Scattered Thoughts on Pussy Riot

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Writing before the court verdict is out on Pussy Riot (though not the verdict of history) is a rather tricky business – the story seems to have many twists and turns and it is not easy to predict what way the verdict will go and the verdict anyway certainly won’t be the end of the story. I’ve changed my mind at least twice on how I thought the verdict would go – and although I have been thinking in the last few days that there is most likely to be a suspended sentence even this view might prove to be in the light of events an absurdly optimistic view.  In many ways there seems only a Pyrrhic victory on the table and whoever gets their way may well find out that theirs is a poisoned chalice. There is no overestimating the obstinacy and absurdity of Russia’s bureaucratic machine and yet it is still not about to completely self-destruct. There is, too, no over-estimating certain excesses of the Russian intelligentsia (and I tried to point this out in a post on Zakhar Prilepin). I should make my own personal position clear here: from the beginning I’ve fully supported the actions of Pussy Riot – I am not someone who believes that they should have been given an administrative arrest but not persecuted – that is the position of many but it was never my position. My position is that their action was a deliberately transgressive one. They set out to scandalize and giving scandal was their political act and that history will vindicate their original and radical act. Slavoj Zizek, I think, has it about right when he says that theirs was the cynicism of the oppressed which sought to give battle to the cynicism of the oppressors.

My reading of the Pussy Riot scandal is that it is as potentially subversive of the global system as it is of Russian society. With the proviso that this act is read correctly and I’m sure that that is going to require a hard struggle to destroy all the mystifications and myths that the western press has given of this event. My purpose here is not to gripe about pop stars jumping on the bandwagon of the Pussy Riot campaign (although I admit I’m tempted) but I wonder how many people whether in Russia or in the West have bothered to listen and to think about the closing speeches of the three defendants. How many have spent more than ten minutes reflecting on what these three women have had to say? Because there’s as much which might scare complacent and conformist middle class westerners as would scare an unthinkingly religious and conformist provincial Russian (and maybe there’s much that a provincial Russian who started to shake off their conformist thinking would share but which would still horrify the complacent middle class European).

Let’s start with this passage from Maria Alyekhina talking about the freedom she has discovered- an inner freedom this freedom goes on living with every person who is not indifferent, who hears us in this country. With everyone who found shards of the trial in themselves, like in previous times they found them in Franz Kafka and Guy Debord.- Guy Debord? yes, the attempt by conformists in the western media to sanitize Guy Debord will be working at full throttle if this quote ever gets discussed. I remember reading predictions of how Debordian ideas will soon be made safe for consumption straight after Debord’s obituaries were fresh off the press. That frisson of quasi orgasmic joy that one used to feel when reading him will have to be cleansed somehow for life to go on as normal in the western capitals. We don’t want the Debordian spirit of revolt near our cathedrals, near Buckingham palace and the Vatican. Imagine someone instead of turning up with a few banal republican placards at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee but doing something genuinely scandalous in front of her majesty and her family of hanger ons? Or a hundred Femen protestors turning up at the Vatican when the Pope is giving his Sunday angelus prayer? So far all Europe has had was the Mayor of an Andalusian village leading a group of families into a supermarket expropriating what they needed. Not bad for a start but still not quite the Debordian scandal that tears holes in the whole fabric of the symbolic as well as the real.

This morning conversation at the breakfast table turned to Italy in the 1970s. This came after the subject of why opinion pieces are printed on the front page of a mass circulation Russian newspaper. I replied that this is the case in Italy and remembered Pier Paolo Pasolini’s opinion pages of the 1970s. Scandalous opinions where he called for the imprisonment of Italy’s political leaders, pointed a finger at those he considered responsible for the series of bomb attacks which happened during this ‘strategy of tension’. Pasolini would end up murdered in Ostia a couple of years later in a crime never fully explained, Aldo Moro, the Prime Minister, who was known for his absurd linguistic conundrums such as parallel convergences and who was ready to sign an agreement with the Italian Communists was kidnapped and then murdered by the Red Brigades three years after that in an operation that seemed beyond their real abilities. Plenty of murky details were to be uncovered in the next decades but nothing definitive. The great Sicilian detective writer Leonardo Sciascia was, as a parliamentary deputy to write a minority report about the Moro murder and to, as Gore Vidal put it, point his finger to the social system as the true criminal in his detective stories and in 2007 the British government finally disclosed previously secret government papers which stated that the British government were seriously thinking of how to carry out a coup d’etat in Italy in 1977. If truth is stranger than fiction, realpolitik may well be stranger than conspiracy theories.

