Category Archives: Kirill Prudnikov

Kirill Prudnikov is a research intern with the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He previously served as an intern for the Center for Conflict Studies in Monterey, California. Kirill holds a graduate degree in International Policy Studies with a concentration in Conflict Resolution from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Women’s Rights in Russia: Forward to the Past

by Kirill Prudnikhov

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.

Transformation of the Culture of Justice in Russia: The Pussy Riot Case

By Kirill Prudnikov

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a jailed member of the punk band Pussy Riot, has launched a hunger strike to protest against dehumanizing living conditions in the prison where she is serving her two-year sentence. It has been a year since Tolokonnikova was convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for Pussy Riot’s performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February of last year. The group, wearing balaclavas, sang a song calling on the Virgin Mary to “kick out Putin,” and three of them were arrested and later convicted. The conviction of Pussy Riot raises a question of the current state and understanding of justice in Russia.

In order to understand the transformation of the notion of justice in Russian society we need to introduce the concept of culture of justice, that overcomes the dichotomy between Rawls’ “Threefold Reflective Equilibrium of Justice,” and Hayek’s critique formulated as “The ‘Mirage’ of Social Justice.” The culture of justice is a complex of facts, which formulates a set of factors by which a specific community formulates the idea of ​​justice, or better how a community makes meaning of justice. This combination of factors allows us to say that there is no universal principle of justice, and that the notion of justice is always instantiated in certain cultural communities. Among these factors we can list literature, religion, philosophy and science: These are all symbolic systems in which members of the cultural community form their notions of justice and considerations of fairness. However, it does not mean that these cultures exist separately; they are permeable to each other.

So how we can formulate the current culture of justice in Russian society? For the first time in history Russians constitute a majority of the country in which they live. This ethnic domination caused the reinterpretation of the historical role of Russians, and as a result it led to a nationalization of Russian society, and returning to the “traditional cultural values.” These traditional values are highly based on the synergy of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Government. This synergy leads to a creation of a new quasi culture of justice that combines religious justice with criminal justice. Here we have to say that an Orthodox concept of justice is different from a Catholic and a Protestant one. For Catholicism, and to a greater extent for the Protestant, a concept of justice emerges as the concept of a fair penalty for certain sins. The concept of justice has a clear legal context. The Orthodox theology’s idea of sin and deliverance from sin is rather similar to the notion of recovery, or a process of healing and overcoming the disease; it is not a punishment, not a legal case. Therefore the synergy of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Government created a culture of justice where a sin is equal to a crime, and it can be punished through legal structures.

We can see this synergic culture of justice in the case of Pussy Riot. The case of Tolokonnikova has nothing to do with a legal justice; it is rather a recovery through suffering and self-cleaning. The question is what kind of sin have they committed (it is obvious that the “punk prayer” is not a crime, but a sin)? The answer lies in the symbolic meaning of the “punk prayer.” The girl’s band entered a metaphysical, sacred space dominated by men. Lionel Tiger in his Men in Groups (1969) said that social inequality and social injustice lies in men’s nature to create secret societies, and exercise power through them by monopolizing the information. Thus, Pussy Riot’s sin is that they challenged the culture of social inequality and social injustice dominated by the synergy of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Government. They committed a sin-crime against the information monopoly of the Church-Government, and were punished by men both on the legal and religious levels.

The Pussy Riot example illustrates a new trend in the culture of justice in Russia that combines both religious and criminal justice, and equalizes a sin and a crime on metaphysical, religious, and cultural levels.

How a Group of Women Successfully Led to Military Reform in Russia

By Kirill Prudnikov

Private Andrey Sychyov, a 19 year old soldier, was forced to squat for four hours with his hands tied behind his back while his fellow colleagues brutally raped and beat him. As a result, he suffered leg fractures, which subsequently led to amputation. The Sychov case was one of many in the Russian military that has been brought to public attention by the women-led NGO Union of Soldiers Mothers Committees of Russia (CSMR).

The Russian military system is in urgent need of reform as it has become dangerous for soldiers’ health and lives to defend their own country. Gen. Alexander Sorochkin, head of the Military Investigation Department at Russia’s Investigation Committee, reported that more than 5000 crimes related to subjection of juniors in Russian army were committed by soldiers in the first half of 2012. In addition, the Defense Ministry reported a total of 149 Russian soldiers committed suicide from January to November of 2009. According to the Rossiyskaya Gazeta [Russian Newspaper] most of the suicides were committed because of a spectrum of subordinating and humiliating activities and legally defined as “incitement to commit suicide.” However, the official statistics do not reflect the real numbers because military officers are threatening soldiers and ordering doctors to keep silent in order to hide most of the cases from the Military Investigation Department. Young soldiers defending the country are constantly threatened by violence coming from their fellow peers. Russia’s military needs reform, but making it happen won’t be easy.

It is women, and particularly CSMR, who should lead the Russian military reform. The only role the Russian government saw for women’s participation in war was the sacrifice of their husbands, boyfriends and sons. Women were frustrated with an exclusive role of soldiers’ mothers, “producing” children in order to replace the soldiers killed in Chechnya. In order to empower themselves these mothers created an NGO that focused on peace-building efforts and used a bottom-up approach in ceasefire negotiations and prisoner exchanges. CSMR’s volunteers – mostly elderly women, entered rebel-controlled areas and established contacts with village elders and rebel commanders. Their “straightforward” approach helped to organize massive prisoner exchanges and secured release of captured Federal soldiers and officers. Moreover, their efforts during the Chechen war helped them to gain the trust and support from all levels of Russian society.

I believe that CSMR has enough experience and support to end the humiliating activities performed by the senior ranks, address the militarizing of the justice system, and assist civil control over the military and legislation. If CSMR changed their agenda to lobbying for military reform, they would not just stop the violence in the military but also empower themselves through political participation. The Soldiers Mothers Committees of Russia has pushed Russians to confront their armed services on the democratic basis of military law – an action utterly unthinkable a few years ago.