Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 17, 2012. With the current media discussion of the Sochi Olympics and the accompanying criticism of Russia and Vladimir Putin in specific, it seemed an appropriate occasion to repost Mr. Escalante’s essay and contribute a different perspective.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has a face made for representation. All three of the Pussy Riot defendants, whose trial verdict is slated for tomorrow, do: Ms Tolokonnikova’s classic beauty, Ms Alyokhina’s wholesome hippie earth mother look, the grave and pensively professorial Ms Samutsevich. Almost any given photo of them could be used as an album cover.
One might argue that even their crayola colored balaklavas are telegenic and symbolically representative, especially in the wake of Subcomandante Marcos. Their case has certainly become representative, both for the Russian State against which they were protesting and for its opponents. In the West and in large measure in Russia, the art world has rallied behind them as victims of State retaliation against “freedom of expression,” and so too have the predictable NGOs and the mouthpieces of Western States who like to argue that their permission of “freedom of expression” is a sign that they they are genuinely free societies. One the other side, the supporters of the Russian State, what Zizek, with his usual acerbic cleverness, has called “Prick Riot”- have said these neo-stilyagi Riot girls are symbolic of What’s Wrong With the Kids Nowadays; with a hint that they might even be Color Revolution provocateurs. They are, apparently, perfectly suited to be poster girls in two very different directions.
The point of their 30 second song in the Cathedral, in which they sampled, as it were, Russian church anthems in asking the “Mother of God” to “banish Putin,” was to protest in particular the Russian State’s alliance with the Moscow Patriarchate. They are now charged with hooliganism (the same sort of thing of which Ai Weiwei is often accused in PRC propaganda, though Putin’s Russia is considerably more liberal than the PRC), and face the possibility of lengthy prison terms. The Pussy Rioters, so idealistic, so pretty, so smart, so chic, may all get big careers out of this yet. But they might well go to prison, for absurd lengths of time. The three defendants have asked for mercy. They shouldn’t have been charged with anything very grave in the first place. Street theater in a church might be met with a small sentence of street cleanup: brief restitutive public performance for brief offensive public performance. But clearly their act means a great deal to a lot of people, including, preeminently perhaps, themselves.
The primary target of Pussy Riot is Putin and Putin’s State-in-the-making. They accuse it of authoritarianism and corruption, of stifling reform, of reaction back to Soviet-style repression. Specifically, Ms Samutsevich, in her closing remarks at her trial, has said that the Russian State is opposed to “mass culture” with its “values of tolerance and diversity.” The Rioters seem confused about whether the West is a model here, or in what sense; certainly their rhetoric suggests this, and yet, their analogues here say almost exactly the same things about our States as the Riot girls say about theirs, but our States allow- and perhaps even orchestrate- the “mass culture” they see as a site of freedom. On the one hand, they will oppose free society to repressive State, but on the other, one of them will commend Scandinavia as a model commonwealth; Scandinavia, none of whose nations are anything like anarchist- perhaps she was thinking of Christiania.
Putin’s State is indeed rather authoritarian. It is authoritarian by necessity of circumstance, in the mind of Putin and his comrades, because Russia after Yeltsin had become a chaos dominated by an oligarchy whose most respectable members were robber barons and whose least respectable members were heads of a vast criminal underground. This oligarchy was backed by Western powers eager to reduce what was left of the Soviet Union to dependence upon IMF and UN control. This was hardly paranoia on Putin’s part. One need only remember the brazen manipulation of the “color revolutions” by Western powers, or the open positioning of new military threats to Russia in Poland and Central Asia, Russia’s old “near abroad” with the security of which Russia, as a steppes State, has always been very concerned, to see why Mr Putin would be concerned.
The chaos Putin inherited saw Russia poor and demoralized, huge numbers of its young men ruined by drink and drugs, wracked by crime, its birth rate plummeting, hedged in by enemies, heir to ecological disasters inherited from Communism, and with its most notorious export being young women very often destined for sex slavery.
