russian government, however, Mihalopoulos has much less reason to view them as a threat.

But if respect for others’ religious beliefs is central to our notion of democracy, the leaders of this diverse city and state should stay away from Pussy Riot.

[snip]

It’s more blasphemy than political demonstration.

[snip]

“S—! S—! The Lord’s s—!” the women sang. “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, send Putin away.”

Mihalopoulos jumps to the conclusion, removing the single most inflamatory line from any context, that Pussy Riot was “mocking” his faith, and desecrating an important monument to religious freedom:

Christ the Savior cathedral where Pussy Riot recorded “Punk Prayer” was built to memorialize the defeat of Napoleon’s invasion, and the Soviet regime tore it down in 1931. It was rebuilt after the fall of the Communist regime, which had suppressed religious freedom.

Since its rebuilding, something else happened at Christ the Savior, which should concern anyone with an interest in religious freedom. It is “the place epitomizing the modern-day Russian Church’s compromise with the political regime, where Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill openly endorsed Putin’s presidency as ‘a miracle from God,’” writes Elianna Kan. “The members of Pussy Riot are protesting the authoritarian regime’s co-opted Christianity, not the religion itself.”

Yekaterina Samutsevich, a member of Pussy Riot, was explicit about the significance of Christ the Savior in her closing statement at the collective’s trial:

That Christ the Savior Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of the authorities was clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former [KGB] colleague Kirill Gundyayev took over as leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Savior Cathedral began to be openly used as a flashy backdrop for the politics of the security forces, which are the main source of political power in Russia.

[snip]

Perhaps the unpleasant, far-reaching effect of our media intrusion into the cathedral was a surprise to the authorities themselves. At first, they tried to present our performance as a prank pulled by heartless, militant atheists. This was a serious blunder on their part, because by then we were already known as an anti-Putin feminist punk band that carried out its media assaults on the country’s major political symbols.

Putin has forged a politically useful bond with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been getting its way in matters small and large. Recently Putin outlawed some types of swearing in certain contexts. More disturbingly, the Church has continued to be a barrier to more stringent, “anti-family” laws against domestic violence. A “flashy backdrop for the politics of the security forces"? That, too:

The church’s apparently automatic support for all of the Kremlin’s initiative – whether it is blessing rockets at a military parade or Putin at his inaugurations – is demoralizing would-be believers. They continue to tolerate the church-state alliance, but they have reduced their participation in official religious and political institution to a minimum. And that makes them liable to jump ship the next time a capable alternative – whether political or religious – arises.

Indeed, the church’s main problem is that its support among the faithful is being outpaced by discontent about its ultraconservatism.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the members who will be performing in Chicago, told the courtroom: “What was behind our performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the subsequent trial? Nothing other than the autocratic political system…. We respect religion in general and the Orthodox faith in particular. This is why we are especially infuriated when Christian philosophy, which is full of light, is used in such a dirty fashion.”

That’s the political context of the performance Mihalopoulos views as a mockery of Orthodox Christianity. What about the literary context?

There are two ways of reading “the Lord’s shit,” as a verb or a possessive noun. Jeffrey Tayler, Russia correspondent for the Atlantic and a Moscow resident for 20 years, reads it, in his own translation, as the latter in the context of the lines that come before it (“Their chief saint is the head of the KGB / He leads a convoy of protestors to jail / So as not to insult the Holiest One / Women should bear children and love"):

Putin is surely “the chief saint” in line 7, but “the Holiest One” would be Patriarch Kirill, whose traditionalist stance on women’s roles must not be offended. Since its inception in 2011, Pussy Riot, through its songs, has propagated an aggressive philosophy of feminism in a country where the word “feminist” carries a foul, overtly Western connotation.

All of which makes the Church, in Pussy Riot’s spiteful parlance, little better than a pile of “the Lord’s shit.”

Patriarch Kirill, last year, called feminism a “very dangerous” “pseudo-freedom.” Which is why the band turns back to the Virgin Mary for help: “The eternal Virgin Mary is with us in our protests! Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!”

Their invocation of the Virgin Mary shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Virgin Mary has long been a cornerstone for liberation/feminist/social justice theology. “The Virgin Mary, who is purported to stand with the downtrodden (and not, presumably, with institutions allied with authoritarian regimes),” Tayler writes, “must, in Pussy Riot’s view, support them in their fight for justice.”

And when the judge handed down her ruling against the three members of the collective, she specifically cited their feminism as evidence of their religious hatred. It’s a disturbing irony, as one blogger at Women in Theology writes:

[T]he three women were convicted of religious hatred even though their protest was expressed in explicitly religious terms. They are vulgar religious terms, certainly—but if must we entirely identify “religious” with “deferentially pious,” then we’ve got to throw out large chunks of prophetic literature.

[snip]

I think we need to see that if  “Punk Prayer” calls upon the Mother of God to be in solidarity with the protesters and act for liberation, it does not reject her. If “Punk Prayer” accuses Patriarch Gundyaev of idolatry in his support of Putin and calls for him to return to God, it does not suggest hatred or rejection of God.

Later in her testimony, Tolokonnikova put it in terms for Christians to understand:

Have you forgotten under what circumstances Stephen, the disciple of the Apostles, concluded his earthly life?  “Then they secretly induced men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.’ And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came up to him and dragged him away and brought him before the Council. They put forward false witnesses who said, ‘This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law.” [Acts 6:11-13]

This goes some way towards explaining why Pussy Riot have found fans among Christians. In an essay for the Martin Marty Center’s Sightings, not exactly a hotbed of mockery, Larisa Reznik, a PhD candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago, puts Pussy Riot in a long tradition of countercultural Christianity, back to the origins of the religion itself and continuing as a defense of the religion against the state’s attempts to co-opt it:

In a petition to the World Council of Churches, a group organized under the slogan of “Christians for Pussy Riot” presents the “punk prayer” and its colorful, disruptive accouterments, as continuous with the tradition of being a fool for Christ, a tradition that enjoyed a particular presence in Byzantine and Russian Orthodox Christianity. As Sergey Ivanov argues, holy foolery in Russia emerged simultaneously with the formation of czarism. Holy fools kept the gap between secular authority, however despotic, and divine authority from closing. The genealogy of the figure of the “holy fool” can be traced from the Paul of 1 Cor. 1-4 to Dostoyevsky’s “idiot.” While the criteria of “holy foolery” vary historically, one constant feature that Ivanov observes is that holy fools functioned as “cultural antennae” and rehearsed the hypocrisies, idolatries, and abuses of a religious community fallen into sin and decline.

Pussy Riot’s performance of “Punk Prayer” isn’t exactly a 95 Theses moment. Perhaps it’s closer to iconoclasm, which has a long, difficult, and politically charged history in the Orthodox church—the Triumph of Orthodoxy remains the celebration of Orthodoxy’s triumph over the iconoclasts. On that day, the heretics—"those who mock and profane the holy images and relics"—are specifically anathematized.

In that sense, perhaps “Punk Prayer” is a heresy, and a blind spot for me. Mihalopoulos is an Orthodox Christian; I come from a Southern Protestant background with Calvinist roots: a figuratively iconoclastic theology and, at many points in history, a literally iconoclastic one, not just theologically but politically. “Iconoclasm was much more than a religiously motivated act,” David Davis writes. “Certain cases of destruction were conscious acts of defiance against the monarch, and others, as John Walter has shown, were intended to upset or reform the social order.”

The battle over iconoclasm is not about profaning the sacred. Among many things, it’s about identifying the profane cloaked in sacrament, within the church and without, and in the interstitial space where the state crosses the threshold, where believers and non-believers both are called to resist.

 

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