Last Autumn I went to meet a friend at a cafe in Moscow. We turned up at a book presentation that interested me more than it interested my friend. I was a Russian speaker (whereas he wasn’t) and I was curious to hear about a poet to be introduced by a number of literary figures. My curiosity pricked up when I found out that the philosopher Mikhail Ryklin was also present – a philosopher who was the first to introduce Jacques Derrida into Russia. It was only at the end of the evening that I found out that the volume introduced was the collected works of Anna Alchuk and it was only the next day when I opened the book that I realized who this poet was.
In the early 200os an exhibition at the Sakharov Centre had been attacked by thugs and art works savagely destroyed. One would have thought that this would have resulted in some kind of court action against the thugs. Well, yes a court action did result. Only the trial was not against the thugs who destroyed the art, the ensuing trial was to end up persecuting the curators of the art exhibition. If one ever wishes to know about the genealogy of the Pussy Riot affair they would surely do no worse than learning about the ‘Beware Religion’ exhibition in which art curators were accused of fomenting religious hatred. This was 2003 and not 2012 and so heavy jail sentences were avoided. Yet this early sign of religious fanaticism in Russia did have its victim. In April 2008 a body was found in the River Spree in Berlin. This body was found to belong to that of Anna Alchuk, the wife of Mikhail Ryklin, and one of those involved with the Beware Religion exhibition. She had been a victim of the religious hate campaign against recalcitrant or sceptical artists. Her husband tells the whole story in a very moving piece named the Burning House published in The New Humanist magazine (Riklin article).
Anna Alchuk, it seems, can be said to have been the first victim of what the Pussy Riot trial has highlighted as a kind of religious terror. One might argue that Alchuk was suicided by this new authoritarian climate based on nationalism and Orthodoxy. The torn and tattered roots which Alchuk used in her artwork and poetry were wrenched from her both by a savage band of haters as well as by a rather cowardly group of intellectuals and artists who failed to oppose this onslaught. This assault on culture by Orthodox Red Guards has only become too obvious in the past few months. Yet from here one can base the genesis and one should not forgot that it also has had its first victim. A victim of religious terror. One must hope that gradually the work of this poet and artist will slowly become more known to audiences in Russia and outside and through her words and the preservation of her memory some form of resistance to this can be forged. It is the only way one can pay witness to this crime and hope that culture one day will fully reclaim its space in Russia- a space that is savagely being claimed by a fanatical wing of religion.