Such is the Russia Putin has had to try to put back together again. Toward that end, he has in fact built up a small- very small-cult of personality; though he is a genuine judo champion, and really does shoot tigers with tranquilizer darts, he doesn’t actually find amphorae in the Black Sea, and any number of other media events showcasing his potency might be theatrical in nature as well. He has in fact has built up a youth movement, Nashi, loyal to his project; he has dealt roughly with his opponents (though there seems little reason to believe that he was involved in the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko or the murder of Anna Politkovskaya); and he has built a media machine to support his program of consolidation and reform. But his popularity, while waning somewhat of late, has been unquestionably genuine and immense. It wasn’t Putin’s media machine, for instance, which came up with the notorious birthday calendar, and it wasn’t Putin’s machine which came up with the Putin Girls’ half-joking, but only half, hit song “Takovo kak Putin”– “A Dude Like Putin.”
There is no question that by the measure of Western liberal democracies, Putin’s State falls short. The real question is whether that measure ought to be applied in the present conditions. Anna Politkovskaya could, or Nadezhda Tolokonnikova can, point to any number of abuses of power, though the Putin regime is not very much at all like Argentina or Chile in the 70s, or Niyazov’s Turkmenistan, or Karimov’s Uzbekistan. And certainly the Pussy Riot trial is a show trial, if even half the reports are to be believed. It is not asking too much of the Putinist State to follow in this case more of the rule of law that its own kronjurist and, briefly, head of State Dimitri Medvedev has done so much to hammer out. But the Pussy Rioters weren’t “disappeared,” as the dreadful Argentinianism goes, just as none of the participants in the anti-Putin version of the “Happy Birthday” calendar were either. Nor will they, as Mr Medvedev points out, be stoned; a remark of his which has earned the wry scorn of Ms Samutsevich; her response, to the effect of “yeah, thanks,” is perfectly understandable; but so, however awkwardly put, is his point. She seems to make Putin’s Russia out to be not very different from Iran; but in fact it is very different. As her own comrade Ms Tolokonnikova says, what kind of clericalism can there actually be in a country which just twenty years had compulsorily atheist institutions?
And this highlights how confused the defendants seem to be about what exactly it is they’re opposing, and what exactly it is that they’re for. Are they against “patriarchy,” that feminist myth, or Patriarchy? Is it authoritarianism, or authority itself? Do they really think that Putin’s State is analogous to the Islamic Republic of Iran, or to Pinochet’s Chile?
Western-leaning protestors seem to miss the very basic point that they don’t live in Western Europe. They live in a post-Soviet Russia which, without the proto-constitutionalist order Putin and Medvedev have worked to create, would eat them alive in a minute. Ksenia Sobchak admits that Putin has done great things for Russia; she says however that his time is past, he is too compromised with corrupt institutions, and must give way to a new class of “young, creative class with their own values,” one of whom, apparently, might be a new Peter the Great. Does she actually believe this?
Of course Putin is deeply involved in corrupt institutions- it is what he has inherited. It is also what he is capable of handling, and what art students are not likely to be. Of course his regime is rough. Kadyrov, Putin’s vassal, is in fact an appallingly rough character. But would Wahhabi jihadis be better? Because of what Putin was able to do by securing the loyalty of Kadyrov, Chechnya, and Russia, each has more peace than either would have otherwise. Of course Putin is authoritarian. Would rule by oligarchs, or crime lords, and the reduction of Russia by the IMF to Jamaica-like conditions (with the exception, of course, of a US protectorate Moscow, a landlocked, glittering Puerto Rico) be better? Constitutional order, and a free and ordered civil society, can’t be simply created out of nothing. It takes time and great effort to forge them, and native materials must be used, a lesson which even the nearly incorrigible American neo-conservatives are beginning to learn, after their series of disastrous failures in adventuristic export of “democracy,” utopian at best, and at worst, dissembling covers for forcing corporation-rule on sovereign nations. And Putin is going as fast as he can, and working as hard as he can, to found a sovereign constitutional commonwealth of ordered freedom. Although very few persons in the Western media and academic empire are willing or even capable of understanding what Putin is about, Paul Robinson is an outstanding and extremely rare exception. He correctly notes the influence of Chicherin and Ilyin, two thinkers heavily influenced by Central European Protestant political thought and in some respects close to Kuyper, on Putin. Most importantly, he points out that Putin wants a free civil society whose peace is guaranteed by a carefully circumscribed constitutional State.
