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Putin Gets Pissy with Pussy Riot: Exigence and Freedom of Expression in Russia

September 7, 2012

Image by Kate Holterhoff for The Silver Tongue

Much to the chagrin of people like me that care passionately about such things, it’s not very often that a band can change the world. Not just like “that song got surprisingly huge and now there’s a million imitators that are nowhere near as good but the landscape of popular music will still never be the same” kinda change. I’m talking big, nothing to do with music, sweeping change. But the Russian punk band Pussy Riot seems to be well on their way to such a change by calling international attention to the state of human rights in their home country. If you’re not familiar with the story, Pussy Riot is a largely anonymous band known for eschewing traditional music venues, choosing instead to stage balaclava-clad performances that blur the line between protest and punk show. After playing a song in a Russian Orthodox cathedral in an attempt to publically call attention to the close and kinda creepy relationship between Vladmir Putin and the Orthodox church in the most badass way possible, three members of the band were arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Which is a bit of a head-scratcher, given that to an outside observer it’s really hard to discern any hate-speechy or even anti-religious overtones (or undertones, for that matter) to the performance, sorta forcing the interpretation that the charges were instead intended to squelch political dissent. The incident has become an international event, with tons of musicians from around the world and organizations like Amnesty International expressing support for the band and condemning the verdict as a draconian clampdown on political expression.

So, aside from providing further proof of the fact that punk rock is and always will be sublimely awesome, why is this situation capturing everyone’s attention? After all, as this excellent article by Spencer Ackerman points out, punk rock has a history of attempting to affect change, but only being effective at the micro or local level. What’s different about Pussy Riot?

I think that Ackerman’s analysis is pretty much spot on when he argues that Pussy Riot’s anonymity provides a chance for potential protesters to identify themselves as the ones behind the balaclavas—kinda like that scene at the end of V for Vendetta when everyone is wearing the Guy Fawkes masks and even all the good guys that died throughout the course of the movie are there, y’know? But I think there’s more to it. There’s more to the symbolic power of Pussy Riot’s day-glo disguises than the anonymity and subsequent chance for self-substitution and/or -identification that they provide. To those of us in the rest of the world, those of us who may have had a vague nagging sense that something was kinda fishy in Putin’s Russia, we now have an event to point to. In addition to sending the message to “stand up and protest, this could be you (and in a good way, not in the crappy get thrown in jail for two years kinda way)” to people the world over, it also provides us with actual evidence to give voice to something we all may have suspected anyway: that in Russia, silencing political opposition forcibly outweighs free speech when it really comes down to it.

And that sort of evidence can be a total game changer for public opinion…think how many national or even global discussions were prompted by symbolic individuals: Rodney King, Mumia Abu Jamal, tank guy at Tiananmen Square, Adam Walsh. Before these people made their way into the public consciousness, we had issues like police brutality, race and the legal process involving the death penalty, Chinese militarism, child safety, and so on. But issues themselves are a hard sell to the public writ large. When we have a face and a story, though, our imaginations are captured and the discussion starts in earnest.

Obviously, Pussy Riot’s imprisonment is a pyrrhic victory for Putin and a symbolic one for them. As much as it must suck to be locked up in the bowels of the Lubyanka or whatever, these three women have provided the world with concrete, tangible proof that human rights are in jeopardy in Russia. And this, I think, is the most important (and, in keeping with their punk spirit, dangerous to the status quo) aspect of the whole thing…they spoke out against corruption and nepotism and, in so doing, were harshly punished, but they also sparked an international conversation.

So what do you guys think? Were you like me in that you had a sense in the back of your mind that something wasn’t quite right in Russia, but didn’t really know how to discuss it? Does this event change that at all for you? And, thinking a little bit bigger, how do you think that having a publicized event like this with a symbolic face attached changes your experience with and interpretation of issues?

