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Eyewitnesses on location: the media aspects of the Pussy Riot trial

Capitalism CC by nc 2.0 Adbusters Culturejammers HQ For art activists in Russia, Web 2.0 has become a natural habitat. But in the trial against Pussy Riot, the group’s artistic self-dramatisation was largely concealed; television also played a major role.

Even when radical artists such as Anatoly Osmolovsky, Sasha Brener and Oleg Kulik came out of the squats, the palaces of culture and new galleries into public spaces in 1990s Russia to carry out their scandalous campaigns, these were already designed with the impact in the mass media in mind.
However with social media, today’s young art scene has completely new opportunities for self-dramatisation outside of the typical institutions. The artist group Voina, whose St. Petersburg faction painted a 65 metre-high phallus on the city’s Liteiny Bridge in 2010 and pointed it at FSB headquarters, is very dependent on its “chief media artist”, the blogger Alexei Pluzer-Sarno. Self-representation in on LiveJournal or on YouTube is such a matter of course for art-activists that one hardly dares call them “media artists”.

Eyewitnesses on location

There is some evidence that the virtual nature of their artistic existence spelled the Pussy Riot activists’s doom. They considered their gigs in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on 21st February 2012 and in the Bogoyavlensky Cathedral three days earlier more as shooting for their music video, which was aimed at Patriarch Kirill and President Vladimir Putin. This “Punk Prayer” was analysed in an expert’s report which resulted in charges being brought, and in a subsequent lawsuit it was also declared to be extremist material. However, the trial against Pussy Riot also depoliticised the women’s performance by separating the alleged “breach of public order” in the church from the artistic end product. Several eyewitnesses whose religious feelings were offended stated that they had heard no political slogans in the church, only the words “The Lord’s shit ” (“Sran Gospodnia”). It was precisely the acting out of this refrain that the activists wanted to film in the few remaining seconds, whilst the chorus “Mother of God, chase Putin away!” (“Bogorodiza, Putina progoni”) was edited in over pictures of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova as she knelt and crossed herself. The verdict interpreted this behavior out of context as a parody of the Christian liturgy and made reference to the theatrical desecration of churches by the League of Militant Atheists after the Russian Revolution.

Foto: (c) Nuria Fatykhova

Shock in the TV studio

Extensive parts of the raw material were broadcast in April 2012 in the documentary talk show Provokatory (Provocateurs) hosted by television journalist Arkady Mamontov. The investigator in the Pussy Riot case provided the show with video evidence (as well as his pre-judgement), which was bound to cause a response of extreme shock among the selected God-fearing studio audience that represented the TV nation – and in doing this, the TV program modernised an old Soviet tradition – the Communist Party of the Soviet Union prepared show trials against authors such as Joseph Brodsky by publishing articles in the major daily papers and fictitious reader reactions.

Prowokatory III (Die Widersacher III) - die dritte und letzte Folge der Prowokatory-Reihe des Fernsehjournalisten Arkadi Mamontow; Quelle: http://russia.tv

State television versus the free internet?

However the reaction to the clip in the Pussy Riot blog was not very positive either. There were over 1600 reactions to the Punk Prayer and most were negative. Opponents and supporters of the campaign were largely determined to direct hateful insults at each other, which raises doubts as to the benefit of this campaign from the perspective of communication ethics.
From April to October 2012, the Levada Center in Moscow conducted opinion polls on the Pussy Riot case: Public interest increased steadily during this period. Whereas the proportion of those in favour of the threatened sentence versus those against it was still balanced in April, when only 4 percent of those questioned were following the affair attentively, by October 35 percent of those asked considered it appropriate to send Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina to prison and 43 percent would have preferred a harsher punishment. Thus it can be concluded that the involvement of large swathes of the population through state television and the president’s comments tipped public opinion, and not in favour of Pussy Riot. However, it would be too easy to turn this into a battle between the free internet and state television. Whilst internet coverage in Russia is now quite good even in the provinces, it is not just the way it is used here that is different, it’s the fact that the content - for instance feminist “oi punk” in Russia’s main church – also has a different reception.

Matthias Meindl
studied Russian and philosophy in Berlin. He is working on the project “Art and Literature on Trial” at the Slavic Seminar in Zurich, which is sponsored by the Swiss National Research Foundation.

Translation: Jo Beckett

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
April 2013

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