It doesn’t help that many of the protestors come from the Moscow elite- privileged and often jaded children of the oligarchy and and its dependents. As is commonly the case with haute-bourgeois children, when they do react away from the frivolity of their lives, they turn to a hyperactive compensatory social activism of the naivest sort, in which, however, the assumptions of their privilege remain secretly operative. Robinson cites Chicherin:
“The Russian liberal,” Chicherin wrote, “travels on a few high-sounding words: freedom, openness, public opinion … which he interprets as having no limits. … Hence he regards as products of outrageous despotism the most elementary concepts, such as obedience to law or the need for a police…”
A number of the old Russian Nihilists and early Communists fit this profile, and the Putinist State certainly remembers this, and is able to underscore the Muscovite character of many of the anti-Putinists to good effect in the provinces, where the Moscow rich, with their luxurious lives (Ms Sobchak’s lifestyle, for instance, is right out of Vogue), are often despised. And the Rioters might also, in the name of unlimited freedom, regard as “outrageous despotism” certain very elementary things.
But the three defendants did not blow anyone or anything up, they didn’t call for insurrection or violence, they struck an aesthetic blow, using a move from a very Western bourgeois artistic playbook, against what they take to be the aesthetic cover of a tyrannical State.
And that aesthetic cover, according to them, is the Russian hierarchy.
Yves Congar, in his After Nine Hundred Years, considered that the roots of Eastern Christian authoritarianism were in the success of Constantine; the success was so great, he argued, that Eastern Christianity became deeply conservative of the status quo, whereas the West, more precariously situated in late antiquity, was free to be young and experimental. And Russia, evangelized by the Byzantine world, inherited the former sort of public Christianity.
Since the defeat of the Nonpossessors, the Russian episcopate has especially been a creature of the State, but without the kind of freedom which the supposedly servile Lutheran State Churches enjoyed in their theological faculties at university.
The Petrine revolution, although even more closely integrating the episcopate and the abbacy into the State along German Protestant lines, was in fact a progressive force, despite Florovsky’s lamenting of the so-called “Western captivity.” The condition of the ministry had been unbelievably primitive, and the great Feofan Prokopovich reformed it to a remarkable degree. The Russian church was close to even greater reform, when the process was cut short by the Bolshevik Revolution, although it was still enough of a reactionary force to make Leninist actions plausible in the minds of the masses.
Nearly destroyed by the Russian Revolution and retrieved at the last minute by Stalin, who thought the assistance of the Church might be useful in the war of defense against Nazi Germany, the Russian church existed during the Communist period in two broad groups, both inside and outside Russia. In Russia, the Moscow Patriarchate, almost entirely a creature of the KGB, and the catacomb church; outside it, the Moscow-friendly Metropolia, and the Russian Church “Outside Russia,” founded by White forces in exile, all of which have, somewhat warily and tentatively, reconciled since the fall of Communism.
In a Russia where Orthodoxy is the national Church tradition and there is as of yet no Reformation of it, Putin perforce must identify himself with the Patriarchate, whose present officeholder is a friend of his and old KGB connection. Whatever Putin’s personal faith is- if he has one- he is committed by the necessities of the situation to support the Patriarchate as a morally stabilizing force. Of course this leads to a great deal of compromise on the part of the hierarchs, though vastly less than was asked of them under Communism; and they have a longstanding tradition of authoritarianism and corruption all their own, from long before Communist days. But the best of them too are happy enough to lend their support to a project of national reformation, and this is entirely understandable. Still, Orthodoxy and Protestant modernity are not finally reconcilable, and there are contradictions inherent in Putin’s alliance with the unreformed Patriarchate.
Ekaterina Samutsevich’s closing remarks are extremely shrewd in this regard:
Here, apparently, the authorities took advantage of a certain deficit of the Orthodox aesthetic in Soviet times, when the Orthodox religion had an aura of lost history, of something that had been crushed and damaged by the Soviet totalitarian regime, and was thus an opposition culture. The authorities decided to appropriate this historical effect of loss and present a new political project to restore Russia’s lost spiritual values, a project that has little to do with a genuine concern for the preservation of Russian Orthodoxy’s history and culture.