If you want to know more:

  • In rhetorician’s terms, what I’m getting at here is that a highly publicized event like the Pussy Riot trial creates an exigence that not only shapes a discussion, but demands it. Exigence, according to Lloyd Bitzer in “The Rhetorical Situation,” is an urgent problem that must be addressed, one of the three necessary features of any situation that brings about discourse (the other two being an audience capable of acting on that exigence, and constraints affecting possible decisions and actions).
  • A few more questions to consider and (please oh please) to sound off about in the comments: First, I’m thinking of a bit of a counter-example to myself here in the way that the Sudanese genocide has become a real hot-button issue in the past few years without any real new exigence that I can think of. From my experience, it seemed like something that people weren’t really talking about until one day they just were. This, to me, stands out in contrast to the earlier emergence of discussion around, for example, HIV/AIDS, which had several high-profile cases to point to (Freddy Mercury, Magic Johnson, that one dude from the B-52’s, etc.) but still seemed like more of a “slow burn” in that awareness grew over the course of years and years. So what’s the difference? What’s the exigence for the sudden discussion and MTV-ification of the situation in Darfur, which near as I can tell lacked any symbolic event (outside of the war itself, obviously) to really kickstart discussion? Why did the discussion of the HIV/AIDS crisis, which had several potential symbolic figures, take so long to really get started?
  • Second: To those of you that care about such things, big ups to our dear friend and TST contributor Kurt Sampsel for discussing this whole event with me. Kurt commented that Pussy Riot wasn’t doing anything distinct to punk rock, and that anyone who could get public exposure could have “done the same thing with the same result.” On one hand, I agree. But on the other hand, punk rock has always massively mattered to me, so I want to continue to think it’s relevant and special. I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks now, and I think that it’s true that just about anyone could have done this, but only people with an appreciation for punk’s theatrics (even if they didn’t recognize said theatrics as punk) would. Yay or nay?
  • Also, big ups to our other dear friend, TST contributor, and erstwhile office-mate Bill Marcellino for linking me to that Ackerman article and having a great conversation with me that really informed my writing in this article. And also for sharing my eternal, passionate love of The Clash and The Menzingers.
  • Thanks to Doug for helping me come up with the title to this piece.
  • For some reason, when I first heard about this incident, I kept thinking that the band was called Pussy Control. Which is another thing entirely.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2012 12:01 am

    (Wow, I’m commenting on this way after the fact. I’m going to pretend reading rhetoric things to avoid reading rhetoric things isn’t weird.)

    This isn’t so much a response to Bitzer’s argument per se, but the problem in thinking a situation demands a response is totally valid… when the audience affected gets in on it. A friend of mine from undergrad, who was born and raised in China, had never seen or heard of “tank guy” in her life, until he came up on the screen in our Intro Soc class. “Tank guy” did not exist in her life or as a symbol in her country — as much as the rest of the world was talking about him, they weren’t.

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is that the kinds of conversations that people are able to have in Russia about Putin and the church are very different from the ones we can have here, on the internet… which I don’t think anyone is disputing. But it’s that much harder when Putin isn’t just associated with the church, but that he’s portrayed as a demigod in his own right. There’s a vodka named after him. Publicity stops and badassery are part of what keeps him in a lot of people’s good graces, whether he’s putting out fires from a helicopter or “discovering” ancient urns when he decides to go swim in a lake and go fly-fishing.

    Though punk rock and dissent are never completely absent from any world thoroughly doused in propaganda, I wonder how much the visibility of their one act — as legit as it may be — can stand up against habitual, borderline-ritual worship of the political-religious landscape of Mother Russia and Putin.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      October 3, 2012 1:57 am

      Sarah–Thanks a ton for the comment! Reading rhetoric things to avoid reading rhetoric things isn’t any weirder than writing rhetoric things to avoid writing rhetoric things, which is the whole reason we started this crazy project in the first place.

      It seems like you know a lot more about Putin’s public image at home than I do, and I’ve actually had similar conversations about Tank Guy with Chinese friends. Party line in China seems to be that the whole Tiananmen Square thing just straight up didn’t happen. That symbol isn’t available to them, but it is to us. Just like the whole Pussy Riot thing…I feel like as I was researching this post I remember reading somewhere that popular opinion in Russia on the matter seems to vary from indifference to “they got what was coming to them,” so I’m more concerned with what this event means to the rest of us.

      I’m not sure that Pussy Riot can stand up to Putin’s constructed image in Russia, but I think it can here in the West where we all kinda had a vague sense of Putin as a total sketchball anyway. I guess that was my point in the post…that Pussy Riot provides the rest of the world with a concrete symbol of something that we all kinda suspected was going on anyway. And for awhile, a big chunk of the world seemed to be paying attention. I guess the REAL question, now that it’s a bit after the fact, is what does it matter now that the rest of the world has this symbol?

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