Not every vulgarity is art, and not every publicly performed perversion is political protest.
Can one handle fish and not smell? Is it possible to spread honey without becoming sticky? Could “Pussy Riot” be discussed and not stoop to their level of lewdness? Such thoughts arise as one sets out to discuss a story behind the news that was.
Here the essentials, in case you missed the matter. “Pussy Riot” (PR) is a once ignored Russian female punk-rock band. It has a record of public sex acts, ranging from simple copulation to the vaginal insertion of a chicken in a supermarket. To “express itself” through an act of “art”, in Moscow PR invaded the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to stage a political “action”. The analogy is to invade the Vatican. A show was put on. It asked the Virgin Mary – she herself has been told to switch to feminism – to remove Putin. The label: “a punk prayer”. The mischief scored in the internet. After less than a minute, the exhibition that revealed all including the panties of the artists was stopped. Arrests and then a trial followed. The verdict of two years, out of a possible seven, has shocked the foreign media. Count on copycat imitators emerging.
Before an assessment, a confession is called for. Putinism is a concern of your columnist who is an appreciative friend of Russia. Given his background, this is anything but a foregone conclusion. Furthermore, the writer is anti-clerical. Defending the Orthodox Church, even with a member grandmother, is not a Pavlovian reflex. More, the writer regards Orthodoxy, for being too close to the state, as a problematic organization. Its support of governing tyrannies burdens the record of that mutation of Christianity.
Russia’s nature-given leading role in Eurasia makes her, regardless of the system of government and the worldview of the governors, a natural target of scrutiny. There is no global stability without Russia and even less is it conceivable against her will. Ergo, the way Russia is governed is of universal concern. However, central is not how many divisions Russia has but the intentions of her system.
In that light, the scrutiny of Russia needs to be more intensive than of Liechtenstein. Accordingly, self-preservation warrants judicious monitoring. However, critical observation must not deteriorate into ritualized bad mouthing, which means that it should be warranted, reasonable and just. Russia’s neighbors are threatened only by an authoritarian Russia. Due to that, as well as in Russia’s interest, her democratic development and material advance are to be facilitated. By this criterion, the pillorying of Russia because of her reaction to the provocative “performance” of the women, fails the test and is counter-productive.
Now then, the punk trios “art” and their show fails to measure up to the virtues attributed to it abroad.
Let us begin with the invoked freedom of expression and the political statement credited to the ladies. Requesting the help of Virgin Mary because no power on earth can dislodge Putin is good for a smile but hardly a justification of the “punk prayer’s” insulting bad taste. PR expressed itself “politically” by violating the right of a cathedral to be what the believers wish it to be. Gagging imposed by a dictatorship is a rule whose defiance is justified by the higher law of liberty. To exploit a house of worship without the consent of its operators it is less an expression of free speech than an act of disrespect of the rights of others. Imagine the reaction if the performance had been in the Sistine Chapel or the El Aksa Mosque. The answer is obvious even if the latter venue would be more inappropriate to the PC-infected than the former.
The Kremlin might have reacted to the violation of religious sensitivities because of the political support of the Patriarch. Nevertheless, any conceivable non- atheistic government, would have, as a Russian government, avenged the desecration of a national symbol. Charging hooligans for hooliganism might not meet with the approval of the hoodlums. Furthermore, the sanctions imposed could be disproportionate. Nevertheless, the trial is hardly a “witch-trial”. Nor is the once reputable Neue Zürcher Zeitung (18.08.), accurate when, invoking Stalinism, it talks about a “show trial in Moscow”. Newspapers find in the prosecution evidence that Putin is unwilling to tolerate any opposition. That might apply to hindering an opposition that contests power. But what if a mutation of the “opposition” delegitimizes itself by the standards of propriety?
Therefore, some circles wisely avoid using PR as an issue. However, Obama is “disappointed” by the sentence he sees as too severe. Lady Ashton, the European Union’s “Foreign Minister” described Europe as “concerned” – not by the trio’s actions but by its consequences. She regards the judgment as a “persecution” of the opposition, and not as an exhibition of bad taste and lack of talent. Flexible Ms. Merkel discovered a lack of conformity with “European values” and did not mean the action of the “artists”.
The intended point is that, yes, freedom includes the right to perform a satanic mass. Freedom, which protects all under the law, however, also entails that the venue not be a church unless that church invites the celebrants. Even less is there a right to force ones weirdness (even if the imbecility is called “propaganda by action”) on others in a surprise attack. Clearly, this protest against Putin did not require a church. For choosing that locale there is only one explanation; the performers craved attention and wished to shock. Well, shock PR did. Have the punks communicated a political statement? Through their performance, they communicated their own substance. And what they revealed condemns PR.
Criticizing Putinism might be in order. However, criticism should be constructive and not attempt to undermine Russian values and culture. A stably democratic and progressive society will only evolve if that order is “Russian”. Outsiders need to demonstrate that the greatness of that nation is independent of an authoritarian order and that it can unfold in the context of a Russian-spiced form of freedom. The goal must be a system that is Russian in form and democratic in substance. A Russia deprived of what is unique about her represents an irrational goal, worse, it is unnecessary. That misconceived attempt will provoke a commensurate reaction.
Outsiders should not challenge those features of public culture that, while they are alien to Western ways, do not keep Russia from developing into a full democracy. Russian pride and liberty are not in conflict and should not be made to appear to be. Fairness and wisdom are needed here and that involves restraint. Criticism should be held back in the face of moves that would be undertaken by any Russian, or for that matter, any democratic foreign government. Criticism is in order. However, it should be justified, rely on facts, and it must not imply that a choice must be made between democracy and Russia’s honor.