Sunday, 5 August 2012

There's a Riot Goin' On

"There's a dog in the middle of the courtroom, though it was a different one today. They alternate: there are two of them, a huge German shepherd and a rottweiler. They bark madly whenever anyone raises their voice". This strange image comes from a report on the trial of Pussy Riot in Moscow, written by the husband of one of the defendants. It is chock-full of a particularly Russian eccentricity, where reality and the fantastic blend into one another, usually in an official setting. It could almost be a passage from Gogol's Dead Souls or Bulgakov's The Master and Margherita.

There's more: "A woman who looks after the candles in the church testifies and becomes an immediate star on Twitter. She says she saw the girls' "devilish twitching" and "committing impudences".  And ... "An absolutely crazy witness appeared. He said that the girls had placed themselves in hell. That they'd declared war on God. That "hell is as real as the Moscow subway". The hubby-cum-writer, Pyotr Verzilov, claims: "Usually Russian courts are quite boring, but this week it's been like a scene from an American movie". I don't know what American film he's thinking of, but it's not Twelve Angry Men or Legally Blonde.

It's hard for a foreigner to quite get what is going on in Russia, hence we tend to focus on those elements of the spectacle that we can most easily relate to. Pussy Riot are variously described as "punks" and "riot grrrls", though among their key musical influences appear to be early 80s Oi! bands, who were not exactly noted for their feminism (despite Jimmy Pursey taking up modern dance), while their political analysis was crude when not being hijacked by xenophobic arse-wipes like Gary Bushell. Visually, Pussy Riot owe more to The Residents than Cockney Rejects.

The other trope regularly bandied about is that the women's court appearance is a show trial, echoing the famous Moscow trials of the 1930s. While the bias of the court supports the belief that this is a politically-motivated prosecution (they challenged and insulted Putin, not the Orthodox church), there are differences. The Moscow show trials were distinguished by improbable confessions and tearful odes to the wisdom and mercy of Comrade Stalin, not to mention the subsequent airbrushing of the guilty from history. Pussy Riot continue to be confrontational rather than confessional, and YouTube will preserve their performance for future generations. It's possible that Putin's mercy will be eulogised, as a shorter sentence than the advertised 7 years for "hooliganism" would still be effective in slapping down the opposition.

For all its trappings of modernity (guitars, Twitter, feminism), the Pussy Riot trial seems to hark back to the late nineteenth century, not just in terms of the absurdist legal process but also in terms of the power of the symbolic act. Staging a performance art piece (a "punk prayer") in a cathedral is hardly on a par with assassinating a Tsar, but it appears to have offended the Kremlin mightily. To add to the irony, Madonna, who found flirting with the trappings of religion to be a good career move, is about to perform in  Moscow. There are hopes she may show solidarity, perhaps singing Like a Prayer ("When you call my name, it's like a little prayer"), though that might be a little self-regarding (so odds on, then).

Madonna is respected in Moscow because she is rich and successful. Pussy Riot are the object of official contempt not because of their politics or their art, but because they are unsuccessful and poor. Oligarchs who fall out of favour are charged with corruption; less powerful troublemakers are charged with hooliganism. As Chichikov in Dead Souls discovered, wealth and status are what people care about, and the means by which you achieve them (in his case by buying the title to dead serfs to use as loan collateral) matters little. If this all seems like the weirdness of foreign-land, we should bear in mind the popularity of London among the new, airbrushed elite of Russia, particularly for pursuing offences to their honour in our absurdist libel courts.

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