EES demo. Warsaw, 2004.

Don’t let Putin fool you. Banishing Pussy Riot to a penal colony allowed the Russian leader to reassert his rule. Democracy be damned. Civil rights, religious freedom, and gender equality from herein would be subject to his purview. The ex-KGB officer’s message wasn’t just aimed at Russia. It was directed at all of Eastern Europe, too.

For anyone familiar with the history of regional politics, Putin’s positioning was thick with signifiers. Pussy Riot’s sentencing would please fellow reactionaries, obviously, as well as help serve as a salve for social distress. It also confirmed that the post-Communist period was formally over. Authoritarian capitalism is the rule of the day. There’s no alternative.

The political transition in post-Communist countries has turned majoritarian, as ex-Soviet bloc states start to formalize discrimination against pro-democracy forces.  Curiously, this reaction, of what can only be described as the ancien regime, both Stalinist, and its antecedents, focuses on sexual dissidence, to broadcast its worldview.  In the Ukraine, it’s Femen. In my own home, Poland, it’s Dorota Nieznalska, an artist who was convicted of blasphemy.

It’s a familiar story, one that Pussy Riot’s Nadia Tolokonnikova was quick to point out, when, in her closing statement, she compared her band’s fate to the trial of Socrates, and the kenosis of Christ. Jesus was “raving mad,” she reminded her religiously observant tormentors. “If the authorities, tsars, presidents, prime ministers, the people and judges understood what ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ meant, they would not put the innocent on trial.” Tolokonnikov also cited the prophet Hosea, in the Hebrew Bible: “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice.” Surely, the authorities were not thrilled.

Pussy Riot’s choice of Jewish scripture is of course telling, as well as calculated. The prophets argue for forgiveness (Hosea forgave his unfaithful wife) and for social justice. Tolstoy, ultrademocratic, anarchist and religious, was also in conflict with the same Orthodox Church (and excommunicated by it) that now condemns Pussy Riot. Dostoevsky similarly emphasized the importance of forgiveness in Crime and Punishment, when Raskolnikov receives it from a prostitute. Pussy Riot are obviously traditionalists.

The forces that have condemned Pussy Riot are not religious. They are secular, despite their Orthodox pretense. Pussy Riot, ironically, respond as Christians. They protest the emptiness of consumer culture, and the lack of forgiveness on the part of their persecutors. Thus, they appropriate the figure of the Virgin Mother, to criticize authoritarianism. “Mary is with us in protest! Mary, become a feminist!” the band screamed during its infamous cathedral performance.

As a Pole, I find the entire affair reminiscent of an attack on the previously mentioned Dorota Nieznalska, at a Gdansk gallery, where her seminal Passion installation was being exhibited in 2002. The work, an exploration of masculinity and suffering, shows a cross on which the photograph of a fragment of a naked male body, including the genitalia, has been placed.

Staged by members of the reactionary League of Polish Families, the political party sued the artist over the exhibit.  In July 2003, a court found Nieznalska guilty “offending religious feelings” and sentenced to half a year of “restricted freedom” (she was banned from leaving the country.) When the judge read her sentence, members of the League packed the courtroom and applauded ecstatically. It took six years, but Nieznalska’s conviction was eventually overturned in July 2009, on the grounds that her freedom of speech had been violated.

Nonetheless, Nieznalska  suffered inestimable damage as  consequence of her successful prosecution. For years, Polish galleries refused to show her work. It took curator Pawel Leszkowicz to rehabilitate her reputation, by featuring her sadomasochist works in the exhibitions Love and Democracy and the GK Collection, claiming she was working in the S&M tradition of renown Polish writer Bruno Schulz.

I could go on. My point is that misogyny is the biggest threat to Eastern Europe’s incomplete democracies, and that it’s been a problem across the region for a good while now, not just in Russia. Abortion, for example, is banned, and a number of cultural and economic constraints on women and queers alike exist. Female artists who deal with sexuality have been especially hard hit by censorship. Pussy Riot is just the best-known example.

If Pussy Riot is what it takes to wake the West up to this situation, and help us complete our transition to democracy, so be it. Until then, as it has been said, we are all Pussy Riot. I’m sure the ‘band’, as it were, would agree with me.

Photograph courtesy of VnGrijl. Published under a Creative Commons license.