The Prayer of Pussy Riot: From Parody to Profanation

Lukuaika: 8 min.

“The ideological catchphrase of the Putin era might well be borrowed from Heath Ledger’s Joker in the Dark Knight: ‘Why so serious?’ In this culture of universal parody, the performance of Pussy Riot is exceptional precisely in not being blasphemous. Indeed, the accusation of blasphemy, of using the name of God ‘in vain’, is incorrect both formally and substantively”, writes Sergei Prozorov.

On August 17, 2012 three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. Pussy Riot’s ‘punk prayer’, entitled ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Away’, performed on February 21 at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, was deemed to be a blasphemy of religious rituals, offending the beliefs of Orthodox Christians. Pussy Riot’s performance was compared by its detractors to the anti-religious campaigns of the Bolsheviks in the 1920s-1930s, the most infamous of which was the destruction of churches, including the original Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, blown up in 1931.

In his speech act at the trial Prosecutor Alexei Nikiforov explicitly referred to the band’s action in terms of ‘abuse of God’ (bogohulstvo): “Any temple carries holiness, a solemn atmosphere that those present in it must maintain. The bacchanalia of this sort throws a challenge to this. This testifies to the moral decline in the society. The keykeeper of the Cathedral has remarked on the similarity of the women’s action to the Union of the Godless in the 1920s, parodying processions and collective prayers that subsequently almost led to the destruction of the Russian Orthodox Church.” (Cited in Elena Kostychenko ‘Sedmoi Den’ Slushaniy po Delu Pussy Riot‘, Novaya Gazeta, August 7, 2012.)

However understandable it might be as a rhetorical strategy, the analogy between Pussy Riot’s punk prayer and the anti-religious campaigns of early Bolshevism or Stalinism is entirely misleading. Contrary to the iconoclastic pathos of Soviet art and politics of the 1920s, which sought to weaken the political and social influence of the Church through public education and propaganda, the performance of Pussy Riot does nothing to undermine religion as such, or Orthodox Christianity in particular, but rather criticizes its implication in the decidedly worldly politics of the Putin regime. There is certainly a difference between an anti-Putin prayer to Virgin Mary that calls on her to become a feminist and a poster of Virgin Mary receiving an abortion or other infamous means of anti-religious propaganda in the early-Soviet period: the exhumation of entombed saints, the exposure as fraudulent of ‘weeping icons’ and other miracles, the burning of the effigies of God and liturgies set to pornographic lyrics.

The difference between the two approaches may be elaborated by considering the notion of parody used in the speech of the prosecutor. The conventional understanding of parody approaches it as a strategy that seeks to suspend or deactivate the force of a practice by transferring it to a new domain, usually a less solemn or serious one. Yet, in its more originary sense, developed in the sphere of musical technique, the concept referred to the loss of correspondence between musical melody and the rhythm of speech, whereby speech takes place in the space beside (para) the song. It is this originary sense of parody as the rupture of the natural bond between melos and logos that conditions the possibility of parody in the more familiar and limited sense as the free movement of speech between different contexts (Agamben 2007).

The performance of Pussy Riot is certainly parodic in this wider and more originary sense: as a prayer set to punk rock music, their song offers a perfect paradigm of the dissolution of anything like a ‘natural bond’ between melos and logos, whereby the words of the prayer may be relocated to the domain of punk rock or, conversely, loud and abrasive music may become the setting for a prayer. Yet, this general sense of parody is a feature of language as such and not a purposeful strategy of the speaker. The fact that a logos may be relocated to a melos that is incongruous with it, and the other way round, only testifies to the non-existence of any natural bond between them.

Yet, if we consider the Pussy Riot prayer in terms of the more familiar sense of parody, things become more complicated. It is far from certain that in this case we may speak of a transfer of discursive content of prayer to a comical context. While the parodies of the Soviet Union of the Godless that set vulgar lyrics to liturgical music sought, successfully or otherwise, to make us laugh at what formerly filled us with awe, the prayer to Virgin Mary to drive Putin away clearly serves a rather different function that, moreover, would be seriously jeopardized by the ridicule of the addressee of the petition. Similarly, the lyrics describing the repressive and corrupt character of the Russian state and the complicity of the Church in this repression and corruption may hardly be termed comical or humorous, even in the more acerbic or satirical sense.

The Church’s praise of rotten dictators,
The cross-bearer procession of black limousines,
A teacher-preacher will meet you at school,
Go to class – bring him money!

Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin.
Bitch, better believe in God instead.
The belt of the Virgin can’t replace mass meetings.
Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!

