Tweaking the Revolution: Pussy Riot’s Fearsome Call

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Pussy Riot gives a rush!  They are the new drug.  They make it most noticeable that there is a “them” and an “us.”  “We are all Pussy Riot” reads a supporter’s sign.  But at the same time we are not so sure.  Are we Pussy Riot or are we more aligned with the beautiful Russian church and the very gentle nun (see Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” video below) who seems to be trying, somehow, to help.  To help us, after all, people who need help.  They–Pussy Riot–are so daring, so revolutionary, so feminist and feminine and they are playing so artfully at revolution…  They are scary, these girls (“girls” is a term they are willing to reinstate) they are scary.  They strike fear into discerning hearts.

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Pussy Riot intercepted at the Cathredal of Moscow’s Church of the Savior as they make their video, “Punk Prayer”

Is it self-indulgent for us to get so much pleasure from viewing a political action?  It must be wrong, like sex or ice cream.  Too much pleasure spells danger to the unconscious and for good reason.  Sex for example brings disease, pregnancy, responsibility and grief.  What goes up must come down; pleasure is dangerous. Ice cream makes you fat, clogs your arteries, and overloads your system with sugar-suppressing, and disease-incurring insulin.   And so with Pussy Riot we must use caution… Possibly only revolution will right the ills of this world but at the same time we know that revolution brings nothing good in its stead.  Revolution is murder, reign of terror; it is the desperate path, the inevitable path, the path to avoid until it is unavoidable.  Knowing these things, it seems a little irresponsible to just love Pussy Riot! But what can we do?  We cannot help ourselves.

The  ACLU makes the cogent point on its “Blog of Rights” (see link below) that we here in America should not scramble onto the bandwagon for these young women in Russia while ignoring the plight of those who crowd our own prisons (predominantly the poor and people of color) and for whom far fewer people rally these days. We cannot disagree, and fully support the ACLU’s position on this.  But we wonder, just the same, does it help to pit a Russian punk band against the disenfranchised here for our attention? Even if the point is sound?  Shouldn’t inspiration in a struggle against such entrenched forces be taken from any genuine source.  I am reminded here of Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition, (a term he originated which was later taken up by Jesse Jackson).  Hampton, one of our own dissidents was gunned down in 1969 by the Chicago Police in collaboration with the FBI in a now documented government conspiracy to ensure that no “black messiah”  rise up to unite the black community.  Hampton, indeed,  was a heartbeat away from becoming the messiah they feared. It was really just a question of time.  Endowed with passion, warmth, galvanizing rhetoric and the ability to

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Fred Hampton

connect with many different strata of society, his mission was to bring people together around a single principle; he believed only that we must “make a distinction”;  we must always align ourselves with the people and not with those oppressing the people.

A self-proclaimed revolutionary until the age of 21 when he was murdered by the state, he rebuked those in his community who wanted a revolutionary program which did not stress education.   Without a proper education as to the causes of racism, Hampton passionately believed, “black colonialism” and “black imperialism” would be the result.  “We say all power to all people; white power to white people, brown power to brown people, yellow power to yellow people, and black power to black people.”  Whoever wanted to help was welcome, race or economic standing mattered not, as long as they knew who they were, which side they were on.  His revolutionary actions–deemed dangerous to some then and now– were to provide free breakfast for hungry school children and free medical care to his community, based on need alone.

Body of Fred Hampton.  He was  shot twice in the head, while asleep, at point blank range, by members of the Chicago Police Department.

Body of Fred Hampton. He was shot twice in the head, while asleep, at point blank range, by members of the Chicago Police Department.

It was Fred Hampton who told his people, with a martyr’s courage, “You can kill the revolutionary but you can’t kill the revolution!”  His brand of revolution–the struggle to relieve his people and the whole country of the ongoing burden of slavery that we continue to sustain– has been defeated; its leaders have been assassinated, its people drugged and incarcerated and, with the tools of  informant and provocateur, turned against one another.

Yet like weeds flowering between the cracks in concrete musicians rise up in the inner cities and Pussy Riot, too, white and from another land, pokes its head out and stands up to injustice for all of us locked behind prison bars or locked behind glass.