Well, if you’re going to sanitize Debord maybe you should also start trying to sanitize Gianfranco Sanguinetti. He mailed one of the most cynical plans to save capitalism in Italy to 520 of the most powerful individuals in the country- this was a description of how to go as far as mass slaughter in order to prevent any communist takeover of the country. Having kept his identity secret Sanguinetti waited for the fallout. How did the industrialists and powerful politicians react: they were delighted with this little plan – full of praise for it. Well the story is told in the wikipedia entry to Gianfranco Sanguinetti so you can go there how Sanguinetti when he revealed his authorship was chased out of Italy and refused entry to France. Italy since the 1980 Bologna station bombing has had a further three decades of normalisation – a kind of initial electroshock treatment (strategy of tension – bombings of public spaces, assassinations etc) followed up by spectacle a la Berlusconi – I think you know what I mean when I say that. The kind of flaccid enjoyment at being able to peak behind the scenes at ruling class cynicism and laugh at it. Not try to do anything about it, if you start resisting it seriously then the riot police will start chasing you out of your beds at night if you turn up at any dodgy demonstrations and they’ll be no anti-torture laws to protect you.

Let’s hope those of you (correctly as I see it) protesting the arrests of the Pussy Riot Three were also there with placards, signing petitions and demonstrating about Bolzaneto and Armando Diaz. Otherwise, well you know what Raoul Vaneighem (another situationalist) wrote in his Revolution of the Everyday Life? If you’re going to start reading Debord in honour of the good old Maria Alyekhina maybe this is another volume to add to your reading list. I think his phrase could be rephrased in another way these days. Check the quotation but here’s my version of it : Those who speak about revolutions in other countries without supporting them in their own are talking with corpses in their mouths. The Situationalists were fond of this lively imagery by the way. Nonetheless they had a splendid way of cutting out all the hypocrisy, lies and embellishments that the contemporary westerners like to surround themselves with. So, if you ever get to check up on Youtube any of his old interviews, did the poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. He had some splendid words about modern cannibalism just before he was murdered – and it seems pretty clear that contemporary capitalism has been getting pretty cannibalistic in recent times. As has seemed clear for some time now the Pier Paolo Pasolini’s and the Leonardo Sciascia’s are a dying species in the western hemisphere. Or perhaps we’re just continuing to marginalize them more successfully.

I have a little quiz: Was Italy in the 1970s a freer country than Britain in 1991? Britain in 1991? I’d hazard to say that some indicators suggest that Italy for all its chaos was the place where more freedom of expression was allowed. Pier Paolo Pasolini, amidst all the court cases and persecutions was able to write front page opinion pieces for the traditional voice of the Italian bourgeoisie the Corriere della Sera. He’d be banging on in Italy’s equivalent to the Times in a way that hasn’t really been possible since. The David Aaronovithch’s would be damning him as a conspiracy theorist (I also take objections to certain conspiracy theories only because I think that real politics are often stranger than the rather banal truths that conspiracy theorists often peddle- and conspiracy theories are all too often an instrument of power rather than their unmasking) and the Nick Cohen’s would be humming and hawing with impatience. (actually I like a lot of Nick Cohen’s journalism but he ain’t no Pasolini and my jaundiced guess is that he probably wouldn’t recognize a Pasolini if he saw one).

Anyway in the liberal Majorite Britain of 1991 what was the reaction of the British press to Harold Pinter’s rather original poem American Football? Another thing you can check up on the internet. The excuses of the newspaper editors that Harold Pinter reported sound strangely familiar to those of Russian newspaper editors of post Soviet Russia- same phrases and embarassed excuses. I was fortunate enough to have been living in Trieste at the time – and the splendid leftist newspaper Il manifesto printed the original, translation and Pinter’s brilliant description of the cowardly newspaper editors and their excuses.

Well that’s my first scattered post on the closing speeches of the Pussy Riot three. Some food for thought. Beware of supporting the Pussy Riot Three if you’re the kind of person who believes everything that your own press and government says, if you love the Queen and the Royal family and the national flag or spend all your Sundays listening to the Pope’s Angelus, think Berlusconi’s a bit of a laugh and think that the government’s military adventures abroad are all undertaken for the cause of freedom.

P.S. Check up on the internet while you’re at it Larisa Bogoraz and her views on western military interventions. Will you western liberals all be listening in twenty years time when Maria Alyekhina pens her open letter to US and European politicians in protest at the latest western intervention campaign? I have my doubts.

Anyway all the same I’ll end this post with a Free Pussy Riot slogan and exhortation to read Guy Debord (and Sanguinetti too).   to be continued…

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About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

2 responses »

    • Thanks an excellent resource – I remember reading a copy of a text which I think was called something like ‘To the bad workers of Italy’ some years ago- great to be able to read more of Sanguinetti’s texts.

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