April 21, 2012

Punk’s Not Dead - in Russia

Natalia Antonova
April 20, 2012
RIA Novosti

People began using the phrase “punk is dead” before I was even born - but just when everyone starts believing it, someone comes along to prove them wrong. The latest people to do that, sadly, are the jailed members of feminist punk band Pussy Riot.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samusevich will remain in pretrial detention in Moscow until June 24, while investigators continue looking into their alleged role in a so-called “punk prayer service" that took place within the Cathedral of Christ the Savior back in February - and outraged many Orthodox Christians. The “prayer” itself was directed against President-elect Vladimir Putin.

As a Christian, I find it hard to speak about the actions of Pussy Riot. I don’t think that such performances belong in church, even a church such as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which has had a complicated history since first being destroyed by the Soviets and rebuilt following the fall of the USSR - for many Muscovites, this holy site is nowadays associated with what is known as “VIP-tusovkas” or “VIP-gatherings,” as opposed to with the Orthodox faith. Even bearing that in mind, and bearing in mind the fact that the Orthodox tradition has a long history of so-called holy fools that engage in mischief, I cannot support the performance of Pussy Riot. When I saw it on YouTube, I felt sadness, bewilderment, and hurt.

But neither can I pretend that the fact that these women are being held in jail, two of them separated from their small children, has anything to do with justice. Like many people who have written about Russia’s criminal justice system - I know how it works. The courts are closely aligned with the prosecutors - it has been thus since Soviet times. The system is a crude meat-grinder, not a battleground for truth.

Judges care about producing statistics that will keep them in favor with their superiors - as opposed to the possibility that they may ruin someone’s life. Media coverage and scandals, such as the one that occurred around ambulance driver Pavel Zaika (following the altercation that prompted Zaika’s arrest, the man who initially accused Zaika of attacking and robbing him said he had been pressured to make a false statement by the police - something the court didn’t care about), do not help. Judges just throw up their hands and accuse the public of pressuring them.

Most Russians, even the ones who were understandably hurt and outraged by the actions of Pussy Riot, know that the criminal justice system is rotten to the core. The death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was also held in pretrial detention for an obscene period of time - a practice that exposes the extreme lack of accountability of police officers, prosecutors and judges - only proved what people have been whispering about for a while. Now many of those same people are screaming in outrage.

Reforms are possible - Moscow’s arbitration courts, for example, are already on the right track after being made more transparent - but just as we are beginning to see with politics, a top-down approach is ultimately not going to succeed. People need to believe that they can change the system from the ground up.

So what does all of this mean for punk? It probably means that in Russia, punk is going to prosper. It’s a bit like a scavenger, after all, it needs carrion to consume - and the police and the courts are always up for leaving a fresh trail of bodies and destroyed lives in their wake.

Instead of a tacky invasion of a cathedral which culminated in asking the Holy Virgin to “chase Putin out,” the members of Pussy Riot should have considered dedicating a performance in honor of all those who the criminal justice system has devoured. Nowadays, it’s up to the rest of us believers to ask the Holy Virgin to watch over these women - no matter how wrong their actions were, and I do believe that they were wrong - and to deliver them from harm.

Dostoevsky already said everything there was to say about the Russian courts in The Brothers Karamazov - and the book clearly needs to be read and reread today. But considering the historic repressions against the Church, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction - and some people are genuinely happy about that. For as long as these people think that, the courts as they are today can solve the problems that Pussy Riot’s performance dragged to the surface, the Church will suffer. And punk will prosper.

Ideally, we could have a society in which both could co-exist and not tread on each other, of course. And perhaps even occasionally unite in the face of a real moral and physical threat - which is represented by the courts. How possible is that? You tell me.