“We are all behind glass” is my protest sign! The glass separating Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, from the court, from us and from their freedom must reverberate in the mind as the glass façade of the corporate high-rise and the glass-like partitions wrought by the corporate state that fiendishly and invisibly separate us from each other and separate us from ourselves, the corporate state that is slowly killing every one of us–rich and poor alike, with its industrial sludge  burped up out of the world’s eating disorder, causing frogs and bees to leap and buzz the hell out of its way, releasing, in a deadly bulimic counter-binge, toxins and radioactive waste from under the sea which had been safely encased in a protective stomach of ice.  It is killing us with its big pharma that puts mercury in its vaccines, and mixes what must surely be alchemical substances that create thoughts of suicide and homicide in those reaching, in faith, for medicine to protect against too much despair.  It is killing us with its food industry which brilliantly and with the mind-boggling inventiveness of the Nazi doctors has wedded pesticides to the genetic makeup of the plant so that the plant has, in its flesh, chemicals that cause the insides of the insects, feeding on the plant, to explode, leaving our insides, we are told, with ghoulish candor, miraculously intact.  It is killing us with its financial schemes which rob people of their homes, their livelihood, their health and their lives, so that the banks and the insurance companies can retain the red-blooded robust health of a living organism.  The nuclear industry is killing us if it hasn’t already killed us and it seems that it has. (See “The Nuclear Sacrifice of Our Children”, Caldicott, H., link below)

I can stop eating fish, stop eating plants, stop breathing air, stop drinking exploding water, stop eating organic corn which has been contaminated by Monsanto’s poisoned seeds; I can numb my thoughts of the nuclear winter which will come upon us without a bomb being dropped, I can numb myself and make sure not to read the news, or watch it, or read or watch anything in order to keep my finger in the psychical dyke.  I can numb myself and I do, but I would rather sing.  I would rather sing “St. Maria, Virgin, Mother of God, please be a feminist,  be a feminist…Mother of God, please send Putin away..” to the beat of the Pussy Riot band!  There is so much we should be doing but we are afraid, afraid of the brutality that we all know awaits dissidents the world over, surely no less here than in Russia.  Pussy Riot sets us off kilter, sets up a ripple of life through all the glass that is numbing us, numbing us as it keeps us safe for a time, for as long as the corporate hand is the hand that feeds us.

But the 1% can no longer give the middle class its hush money because they are stripping the middle class (which has become the new poor for both political parties,  we notice) of their wealth as they strip the earth for its ore.  We can’t worry if someone is poor enough to represent the poor or if they are oppressed enough to represent the most oppressed. We need leaders from everywhere, from all parts of the globe… and we need them now!  I, for one, am happy, with Pussy Riot, to have rock music take its proper place in the vanguard of political struggle, for it is the people’s art and even the people’s religion in this era we all share.

Matisse believed the purpose of art was to soothe.  But art is alsoSnapz Pro XScreenSnapz001 copy 3 war.  Art is war with a soothing persona.  Though the people may become sleepy, drugged into a stupor in the political arena, Art takes over and inflames and soothes our revolutionary spirit, just the same.    Rock and roll is a cultural revolution that has hurt no one and has changed the world.   It may be the last stronghold if Romney wins the election.  Rock and roll’s explosion into the mainstream is the white man’s understanding that he has been cruelly separated from those who have been murdered and tortured in his name under the law of the land, that such a separation creates numbness and that in order to regain feeling in our extremities, at least, slavery and persecution must run through all our veins.   Rock and roll is John Brown’s spirit but easier on us because there is no horror of death and terrorism, no civil war, no chorus of “John Brown’s body…” gloriously easing our way as we slaughter and are slaughtered.

But rock and roll may trigger a war, nevertheless.  Pussy Riot rises above death and destruction on the gossamer wings of art and spirit.  Lewd gestures and metal screeches are made beautiful by the spirit.  We want to ride with them to the bliss and safety of unity with our fellow-man; we want to forget in the art and thrill of their daring that the cause is real, that there is a unity of oppression out there, a true “them” and “us” in all nations;  that we are all polar bears standing on melting, disengaged chunks of polar caps–ice which is melting away; that the 1% is frightened; that they have plundered the earth and its people and there are few resources left. It is shrinking, shrinking and those in control, of course, are wanting to be treated like women and children on the Titanic.  They want to grab the one or two lifeboats and take some caviar with them for the ride…who wouldn’t?

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich of the Pussy Riot collective/punk band in a glass cage during their trial for “hooliganism” and “religious hatred” in Moscow.