(Pussy Riot: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away)

The same applies to the statements of the members of Pussy Riot during the trial, which are completely devoid of ridicule or spite but rather repeatedly refer to anger and pain that motivated their performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

We are distressed that the great and luminous Christian philosophy is being used so shabbily. We are very angry that something beautiful is being spoiled. It still makes us angry and we find it very painful to watch. (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s Closing Statement)

Our motivation is more eloquently expressed in the words of the Gospel “For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” I, and all of us, sincerely believe that it will be opened for us. But, alas, so far the bars are closed on us. (Maria Alyokhina’s Closing Statement)

Both the song and the statements are characterized by a decidedly non-ironic ferocity that contrasts quite sharply with the prevailing attitude to politics among Russian artists, intellectuals and the civil society more generally. This attitude, which in the late-Soviet period received the name ‘styob’ (literally, ‘jibe’), consists in the ironic distancing from all structures of authority and the subjection of the official discourse to a desublimating parody that deprives it of both sense and force and in this manner carries a certain liberating effect despite leaving the parodied phenomenon strictly intact. By making the maxims of the Soviet ideology meaningless, the practitioners of styob also sought to make them powerless with regard to their hold on one’s existence. Rather than confront the system frontally and inviting a repressive response, the practitioners of the ethos that I have previously termed ‘para-Soviet’ sought to twist loose from the hold of the increasingly sterile ideological maxims and cultivate alternative forms of life at the minimal distance from the official discourse. (Prozorov 2009, Ch 3)

While it certainly contributed to the degradation of the Soviet order by desublimating its ideological maxims, the emancipatory effects of styob should not be overestimated. Indeed, the very appeal of thepara-Soviet ethos is conditioned by the impossibility or extreme danger of assuming an explicitlyanti-Soviet position. It was only because the Soviet system was here to stay that it made sense to cultivate livable spaces in its interstices, furnishing them through alternative cultural practices that deactivated the official discourse through ironic parody of its maxims. The eventual success of this deactivation obscured the fact that it was made possible by the prior occupation of the position of extreme disempowerment, lacking any means to confront power directly and reject its ideology explicitly. Conversely, the relative decline of styob under late Gorbachev and Yeltsin testified to the weakening of state power and the newly gained possibility to challenge the state frontally on the terrain of ideology and not beside it in the practice of parodic displacement.

The consolidation of the Putin regime from 2004 onwards witnessed a return of the parodic ethos, yet the character of this regime led to an important transformation in its logic. While the Soviet system was characterized by a rigid and monolithic ideological edifice, which underwent almost no transformation since the death of Stalin, the Putin period has been marked by the abandonment of any ideological identification in favour of a thinly disguised nihilism, which has no qualms about borrowing elements from the most disparate ideological orientations, combining them in a logically inconsistent manner and discarding them after use without any regret. While the Soviet regime in its last decades could be accused of no longer believing in its own maxims and concealing this disbelief under the veneer of ideological rigidity, the Putin regime has arguably dispensed with ideology even as a matter of appearance and hence does not even pretend to believe in itself. To laugh at this system is always already to laugh with it.

The spread of irony, sarcasm and travesty during the Putin period is thus different from the Soviet era in that it carries little or no emancipatory potential. Instead, it serves to soften the impact of authoritarian rule by suggesting that it is all somehow not serious, an ironic citation from the ‘black books’ of the 20th century with an obligatory wink at the end. At least until the post-election protests of 2011-2012, the societal response to the regime tended to take the same parodic form, ranging from the refined ironies of the regime’s apologists to the shrill and abrasive laughter of such protest-art groups as Voina (War), of which Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is a former member. Thus, styob has arguably become the true dominant ideology of contemporary Russia, whose function is to make laughable everything, including the ruling regime but also every instance of protest or dissent, which find each other acceptable only insofar as neither of them is ultimately ‘for real’. The ideological catchphrase of the Putin era might well be borrowed from Heath Ledger’s Joker in the Dark Knight: ‘Why so serious?’

In this culture of universal parody, the performance of Pussy Riot is exceptional precisely in not being blasphemous. Indeed, the accusation of blasphemy, of using the name of God ‘in vain’, is incorrect both formally and substantively. In the formal sense, in the syntagm ‘Mother of God, drive Putin away!’ the divine name is not extracted and isolated from semantic content, but, on the contrary, is linked with the object of the petition. In the substantial sense, the entire purpose of the performance is to stop the name of the Mother of God being uttered in vain in canonical prayers and to reclaim it in the struggle against the allegedly corrupt state and church. Rather than being an instance of a blasphemous parody, the punk prayer in question is a perfectly serious speech act that ventures to wrest the force of prayer from its confinement within the canonical ritual and to reclaim it for free use in political practice.

[In] our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to combine the visual images of Orthodox culture and protest culture, suggesting that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch and Putin, that it might also take the side of civic rebellion and protest in Russia. (Ekaterina Samutsevich’s Closing Statement)

It is this overcoming of separations and the return of things to free common use that constitutes the original meaning of ‘profanation’ and distinguishes it from parody. Whereas parody seeks to deactivate the force of a practice by relocating it into an inappropriate context, profanation seeks to reclaim and amplify this force by dismantling the very distinction between the appropriate and the inappropriate, so that there is no longer a privileged or sacred place, alongside which parody could be practiced. While parody makes it possible to dwell beside the dominant order, while submitting its ideology to blasphemous ridicule, profanation seeks to intervene into and overcome this very dominance. (Agamben 2009)

In his statement on the Pussy Riot case made on March 24, Patriarch Kirill lamented that ‘the Devil had had a good laugh over us, having brought us so many sorrows in the days when we should be distancing ourselves from worldly worries, when we should be deep in prayer, observing Lent, confessing our own sins’. Yet, insofar as Pussy Riot’s prayer was a serious speech act, what or who the devil was laughing at is anyone’s guess.

Sources:

Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, New York: Zone Books, 2007.
Sergei Prozorov, The Ethics of Postcommunism, New York: Palgrave, 2009.

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