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An Inadvertent Sacrifice: Body Politics and Sovereign Power in the Pussy Riot Affair


DOI: 10.1086/673233

Bernstein, Anya. “An Inadvertent Sacrifice: Body Politics and Sovereign Power in the Pussy Riot Affair.” Critical Inquiry 40.1 (2013): 220–241. Web.

p.222: While most Euro-American coverage of this famous trial focused on familiar dichotomies between free speech and blasphemy, the secular and the sacred, or even rationality and obscurantism, and in general seemed bewildered by what appeared as a disproportionate reaction of the Russian state to this affair, the local public response was at best mixed. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.222: Global press coverage was quick to describe the conflict in classic terms: believers against atheists, nationalists against internationalists, or the liberal intelligentsia against the conservative narod (people). Local debates presented a far more complicated picture. Although most Pussy Riot supporters indeed generally belonged to the intelligentsia, even the most staunch defenders made sure to clarify that they separated the act itself from the state’s response to it. Although the frequent consensus among the band’s supporters was that the performance venue was a decidedly poor choice, most strongly disagreed that such offences should be punishable with a prison sentence. As the trial progressed, there eventually appeared within Russia a vocal opposition to Pussy Riot’s imprisonment; however, a large part of the population was still clearly hostile to the women, with many demanding even harsher punishment, calling for the maximum seven-year prison sentence. Still others, while hostile to the group, did not think Pussy Riot should serve a prison sentence at all, invoking, instead, a radically different kind of punishment. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.223: The Pussy Riot affair provoked unprecedented debates over the usefulness and varied meanings of corporal punishment in Russia, from flogging and birching to even tarring and feathering. As time passed, the narratives around the trial increasingly came to focus specically on the three convicted female bodies. These bodies first appeared to the public as anonymous and hidden behind their colorful balaclavas. They later came unmasked, only to be hidden again, this time behind iron bars and inside the glass cage where Russian courts keep defendants during hearings. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.223: In short, what these bodies thematized and made increasingly visible to contemporary Russians and their observers around the world was the spectacular violence of sovereign power. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.223: I argue that under conditions of postsocialist transformation in Russia, the bodies of the Pussy Riot participants became vital sites for the enactment of sovereignty for a wide range of citizens. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.223: For some, their punishment ratied and strengthened the legitimacy of the Russian polity, while for others it revealed both the brutality and ultimate impotence of the Russian state. What united these diverse perspectives, and what invites us to reect here on their consequences for contemporary sovereignty in Russia, was an implicit narrative of sacrice—-the legitimacy and desirability of which is still hotly debated-—through which sovereign violence inscribed itself upon Pussy Riot’s bodies. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.225: a well-known journalist and TV presenter, Maksim Shevchenko, wrote: “I think Orthodox women should catch and flog these little bitches with birch rods. Let them also have a ‘performance.’” -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.225: In the coming days and months, the blogosphere exploded with cruel fantasies, often of a sexual character, such as the calls to strip them naked, to have them tarred and feathered, to strip them naked and tie them to a whipping post, to spank (otshlepat’), flog (vyporot’), whip (vysech’), and birch them (otkhlestat’ rozgami), or to give them a fatherly spanking (otecheski otshlepat’). Speaking outside the courthouse on the first day of the trial, Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician and leader of a liberal-democratic coalition that is regularly critical of Putin, said, “If I could get my way, I would spank these girls and let them go. What is going on here is sadism and cruelty.” -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.225-226: On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Gennadii Ziuganov, the leader of the Russian Communist Party and the main opposition to Putin’s United Russia, stated: “I would take a good leather belt, give them a good spanking, and then send them back to their children and parents. This would be a good administrative punishment for them. And I would tell them not to engage in such blasphemy anymore.” -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.226: Commenting on these suddenly common and troubling narratives, journalist Maksim Sokolov sarcastically quipped that if LGBT culture was insufficiently established in Russian culture, it appeared that BDSM was doing quite well. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.227: The beauty of two of the women, Nadezhda and Maria, was constantly praised; Nadezhda was compared to the Virgin Mary and Maria to Mona Lisa. It was consistently pointed out by defenders that the women should be set free, as two of them were beautiful mothers of small children. Ekaterina Samutsevich, who was older, childless, unmarried, and possibly not heterosexual, was the less visible one of the three but still was positively assessed by one sympathetic blogger as “every inch a Russian” (a recent neologism rusopiatyi, “Russian to the heels”), as if she “came off a Soviet-era poster, glorifying our women.” -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.227: Many Russians were dissatised with imprisonment as an appropriate form of “reeducation” for Pussy Riot. As if to illustrate the erotic and phantasmatic dimension of political domination, the initial violent reactions by public gures triggered heated debate on the return of corporal punishment. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.228-229: Yet despite the arguments against reforms advanced by conservative Russians such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky (he insisted that, counter to the spirit of the Great Reforms, there was a certain authenticity in pain suffered from the birch rod, which led him to oppose the cold rationality of the European legal systemand “bourgeois hypocrisy”), women’s exemption from corporal punishment did not lead to liberation. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.229: On the contrary, women’s punishment essentially became privatized as they became subject to punishment only by their husbands, thus reinforcing the status of a peasant male and “constituting the family as his inviolable domain and reinforcing the wife’s ‘private’ status.” -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.229: Given this historical background of women’s corporal punishment in Russia, what do we make of the current calls to violently punish Pussy Riot? Are we witnessing, to use Sigmund Freud’s auspicious phrase, a “return of the repressed,” a coming back of socially and judicially unacceptable desires, a kind of affective countermodernity? -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.229: Corporal punishment in these discourses inevitably emerges as something more authentic, more sincere, a sign of Russian national distinctiveness, superior to the “Western” bourgeois rationality of the judiciary system, similar to the way wife beating was praised by Dostoyevsky as “part of Russian folkways.” -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.230: Yet the rituals of sovereignty are so inextricably linked to the need for sacrice that even Pussy Riot’s detractors recognized the sacrificial character of the trial. The latter, however, argued that the women did not constitute legitimate subjects of sacrifice: The state fell victim to the provocation by starting this prolonged and dreary trial, turning the hooligans into no less than “martyrs of the regime.” This most likely was the real goal of the performance’s organizers, who will continue to reap the benefits from the blundering and awkward actions of our authorities. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.231: As the trial progressed, the prosecution consistently denied what they referred to as a “political motif,” resulting in the final charge of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” This denial of the political to a protest song, whose most famous words were “Mother of God, oust Putin!” might seem ironic. It is also noteworthy that such a reading of the performance did not provoke much of a debate within Russia and went almost unnoticed in the international coverage. To understand why this is the case, it is important to consider the notions of gender at work in what is conceived as the political in contemporary Russian public life. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.231: Despite the international rhetoric of the weak state, the persistent belief, internally, in the existence of a strong central power coincides with the quest for it as a constant object of desire, a relentless pursuit that many—from Kremlin ideologues to Siberian villagers—believe requires constant sacrice. A common sentiment was that if Pussy Riot were left unpunished, the reputation of Russia as a world power would be compromised. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.231-232: This persistent fetishism of the state 40 is reinforced by the logic of necessary sacrifices, ritual excesses, and ceremonial enactments of sovereignty, manifesting as violence inflicted upon potentially threatening human bodies. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.233-234: While the president’s understatement of Pussy Riot’s political importance proved inaccurate (as the band’s lyrics and their previous performances of other anti-Putin songs in unusual and forbidden public places, such as in Red Square or on the roof of a trolleybus, clearly cast them as political artists), it highlighted a clever rhetorical move also used by the court prosecution. Indeed, the prosecution based its argument that the action was not political on the grounds that Pussy Riot only managed to scream the lyrics of the first part of their song, and the only thing heard by the witnesses was something regarding the “crawling” parishioners and “the shit of the Lord” (“F”). This might have been offensive to the assembled faithful, but it did not constitute, in the eyes of the law, a political manifesto -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.236: Such policing of the political’s gendered boundaries not only emerged through official discourse embodied in the figures of Judge Syrova and President Putin but seems to flow through every capillary of Russian society. Indeed, many young urban liberals—the so-called creative class believed by some analysts to be the constituent of the large anti-Putin rallies in late 2011 and who otherwise supported Pussy Riot—still seemed genuinely bewildered by the women’s insistence that their performance was a political act. It could be art, it could be hooliganism, it could be stupidity, but it was not politics. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.236: In the case of Pussy Riot,many well-meaning liberals believed that the women should be released, not because they appreciated their performance (they did not, and most found it morally abhorrent) or agreed with their views (which were too far to the left in the eyes of most), but because they felt it was wrong to keep mothers of small children in prison -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.237: As the well-known scholar and activist Elena Gapovawrote,