Pussy Riot’s theater soothes us with its gayness it’s childlike charm, it’s amateurish vigor and it’s good sound.  But  the power of what they do is, after all, not so benign!  They bring sorrow to the churchgoers and to themselves. And to us as we watch them intruding on the idea of reverence, on a place of solace to those who wish to have their sorrow eased by transcendence  and an idea of divine love.   It is not so light really, what they do; there is human pain involved.  And they are frightened even though they are brave.  A song, a dance and jail…How scary, how serious.

The “free world” is dismayed that Russia would put these very young women–two of them mothers of young children– in jail for two years. But  Ed Koch, always a straight shooter, tells it like it is. (“Ed Koch Defends the Arrest of Pussy Riot, Compares Them to Aids Activists of the 80’s.” link below)  Koch seems able to perceive that these babes are not just fighting Putin, you guys!  He understands that Russia is right to imprison its disrupters if it wants to send a message to the rest of its citizenry.  He understands that it is foolish to support Pussy Riot as freedom fighters who want our brand of democracy for Russia. He implicitly acknowledges the truth, that we beat our own dissidents, pepper spray them while they are corralled and have nowhere to disperse to.  We arrest them when they have done nothing more than walk in a lane they were not authorized to walk in.   And we kill our black dissidents, just like that.   We do that because we think it important to keep our citizens in line if they are getting uppity about what they perceive as wrong doing..  It is actually quite laudatory of Koch to support, in another nation, the same type of measures we approve of here in our nation.  Ed Koch gets it.  His only lie, his only bit of dissembling, is to call Pussy Riot’s actions motivated by religious hatred.  That reveals that Koch is either, not so brilliant after all, or, more likely, not so truthful, though he is smart enough to know which side he is on and truthful enough to state it.  Or perhaps he simply has not read Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s closing statement which makes it clear that they, perhaps even inadvertently, are speaking for all of us. “We were looking for authentic genuineness and simplicity and we found them in our punk performances. Passion, openness and naivety are superior to hypocrisy, cunning and a contrived decency that conceals crimes. The state’s leaders stand with saintly expressions in church, but their sins are far greater than ours. We’ve put on our political punk concerts because the Russian state system is dominated by rigidity, closedness and caste. Аnd the policies pursued serve only narrow corporate interests to the extent that even the air of Russia makes us ill.”

A Pussy Rioter does the Michael Jackson crotch grab, punk style, in an upscale women’s boutique in “Kropotkin Vodka” video.

But we are not all Ed Koch!  Some of us are Pussy Riot, whom we love for their crayola balaclavas, their heart, their bravery wrapped in girl group charm and, alas, for their incendiary message!

They are causing real damage.  A deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, Sergey Baranov, has publicly asked to be defrocked in response to the verdict. ( See   AM/ABC News, link below) Baranov maintains that the verdict proves “…that the Church leadership and the Kremlin are now one and the same.”  He has been warned by regional officials to be quiet and the Church has threatened him with a clerical trial. And there is a mysterious rumor online that Sergey Baranov does not  exist.  Perhaps most telling, in an ironic sort of way, of the trouble afoot, is the fact that  Ikea, Russia, has had to delete a picture on their website of Pussy Riot types in balaclavas sitting around in an Ikea furnished room because of the overwhelming positive response it was getting from viewers!

There will be more fallout from these beautiful, feminine feminists who are so brainy, have so much understanding.  Like Femen, another revolutionary group in the Ukraine, fighting for women’s rights with bared breasts and laurel wreaths upon their tresses they bring something new to revolutionary spirit.   They bring femaleness.   Like Joan of Arc they reach out to us with purity of spirit and bring back to us the myth of being a girl, a powerful and poignant myth containing beauty, vulnerability and human martyrdom which we all carry deep inside us, boys and girls alike.

Joan also antagonized a corrupt church and the church, in turn, fought her for her political and military genius and for the love she evoked in her countrymen.   She terrified the English with her purity and her supernatural gift.  She terrified them most of all as they watched her execution, men at the scene falling to pieces, knowing they were damned for eternity for burning this young girl whose religious genius took on the grandeur of sainthood.. Russia too is a little frantic now and in a clever, it would seem, empty move, Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev has asked for a suspended sentence for the Pussy Riot defendants.  Medvedey  does not, according to one defense attorney for Pussy Riot, have the authority to grant such leniency. Meanwhile, Putin has referred to Pussy Riot’s performances as “witches Sabbaths.”  The Russian Government is handing Pussy Riot its support like the RNC handed the democrats their bounce!

