Vaginal Turmoil

The harsh verdict against Pussy Riot’s punk activists has unleashed a torrent of criticism. But some solidarity statements are misguided: not every performance is protected by freedom of expression.

Sometimes we’re all a bit silly, and sometimes we’re all swept along in vaginal turmoil. Since the verdict was announced in the court case against the three Russian punk activists with the obscene band name, we have witnessed an outpouring of solidarity. The two young mothers and their older bandmate – who lives with her father – were sentenced to two years camp imprisonment for rowdiness and the incitement of “religious hatred.” The verdict is unnecessarily harsh and provides yet another example of the “showcase” democracy that has blossomed under Putin, with the help of Western friends like Germany’s former chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The concept of separation of powers seems foreign to the former Tsarist empire: Russia would fail any admission tests for the European Union.

But Russia’s critics brushed over the fact that other countries have similar laws in place. In Germany, for example, article 167 of the Penal Code makes it a punishable offense (“by imprisonment of up to three years or by fine”) to “cause insulting mischief at a dedicated place of worship.” That’s precisely what the three women did: they stormed the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, approached the iconostasis, the holiest of the holy of the Orthodox Church, and engaged in loud, shrill, and rather insulting mischief. At least that’s how the proprietors of the church and the attendant parishioners perceived it.

Depending on the translation, the activists had chanted “Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit” or “Shit, shit, holy shit.” They might have aimed their slogans against Putin or Russia’s patriarch Kyrill, whom they also apostrophized as “dog” and “asshole.” In any case, they are guilty of trespassing and desecration of a religious site. Their remarks are comparable to insults leveled against a mufti or a Muslim head of state inside a mosque, or against a rabbi or the president of Israel inside a synagogue. Let me pose the obvious question: could activists count on brave solidarity from the non-Muslim or non-Jewish world in those cases?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle are drawing on the wrong political and intellectual arguments when they declare, as Merkel recently did, that “a vibrant civil society and politically active citizens are the necessary condition – and not a threat – to Russia’s modernization.” The statement is true enough, but it overlooks the fact that the three women demanded not only a right of participation and dissidence, but also the (non-existing) rights to trespass and engage in blasphemy.

When the German Foreign Minister argues that “democracy is impossible without freedom, and a liberal society without the freedom of artistic expression does not exist,” this is only half true as well. Freedom of artistic expression isn’t absolute or free from compromise, regardless of whether the art in question can be considered good or bad. It cannot be an indicator for the liberal credentials of a society whether activists can engage in vulgar behavior inside a church, no matter what their agenda might be. One pregnant member of Pussy Riot had previously participated in a public display of group sex to protest against Putin.

One does not need a degree in literature to deduct that the activists’ slogans were no “punk prayer,” as some newspapers now suggest. They were merely the travesty of prayer, a polemical distortion of the original. The three women took the rhetoric, the lexical toolkit, and the rhyme scheme of prayers as inspirations for their anti-prayer. Ironically, they addressed the “Virgin Mother” (and called for her to become a feminist) and the “Highest Lord” (who should find pleasure in anti-government protests instead of forcing women “to give birth and to love”). They veiled their political agenda with pseudo-religious rhetoric. But the desecration of a church isn’t the same as prayer.

The punishment is too harsh, the court proceedings were highly questionable and did not adhere to the standards of the rule of law. But the outpouring of solidarity is equally questionable: Western politicians have seized the opportunity to beatify themselves as spotless democrats. The black-and-white view has scarcely been illuminating.

Read more in this debate: Elfriede Jelinek, Christian Böhme.

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