Pussy Riot is coming to Penn—a big moment for culture buffs, Slavicists, those fascinated with Vladimir Putin, and other watchers of the passing circus.
It is a big moment for thinking through the peculiar power of unexpected interventions.
Pussy Riot marks an example (among other things) of a kind of appealing asymmetry: the seemingly powerless, grabbing the microphones of life and altering the global conversation, creating massive impact with the softness of words alone, an example of a “weak player” all of a sudden fighting way above one’s weight.
Five young women, dramatically dressed, seized a platform and hijacked the grandiose institution of Russian Orthodoxy in its alliance with the Kremlin: a surprise that made for great television, a trifecta uncovering the weaknesses of religion, secular power and gender stereotypes.
Pussy Riot sang their witty and corrosive song in Moscow’s enormous main Cathedral, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. This site of subversion is an iconic location, rebuilt in the 1990s with post-Soviet money and chutzpah on the same site where Stalin had destroyed its massive predecessor in the 1930s in order to build a no less massive central House of the Soviets. That plan was never executed and the unfinished building’s foundation pit was eventually converted to a huge public swimming pool in a mocking historical reversal of Soviet grandiosity. It was a kind of epic mockery again—a mockery of the Soviet era—to rebuild the Cathedral as a church in 1990s.
It is clear that with their performance in the cathedral Pussy Riot was making a statement about a concatenation of themes. In one way, Pussy Riot was commenting on the significance of transformed symbols, of secular and religious power and the links between them, Russian Orthodoxy, and the material and political modes of repressing speech and creativity in the new Russia. The image Pussy Riot constructed—undaunted yet fragile young foes prancing before the iconostasis—was a sign of energy breaking through passivity and gridlock.
Slavoj Zizek, the canny Slovenian critic, sociologist and political philosopher, initiated a correspondence with one of the members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who is coming to Penn. Their letters, featured in this Guardian article, went as follows:
Pussy Riot make us all uneasy – you know very well what you don’t know, and you don’t pretend to have any quick or easy answers, but you are telling us that those in power don’t know either. Your message is that in Europe today the blind are leading the blind. This is why it is so important that you persist. In the same way that Hegel, after seeing Napoleon riding through Jena, wrote that it was as if he saw the World Spirit riding on a horse, you are nothing less than the critical awareness of us all, sitting in prison.
Pussy Riot did turn out be a part of this force, the purpose of which is criticism, creativity and co-creation, experimentation and constantly provocative events. Borrowing Nietzsche’s definition, we are the children of Dionysus, sailing in a barrel and not recognising any authority.
We are a part of this force that has no final answers or absolute truths, for our mission is to question. There are architects of apollonian statics and there are (punk) singers of dynamics and transformation. One is not better than the other. But it is only together that we can ensure the world functions in the way Heraclitus defined it: “This world has been and will eternally be living on the rhythm of fire, inflaming according to the measure, and dying away according to the measure. This is the functioning of the eternal world breath.
Zizek replied to her:
The Pussy Riot performances cannot be reduced just to subversive provocations. Beneath the dynamics of their acts, there is the inner stability of a firm ethico-political attitude. In some deeper sense, it is today’s society that is caught in a crazy capitalist dynamic with no inner sense and measure, and it is Pussy Riot that de facto provides a stable ethico-political point. The very existence of Pussy Riot tells thousands that opportunist cynicism is not the only option, that we are not totally disoriented, that there still is a common cause worth fighting for.
Together, there is the brilliance of idea coupled with performance, a combination that has immediate appeal to an audience numbed by the ordinary.
All of this—the performance, the criticism, the exchanges—took place what seems like an eternity ago in Russian politics and its interaction with the West. These events were before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, before the annexation of Crimea, before as well, the cruel fighting in Eastern Ukraine and before, now, the recent murder, at unknown hands, of Boris Nemtsov on a bridge in the precinct of the Kremlin.
If Pussy Riot stands for some ethical position, as Zizek urges, it is important to examine whether it can move even more away from the margin. Ceasing to be a kind of curiosity, can it become a base for a more durable debate?
When Pussy Riot’s members appear in Philadelphia, it will mark a complex shift, going from Dionysian dramatic moment in Moscow to significant deliberation and discussion on the University of Pennsylvania campus. It will be Pussy Riot singing in a different key, to a different audience, perhaps with a different purpose.
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