It was also fairly logical that the Russian Orthodox Church, given its long mystical ties to power, emerged as the project’s principal exponent in the media. It was decided that, unlike in the Soviet era, when the church opposed, above all, the brutality of the authorities towards history itself, the Russian Orthodox Church should now confront all pernicious manifestations of contemporary mass culture with its concept of diversity and tolerance.
Implementing this thoroughly interesting political project has required considerable quantities of professional lighting and video equipment, air time on national TV channels for hours-long live broadcasts, and numerous background shoots for morally and ethically edifying news stories, where the Patriarch’s well-constructed speeches would in fact be presented, thus helping the faithful make the correct political choice during the difficult time for Putin preceding the election. Moreover, the filming must be continuous; the necessary images must be burned into the memory and constantly updated; they must create the impression of something natural, constant and compulsory.
The contradictions in this situation actually work against Putin’s project. He is prevented from attaining truly Petrine greatness by his exclusive alliance with the Patriarchate, which is incapable of ministerially representing a free civil society, a free corpus christianum.
The mystique of Byzantine iconography, presently enjoying such a Renaissance among the sentimental conservatives in the Western Christian world, was almost from its start an aesthetic of power. While we will not condemn the Constantinian project, it was far from ideal, and suffered from the weaknesses Congar and many others have pointed out, and the development of the iconic mentality was one of them.
This mentality, where the distinction between sign and signified is blurred or even erased, and artefacts are fetishized, lies behind the problematic aspects of Putin’s reform, which adverts to Patriarchal authority rather than to revelation and prudence.
Whatever Vsevolod Chaplin might seem to wish for, the Russian republic is not Iran. The defendants are not actually charged with blasphemy. They are charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. They are charged, really, with hurting people’s feelings; officially, Orthodox people’s feelings; unofficially, some say, with hurting Putin’s feelings. There is a strange political correctness about it all, almost as if they were charged with hate speech in Canada for preaching Pauline texts about sexual ethics, or for mentioning, in the UK, that Christianity is part of the British Constitution.
A Christian commonwealth needs no blasphemy laws, either of the old kind- where the real blasphemy was in presuming that God needs the State to defend His name- or of the modern thought-police sort, secularist sort, where “feelings” of interest groups are the inviolably sacred majesty which must not be offended. It is enough that the Rioters be charged with trespass and disturbing the peace.
But there is a blasphemy being committed. According to Zizek, it is the Russian State’s prosecution of the three Rioters. Zizek’s impassioned protest of the Rioters’ prosecution is him at his least intelligent and most clownish, a infantile “no, YOU are!” His defense of the three defendants demeans them. They deserve the credit of their deed- they are, in fact, guilt of what many people call blasphemy. But against what? Against an aesthetic prop of power- an icon, as it were. But iconoclasm, for heirs of the Reformation, is no blasphemy at all. So who is the real blasphemer, and against what?
The Western media empire, which, deploying the old Anglo-American trope pointed out long ago by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, likes to call itself “global” or “world,” love the photogenic Pussy Riot girls. Celebrities are rallying around the martyrs of self-expression. And the Pussy Rioters seem to love to be loved; they have an eye for the camera and a sense of how to pose, with the exception of the older and wiser Ms Samutsevich, who no doubt understands the perils of representation.
But what does it mean to be loved by the media?
The Western media is itself part of a machine much bigger than Putin’s regime on the way to real Statehood. The vast media empire of global corporatism is what Guy Debord called the Spectacle, and the Spectacle’s society is rapidly turning into a surveillance society, as any Briton can attest, and throughout the Western world, civil rights are being destroyed by new legislation. There is little to no difference between Left and Right here; both promote the “servile State,” and both are willing to spy on their own citizens and kill by remote control. Though the Right prefers to use the discourse of “freedom” from undefined enemies, we know what kind of Gramscian tactics are carried out by our Left in the name of “diversity and tolerance.” The mainstream Western media, even when it nominally opposes the globalist system, is in fact its most obedient servant. As the title of Banksy’s new book has it, “You are an acceptable level of threat, and if you weren’t, you would know about it.” To be championed by the “world media,” to be counted among “the world community of artists,” is to be in bad company. Ms Samutsevich doubtless knows this, but the fact remains.
