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Free Pussy Riot Comes to the Ace Hotel | The Nation

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Free Pussy Riot Comes to the Ace Hotel

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Eileen Myles at a Free Pussy Riot event

Poet Eileen Myles reads at an event to support Pussy Riot at the Ace Hotel in Manhattan, August 16, 2012.

“Freedom is when you forget the name of the tyrant,” wrote Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot in a letter to President Medvedev in May, quoting the poet Joseph Brodsky, who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972 for his own politically engaged art. “Freedom is a unique feeling, which is different for each person,” the letter continues, this time quoting a statement made by President Medvedev himself earlier this year.

These competing notions of freedom aptly demonstrate Pussy Riot’s talent for political art and artful politics, serious dissent enacted through an intense yet playful respect for the freedom of nonconformity.

About the Author

Lucy McKeon
Lucy McKeon is a Summer 2012 intern and New York-based writer. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Paris Review blog,...

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Amid worldwide protest, Pussy Riot was found guilty of what the judge called “an act of hooliganism, a gross violation of public order showing obvious disrespect for society” and its members were sentenced to two years each. Alisa Obraztsova, a member of Pussy Riot’s legal team, urged Americans not to “cherish an illusion about Russia,” stating that the decision undoubtedly came from Putin or someone close to him. She told Democracy Now!, “There’s no common sense in such legal trials and only the society’s reaction may describe the real situation in Russia.”

Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova have been held in detention for more than five months since their protest performance of a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. Their performance called for the Virgin Mary to dethrone Putin—and for her to “become a feminist.” Since their arrest, Pussy Riot has gained wide international support, with many high-profile Western artists—among them Yoko Ono and the other Madonna—speaking out and performing in solidarity with the Russian women.

Hundreds gathered last night at the Ace Hotel in Midtown Manhattan for a reading of the letters, poetry, lyrics and trial statements of the jailed members of Pussy Riot in anticipation of this morning’s verdict. The audience’s vibe matched the venue’s chic reputation more than a ’90s riot grrrl concert. One bright orange fishnet balaclava—the Pussy Riot signature ski-mask—stood out, worn beneath Ray-Bans. The high-end setting for an activist event prompted one spectator to feel uncomfortable in the dimly lit “fashion versus activism” scene.

But in the context of Pussy Riot, whose political power arises from a synthesis of fierce intellect, an uncompromising sense of justice and vividly compelling art, drawing a strict dichotomy between action and aesthetics is not quite right.

The event was organized by JD Samson of feminist electro-punk band Le Tigre and historian Robert Lieber and co-sponsored by Amnesty International. The choice of a staged reading of Pussy Riot’s writing allowed the group’s powerfully eloquent words to speak for themselves, through the voices of fellow dissidents and artists. However, the lack of people of color in participation was striking. Among the readers were performance artists Justin Vivian Bond and Karen Finley, poet Eileen Myles and actress Chloë Sevigny.

From political analysis to poetic description of Pussy Riot’s time in Pre-Trial Detention Facility No. 6, the statements and letters combine biting humor with moving compassion, citations from history, philosophy and literature with denunciations of oppressive political systems and social injustice.

“My key point is that I separate the legal and ethical assessments of our performance,” read Karen Finley, who had her own brush with censorship when the NEA denied her funding based on a “decency standards” statute. Finley sued. “The lawsuit wasn’t about the money it was about how the fact that the government could use restrictions in awarding money,” Finley told me, “that federal support could be taken away based on decency. I‘m still censored from certain institutions because my work is considered indecent. There is a precedent in America.” She sees parallels between Pussy Riot’s detainment and the presence of church influence in the American far right.

This distinction between morality and legality mirrors the separation of church and state that was originally a focus of Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer.” As citizens of what purports to be a secular state, Pussy Riot rejects their indictment, while acknowledging the reaction to their choice of venue: they didn’t intend to hurt or offend, nor were their actions born of religious hatred.

Samutsevich’s closing statement, read by Johanna Fateman of Le Tigre, marks Putin’s re-election as a moment when the “need arose to make use of the aesthetics of the Orthodox religion historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society but from God Himself.” As the women point out, the idea that forty seconds of performance could undermine a centuries-old religious foundation is absurd.

Separation of church and state and protection of free speech are deeply ingrained American values, distinguishing the democratic US from Russia, a country struggling to shed its authoritarian past. And as such, it’s tempting to decry the prosecution of Pussy Riot as unimaginable here at home.

But state-sponsored political repression isn’t the only form of censorship. In 2003, when the Dixie Chicks voiced their shame at sharing a home state with President George W. Bush ten days before the US invaded Iraq, they faced serious backlash. They were not jailed or pursued by the courts, but they received death threats and were forced to move. Within a few days, enraged Bush-supporters’ complaints to radio stations resulted in their near-disappearance from American airwaves. In 2006 they released an album that included the single “Not Ready to Make Nice,” a retrospective processing of “the Incident,” as the band has come to call it. Lead singer Natalie Maines told the New York Times, “It will mean a lot to me if people buy the album just sort of out of protest. The naysayers and the people who were so organized to take us down did a really good job.”

Others felt the connection was a stretch. “There are some parallels between the US and Russia, but as far as I know people have been making the wrong comparisons,” said feminist organizer Suzy Exposito, who decided not to attend the event because she was skeptical of the all-white line-up. “What happened to Pussy Riot is wrong, but what happened to them is nothing like what white feminists face here in the US. Brown people are disproportionately incarcerated here, and many of them didn’t have to do performance art to get a prison sentence. They simply had to exist. As feminists, we need to address the problem of mass incarceration here as strongly as we address it abroad.”

“What really irritates me,” read Justin Vivian Bond from Alyokhina’s closing statement, “is how the prosecution uses the words ‘so-called’ in reference to contemporary art. I would like to point out that very similar methods were used during the trial of the poet Brodsky. His poems were defined as ‘so-called’ poems.”

After the reading, Bond told me, “When people’s rights are being taken away, then activism begins. As an artist, that’s really encouraging because it’s usually the artist that brings the message to the people, as evidenced by Pussy Riot.”

Alyokhina’s closing statement continues, “For me, this trial is a “so-called” trial. And I am not afraid of you…. Because all you can deprive me of is “so-called” freedom. This is the only kind that exists in Russia. But nobody can take away my inner freedom. It lives in the word, it will go on living thanks to glasnost, when this will be read and heard by thousands of people.… I believe that I have honesty and openness, I thirst for the truth; and these things will make all of us just a little bit more free. We will see this yet.”

Read more of The Nation’s coverage of the Pussy Riot trial:
Katrina vanden Heuvel, “Pussy Riot and the Two Russias

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