Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Memory Knots and Built Space: Thinking Pussy Riot's Punk Prayer through Locational History

As many know, Pussy Riot, a now-famous punk performance group from Russia, was launched into the international spotlight after their Punk Prayer performance at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. The group was incarcerated and later sentenced to three years of prison for their "blasphemy." Their cause, articulated as a critique of Putin's human rights record and heavy-handedness, was taken up globally through petitions, solidarity protests, websites, and celebrity performances.

What is less discussed in Western (largely U.S. and U.K. based) media, is not only that their Punk Prayer offered a diatribe on the patriarchy that has unified in an unholy alliance between Putin and the Orthodox Church, but the fraught role of the Christ the Savior building itself. The performance activated the icon of the balaclava but it also did something else: it took a luxurious monument that, in its ostentatious design and attempt to perfectly replicate the 1812 building that was destroyed by Stalin, and made that space strange, highlighting some of the discomfort, violence, and intense labor that goes into making such a space seem like a space of unity.

These insights are supported by Ekaterina V. Haskin's superb article on the history of the cathedral, and conflict over its reconstruction in the 1990s.

The building, Haskins explains, was initially built to commemorate Russia's defeat of Napolean, a building that "glorified the unity of the state, the Orthodox religion, and the people” when the building was destroyed in 1931 under Stalin’s orders “symbolized the victory of communist ideology. In the 1990s, the vanquished landmark came to symbolize the struggle over public memory because conflicting attitudes toward the Soviet and tsarist past were reflected in discussions about its resurrection.” ( Haskins 26). This building functions as a rhetorical space that bespeaks the complex evolutions of national identity and state policy, also admitting the fractures and fissures between neat 
ideological pronouncements about the nation, and its messier lived reality. Were the building left as is, in the 1990s, it could have served as “’as a terrifying image of the revolution preserved in our emory’” (Haskin 46 wuoting V. V. Filatov, “Vozdushnye zamki” (Castles in the air), Gazeta nezavisimoi intelligentsii “Missiia” (Independent intelligentsia’s newspaper “The Mission”), no. 1 (September 1993) (n.p.) (available at http://www.xxc.ru/stati/text007/index.htm).

The building also functions as a space where artists serve as civic exemplars, and where achieving artistic commissions in the space is a high point of a career, enabling the building to create a space where a national aesthetic could be elaborated (Haskins 35). Haskins emphasizes that the "cathedral
 transcended the political exigencies that motivated its construction and offered an aesthetically powerful justification of Russia’s unique historical path from the early Middle Ages to the present.” (Haskins 36), a justification that drew on the idiom of "the people" narod, in order to manufacture a kind of cosmic destiny.

Instead of allowing the ruined building (it was pillaged and raised to the ground under Stalinism) to stand as a visible and visceral testament to histories of violence, it was instead framed as a "redemptive" space where such a past has been fully overcome. Haskins notes that the Orthodox Church
issued a statement suggesting that 

“The cathedral that is being resurrected today will become a place of worshipful remembrance not only of heroes of 1812 but also of warriors and all our compatriots who died in wars and upheavals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” (Haskins 43) a kind of “strategic ambiguity,” Haskins explains, allows the church to “portray itself as a peacemaker in the work of national reconciliation, but it also enabled ideologically different viewpoints to converge in prase of the project. The Orthodox faithful could see it as a return to the old spiritual values and cultural institutions stifled by the Bolshevik revolution, while the former Communists in the government could see it as a way to heal current political and economic schisms.” (Haskins 43)

Even so, not all of Orthodox publics approved of the new building. Instead, many were concerned that the grandiose building would instill an erroneous belief that spiritual transformation is an easy matter (Haskins 43). The building then, is what, drawing on memory studies, is a "knot," a discursive and geographic meeting point for conflicting discourses and ideologies, a critical location for debates about memory and national identity. It is on this knotted point that Pussy Riot staged their blasphemous protest.

Critics of the new building took issue with the divide between the "moral imperative to expiate the sins of the Soviet era and the desire of those in power to use the project as a public-relations campaign. Given the perceived anti-establishment ethos of Russian Orthodox religion during the Soviet era" (Haskins 44). Since the 1990s, then, some members of the Church worried about the aesthetic and political collusion between church and state that allowed former members of the Communist party to be cleansed of political sins through immediate public overtures towards the church. In a sense, Pussy Riot's protest was not anti-Orthodox, per se, but rather, voicing a critique that had already been leveraged by members of the church, trying to reactivate the space as an anti-establishment and the space's promise as a nodal point for anti-Bolshevik resistance. Recall, that the Punk Prayer uses a religious idiom, calling on the Virgin Mary for solidarity, and action.

Awareness of the Church as a fraught space, and a key location for the construction of a national image was not lost on Pussy Riot members. Nadya stated that their protest was a way to resist a particular aesthetic of state power where Putin becomes interchangeable. 

Indeed, during the reconstruction of the space other critics suggested that “cooperation of the Church and Moscow city officials was nothing short of political theater on a large scale. ‘When big bureaucrats use such deadlines of the construction process as ‘Easter,’ when the mayor of Moscow, the head architect and all other administrators cross themselves before opening committee meetings, the familiar reality collapses and yields a theatrical effect of phantasmagoria, of grandiose theater replete with exalted utopian pathos and decorative symbols of statehood.’” (Haskins 45, quoting Alla Bossart, “Teatr vremen luzhkova i Sinoda” (Theater of the times of luzhkov and the Synod), Stolitsa, no. 2 (January 1995): 11. )

Bossart's rhetoric resonates strongly with that of Pussy Riot, a critique of an image event, and answering it with another. Indeed, the Punk Prayer calls out the collusion between Church and State to produce a kind of state capitalism that is based on creating a homogenous and repressive aesthetic for everyday life.

Thus, the Punk Prayer, understood as a kind of indecorous "hooliganism" can also be understand as a deeply kairotic re-enactment and gesture to ongoing criticisms of essentializing models of church and state. The locational specificity of their critique, I'd argue, is part of what creates the affective energy that allowed the balaclava to gain such international currency.

Ekaterina V. Haskins “Russia’s Postcommunist Past: The Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the Reimagining of National Identity,” History & Memory, Volume 21, Number 1, Spring/Summer 2009, pp.25-62 

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