Finally, Zizek is right. It is Putin who is the real blasphemer here. But not, as Zizek has it, because he has arrested three pretty young artists for self-expression (and since when has Zizek become the priest of that bourgeois sacrament?), but because his State refuses to play by globalist rules. This makes Putin the real rebel, the real punk, the real blasphemer against the Spectacle. Putin’s whole media program is, relative to globalism, a detournement, and a much bigger and profounder one than any street theater Pussy Riot or Voina could ever pull off.
But Putin, to be true to his own vision, needs to let the Rioters’ trespass pass; needs to make sure that while hooliganism might be a misdemeanor, it shouldn’t worked up into a show trial on extra-legal charges of secularized “blasphemy.” In this sense, the trial is important, and will be a test of Putin’s prudence and purpose. Putin needs to recognize the insignificance of Pussy Riot’s particular misdemeanor. But there is something significant about them that he must recognize.
Ms Tolokonnikova has said that she and her friends are not anti-Christian, but rather anti-Inquisition, and that Christianity is a “great and luminous philosophy” being “shabbily abused” by Putin’s State. She goes even farther than calling it a great philosophy: she credits Christianity with teaching, especially in the Old Testament, that truth has an “ontological force” which prevails over lies. While there is no reason to think that she or her friends are Christians of any orthodox sort at all, there is also no real reason to think she’s being disingenuous in her remarks; Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is nothing if not brave, and dissimulation for self-interest is not in her character. I think she means what she says, and that this critical respect for the message of the Bible, coupled with critique of the hierarchy and the iconic, might be a sign of the beginnings of a Protestant moment, so to speak, in Russian urban society. Or so we can hope. Putin should listen.
But she has also said something perhaps even more interesting than her profession of admiration for genuine (evangelical?) Christianity. She has said that while the State, at least the patriarchal State, is repressive, change and harmony come from “society,” that “many people” were willing at Bolotnaya Square and Bolshoi Kamenny Bridge to stand up, but that “society” is still weak, too weak to take the State on directly. This talk of State and society is, of course, the discourse not of Communism or anarchism, but of old Liberalism. She sounds here less like Kathleen Hanna than like the Acton Institute. There seems no reason to think that Ms Tolokonnikova is being disingenuous. She has expressly said that her ideal regime is Scandinavian social democracy, wherein- and she is idealizing it from a distance, obviously- there is minimal government interference with those who want lives “shielded from the State,” with government assistance available for those who need it. This isn’t Communism- this is much closer to Hegel’s Rechtsstat, or Roepke’s Ordoliberalism, with a strongly libertarian view of civil society, and thus, not far from a truly evangelical politics.
And what kind of commonwealth Putin fighting for? Roughly, and in the long run, exactly the same thing. Dr Robinson again:
Putin has a clear vision of a strong, centralized, law-based government with defined and limited competences, consistent with native Russian schools of thought. Our relations with Russia would be greatly improved if we were to acknowledge and engage with this reality instead of tilting at irrelevant caricatures of a police state.
What Putin, for all his problems, knows, and he is right, is that the constitutional order and free civil society he wants for Russia can’t be conjured out of nothing by performance art, rock concerts, NGOs, or Facebook activism. In Russian conditions, what Ms Tolokonnikova wants for Russia’s future requires, like it or not, “a dude like Putin.” That she can’t see this is unfortunate; but that Putin, in his heavyhanded way, apparently can’t see that what she wants is what he wants too, might be tragic. Partly, of course, because Putin has the power, and, contrary to MTV fantasy, the Pussy Rioters don’t, and their offense isn’t worth this trial or the possible penalties. But also because Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, representative of a “young, creative class” might well be, despite all appearances visible to Putin or herself, Russia’s foremost Putin Girl.