Russia is back in the Middle Ages. It loves its weirdoes, prisoners, martyrs, fools in God. Russians are ready to empathize with everyone who has been jailed by an “unjust government,” but just as ready to criticize everyone who has been freed by the same government. Its archaic state of mind is ready to punish anyone and everyone who does not serve his or her punishment stoically and obediently. The situation gets worse when these “weirdoes” are females. Russian society, which seemingly takes national pride in its dark ages, is eager to objectify and marginalize women.
The Pussy Riot case best demonstrates the implications of the revival of an archaic paradigm in Russia. As soon as Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, members of a band that represented hope for the feminist movement, walked free out of jail, they were publicly harassed and objectified by a sexist society. The same liberal public that once used the hashtag “#FreePussyRiot” to show their support started questioning why Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova had make-up on just after their release, and why they didn’t meet with their children immediately. The attention shifted from Pussy Riot’s original performance in the Moscow Cathedral, their subsequent imprisonment and the message that they tried to convey, to the question of whether or not they are “good” women. This archaic approach to women’s role in society reached its peak when Playboy magazine publicly asked Nadezhda Tolokonnikova to go naked for its cover shot. Maria Alyokhina did not get such an offer, as it was clear that she is “less attractive than Tolokonnikova,” as insinuated by the mainstream media. It was not only Russian media that chose Tolokonnikova as the face of Pussy Riot. Most foreign press also put only attractive pictures of Tolokonnikova, often sexualising her, on the front pages dedicated to seeking amnesty for the Pussy Riot.
The permanent archaic culture of Russia is not ready to accept and forgive them the way it is ready to forgive artist Pyotr Pavlensky. Pavelensky nailed his testicles to cobblestones in the Red Square in an act of public disobedience. Pavlensky’s performance aimed to de-symbolize the most patriarchal place in Russia, the Red Square – the pure symbol of male political/cultural/social dominance in Russian society. According to cultural anthropologist Aleksandr Uzhankov, Moscow was built as a “cathedral under the skies” with the Red Square as an Ambon and the Kremlin as an Altair. His performance was similar to Pussy Riot’s punk prayer at the Ambon of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour but for a similar public offense (or sin), Pavlensky walked free due to lack of evidence of a crime, while Pussy Riot was even imprisoned for the “crime” and remains guilty of being amateur, stupid, careless and not worth engaging with. Therefore, what is legitimate for men is not legitimate for women, or the role of the “fool in Christ” is reserved only for males.
The Russian public would rather see one of the girls naked than see Pussy Riot undress the sexism and hypocrisy of Russian society.
However, there is a glimmer of hope: both Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, as soon as they were released, advocated for female inmates in Russian correction facilities, a cause to which they want to dedicate their lives. In my opinion, the only way they can stay true to this mission is to continue doing what they had been doing before their imprisonment. The trial made them famous, but they should ignore sexual objectification and publicity by focusing on undressing the male-dominated mindset. The best way to do that is to hide their faces under balaklavas and stoically fight against the injustices. Their activism needs to be more than a “performance” from now on. Pussy Riot’s human rights activism can remain provocative, but their message should be more straightforward, and easy to understand. Otherwise, the feminist aspects of their performances will be lost in the depth of interpretation. If they want to advocate for female inmates, they must shift the message to appeal to the broader public, and not only to the sophisticated art critics. Hopefully their work will be another step forward in Russia’s path to Renaissance and Enlightenment with regards to women’s rights – especially rights that are silenced by an oppressive society, dominated by a masculine church and government.