17th August – was the anniversary of the sentencing of the Pussy Riot trio. From an orgy of press attention last year, there was a relative silence on the issue on this anniversary. Another Russian issue has emerged (the anti-gay laws and whether to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics) which surely will also fall beneath the radar at some point. Two of the trio remain in jail and one year later Russian reality seems to have entered into a phase beyond the absurd: a kind of phantasmagoric Kharmsian period of selective repression. Last August just after the sentence (I stood outside the court where the sentence was read out) I posted the comment below on my Facebook page. That day there was the sense that of real defeat. It was already in the air that this trial was a turning point. The triumph of hysterical moral traditionalism:
Hard to talk about Russia in anything other than paradoxes, irony and black humour after yesterday’s verdict but here are some bitter truths. The freest women in the country have just made their way to prison. Russian government officials and their paid lackeys will now surely go on a long whine about Russophobia. The real Russophobes are those turning this country into a prison camp, the church spokesmen and the judges leading one of the most vile and disgusting campaigns against three of the most intelligent and cultured women in Russia today, the drunk priests in their Mercedes running over pedestrians, the cynical news reporters who spout lie after lie for their paranoid masters, the judges who declare that being a socially active member of Russian society is a sign of mental illness, the Black Hundred types whose hatred of Jews and homosexuals have moved on to a hysterical hatred of any woman whose shows the slightest sign of independence, the religious addicts who hark back to a medieval world of the Domostroy, the Nashi type who brings placards shouting ‘down with degenerate art’ not knowing – or who knows and is probably happy in the knowledge – that they are parroting Nazi slogans, the type whose sense of ‘morality’ demands the incarceration of the radical, the feminist, the artist, the homosexual, the Jew, the foreigner, the other until their world is ‘pure’ – ethnically, socially, racially, aesthetically cleansed for the safe return to a despotic tsarism and tyrannical Orthodoxy. The true Russophobe today is that foaming patriarch exalting at the incarceration of mothers, that miserable nationalist whose fear of the other is so great that he goes into paroxysms of hatred imagining sick fantasies of revenge and torture, that religious fanatic whose only real values are inquisitorial ones. There is nothing more terrifying for Russia today than the ‘love’ of its nationalists – the true Russophobes- whose destruction of Russian culture advances at a furious speed.
Since then new political trials have been engineered. The trial of the Bolotnaya demonstrators, almost ignored in the western press, and a whole collection of morality laws have been framed to satisfy those very forces in Russian society which I described above.
Late last Summer and early Autumn, amidst the gloom of the post-trial despair, I read and re-read the Argentinian-born writer Juan Rodofo Wilcock. I’ve always in my own way found the environment in Russia more Wilcockian than just Kafkaesque. After all Kafka didn’t describe a universe where people are chased around the streets of Moscow by religious fanatics and riot police for wearing a pasta strainer on their head. After this indignity the moral guardians of the new moral order and architect of Russia’s anti-gay law, Vitaly Milonov would go on to blame them for moral decadence in society paving the way for the burning of churches. This is a quote from an Orthodox website which had a report on a failed attack on a church:
Milonov blamed the attack on moral decadence in Russia, citing as an example a rally of half a dozen followers of the tongue-in-cheek religion Pastafarianism who marched through St. Petersburg wearing pasta strainers on their heads last weekend. However, the lawmaker stopped short of accusing the flock of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whose church was officially registered in Russia in July, of torching the church of a rival god.
“It’s a sickly spirit permeating our society. First they wear pasta strainers and then they torch churches,” Milonov said, the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper reported.
Anyway to return to Wilcock and Pussy Riot: one of his poems that I read on a Moscow elektrichka and whose words summoned the image of Maria Alyokhina constantly to my head. A poem that seems to mirror both her Debordian and religiously-tinged ‘liberationism’:
Chi è legato alla carne deperisce,
come la carne che è in noi deperisce.
Ma la morte mentale avviene prima,
forse alla prima accettazione
di un ordine che non è concordia dei diversi
ma inganno e privilegio del potere.
Per non tradire bisogna avere cento occhi,
ma la ricompensa è la miseria.
Per non mentire bisogna avere cento braccia
ma la ricompensa è il disprezzo.
Per non essere leggeri bisogna essere leggeri
ma la ricompensa è il silenzio.
Per non essere crudeli bisogna essere crudeli
ma la ricompensa è la solitudine.
Seguire il Vangelo, non peccare in spirito
può portare in prigione, ma la prigione è aperta.
Those linked to the flesh wilt
Just as flesh wilts in us
But death of the mind happens earlier
perhaps the first time we accept
an order which is not the agreement of differences
but the deceit and privilege of power.
In order not to betray one needs a hundred eyes
but the reward is misery.
In order not to lie one needs a hundred arms
but the reward is contempt
In order not to be frivolous one must be frivolous
but the reward is silence
In order not to be cruel one must be cruel
but the reward is solitude
Follow the Gospel, don’t sin in spirit
It may lead you to prison but the prison is open.
Of course, much rot was written in the western press about Pussy Riot. At the Odessa Film Festival I managed to talk briefly with Michael Lerner, one of the directors of the film ‘Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer”. We both agreed that the campaign in the West was generally cringe-worthy and that all the actions by the Paul McCartney’s etc was, if not counter-productive, certainly hypocritical. Vadim Nikitin summed things up well in an article in the New York Times just after the sentence reminding people how dangerous the ideas of the group were for western hierarchies and systems too:
Pussy Riot’s fans in the West need to understand that their heroes’ dissent will not stop at Putin; neither will it stop if and when Russia becomes a “normal” liberal democracy. Because what Pussy Riot wants is something that is equally terrifying, provocative and threatening to the established order in both Russia and the West (and has been from time immemorial): freedom from patriarchy, capitalism, religion, conventional morality, inequality and the entire corporate state system. We should only support these brave women if we, too, are brave enough to go all the way.
It seems that, at present, Russia is doomed to suffer the extremes at an attempt of re-traditionalisation of mores directed by the political and religious hierarchy in order to scapegoat its many failings, yet the challenge laid down by the Pussy Riot Three remains. It remains even in respect to Western hierarchies. (Even their simple refusal to brand the idea of Pussy Riot against the wishes of their voracious lawyers deserves mention in the light of the incredible greed of one of their erstwhile western supporters, the ex-Beatle Paul McCartney). Their words are already being etched into more permanent memory and into ‘High Culture’ by the likes of Ilya Demutsky with his opera based on Maria Alyokhina’s closing statement:
Back to Wilcock- my literary companion and guide in this Russia which is imprisoning its dreamers- a few words from him (who else?):
Don’t stay far away from me for long
unless you want memory to devour all
and leave no space for the present,
I often see you now beneath the trees,
the streets repeat you, the bathtub,
rooms, records, and the sea’s the same
Who else other than Wilcock to conclude? Well maybe Jean Genet, Juan Goytisolo, Guy Debord … but that’s for another post.