If they are to be released “as women,” this means that the laws are different for men and women, and that women are not capable of rising to a universal abstraction. It means that they are not covered by the law, similarly to the ways in which minors are not covered in some cases. It means that women should be judged not through the law but through “charity,” because they are mothers first, and only then citizens. The losses for women’s citizenship [caused by the rhetoric to release Pussy Riot “as women”], as well as for citizen-state relations, are tremendous.

-- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.237: What also emerges in this imagery of female “captives” is its distinctly sacrificial rhetoric, which highlights the violence of sovereign enactments. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.240: Nonetheless, even among the sympathetic, Pussy Riot did not escape a routinized sexualized gaze, as when one commenter indicated that he preferred their good looks to their masked political personae. Certain uses of the body, Thomas Hansen and Finn Stepputat write, can defy disciplinary power and challenge sovereign violence: “like other manifestations of sovereignty, such display of will, sacrice and disregard of death appear both frightening and awe-inspiring as it thematizes the almost sacred character of life itself.” -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.242: Despite the calls of those who warned that the women should not be turned into martyrs, their punishment—although arguably following the letter of the law—ended up acquiring a distinctly sacrificial character. Some stressed ascetic denial and martyrdom, emphasizing Christian-like self-sacrifice, while others emphasized the ways in which Pussy Riot became an inadvertent medium for ritual action and communication between multiple actors. What these discourses seem to share is a rather well-worn theme throughout human history: the use of women’s bodies as the means of communicative practices—sacrifice, hierarchical discipline, and legal warnings. Pussy Riot’s bodies, almost inevitably, became appropriated and saturated with signification as they became objects of violence and, at the same time, sites of its vital resistance. In the end, it was not the extensive international support or the condemnation of the government by its vocal opponents at home but a public recognition of the sacrificial undertones of Pussy Riot’s trial that turned out to be so challenging for the Russian government’s triumphant pageant of sovereign rule. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014