I do not believe that the Pussy Riot collective will relax its tactics even if the government manages to co-opt the world’s enthusiasm by granting the convicted band members a suspended sentence.  [As I write this one of the Pussy Riot defendants has been released–she apparently had been blocked from entering the Cathedral and her new lawyers have pressed this point.] Reading the closing statements of the defendants, I am stunned.   Reminiscent of Joan’s impassioned speech before her execution, reminiscent of Hampton’s speech predicting his murder, or King’s, reminiscent of martyrs throughout recorded time, they speak with such bravery, incisive analysis and simple contentment in the truth.  And they may indeed become martyrs.  There is fear for their lives during the transport to the penal colony where they are to serve their sentence. (Murders have occurred during such transport where 20 people are typically housed in compartments meant to hold only 4 passengers.) After being treated kindly by the guards who behaved as though sympathetic, they report now a sudden shift to very rough physical treatment which they believe stems from a directive from the government to the prison authorities.  And their lawyers are being harassed.  But they are doing anything but backing down.  Their closing statements are erudite, brilliant treatises against Putin and the Russian Federation’s despotic designs.  And the latest performance/action from other members of the collective is more scary yet.   There is no song…they are seen scaling the side of a building to get to a huge poster of Putin which they set aflame as they thank Madonna, Bjork, Red Hot Chilli Pepper and others for supporting them.  There is no song but they speak to us as if in song.  They do not believe, they tell us,  in desecrating any cultural artifact, they believe in music as a form of protest and they enjoin their supporters to “make a pussy riot and never stop!” It is thrilling and very scary to see another member of the collective in her balaclava hanging by a pulley from the side of a building, proclaiming, ”The fight for freedom is an endless battle that is bigger than life,” an idea that whispers martyrdom, as the burning poster of Putin turns to ash.

The Dream

My mother offered me, as a child, the lazy life.  She was, an actress, a writer, an historian, an intellectual, a bohemian and a glamorous beauty. The demands of everyday life were sacrificed to leisurely chats and bouts of soaking up the atmosphere.  When I grew up and left home she, with me, stepped out of our life together, over a threshold.  She wrote about the Yiddish theater, the Jewish diaspora and the Enlightenment era in Europe.  Over the years I would hear her, on occasion, lament that if she could only devote herself to a study of the French revolution, all of modern history would become clear to her.  Finally late in life she began her study.  Now when we talked on the phone, or somewhere over coffee, my mother would often interject something of the French Revolution into our perfervid conversation and I would immediately become bored.  She knew it of course and we began to joke about it.  She would ask if I minded if she said something about “her” subject and I would give a mock yawn or grunt a resigned approval.  But one day when I was visiting her she said she had had a dream.  I still remember her standing in the vestibule between her bedroom and the living room and I was somehow standing in this tiny non-room there with her.

Some dreams seem to be more than dreams.  They insist that something extraordinary is actually happening, and when we remember the dream it seems to be urging us to comprehend that this particular dream isn’t about something, it is something.   When my mother was a child she dreamed of an angel standing next to her bed with violet light coming out of its eyes.  I always believed, with her, that this was not just a dream but something unknowable, something with an intention that has, over the eons,  come to be called “angel”.   My mother was frightened, she said, but in awe.  Now she was going to tell me this latest dream.  I sat down at the dining table at an angle so that I faced her as she stood in the doorway of her bedroom.  She delivered her dream in a single sentence which has stayed in my mind as if it were one of the great sayings of an artist or a philosopher; it has grown in meaning with time, as it swirls now past the vast abyss of my mother’s absence and settles again and again into the cozy little reality I try to dance in:  “A French revolutionary of great importance came to me and said, ‘We played at revolution and it happened!'”

Pussy Riot in the Cathedral of Christ our Savior Church in Moscow for their “Punk Prayer” video.

“Why don’t you live for the people? Why don’t you struggle for the people? Why don’t you die for the people?”–Fred Hampton, 1948-1969

A member of Pussy Riot who is still at large adjusts her mask after an interview with Reuters journalists in Moscow Aug. 13, 2012. (William Webster / Reuters-Landov)

Related Links

ACLU “Blog of Rights”

Ed Koxh Defends Arrest of Pussy Riot...

“The Nuclear Sacrifice of Our Children”

Deacon Sergey Baranov

Closing statement of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: 

Pussy Riot “Kropotkin Vodka” video

“Punk Prayer” or “Temple Dance” video.  Pussy Riot

The Assassination of Fred Hampton.  Author, Jeffrey Haas.

“The Assassination of Fred Hampton”–Interview with Jeffrey Haas, “Democracy Now!”