How to Think About the Pussy Riot Schism

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Not 24 hours after I last wrote to you about Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, they appeared onstage with Madonna at a concert in Brooklyn. The concert was billed as a sort of benefit for Amnesty International and an awareness-raising effort for political prisoners. But this does not seem to have rescued it, in the ensuing day or so, from being characterized as an overly glamorous occasion that did not square with the radical politics that landed Nadya and Masha in jail in the first place. Subsequent journalistic reports of the event have twisted themselves into some seriously elaborate pretzels grappling with this. At the New Yorker, for example, we have:

It would be vaguely misanthropic to not support the work of Amnesty International, so at some level, if their cause was helped by last night’s endless slog, dayenu. I’m happy to have given them sixty-five dollars. The problems with the show were more ideological than anything, and perhaps the remaining members of Pussy Riot have already summed them up. They don’t believe in charging ticket prices or planning their events—they show up, protest, and then deal with the consequences. It is hard to equate this kind of radical action with the slightly more removed work that Amnesty International does.

At BuzzFeed, a giant graphic reads, “Pussy Riot is Dead.” Though the piece itself has some necessary information about the interpersonal dynamics inside Pussy Riot, the lead paragraphs are designed to make you raise an eyebrow at the political prisoners interacting with the likes of Yoko Ono:

Finally, Nadya’s husband, Petya Verzilov, chimed in: “Yoko, we’re staying four more days in New York. If you have time, we’d love to meet.” With that, they were off, ushered toward the arena’s garage and into a waiting SUV, and Ono strolled back to her dressing room. Madonna, who introduced them onstage, was expecting them at dinner.

At Pitchfork, a critic’s essay manages to be more agnostic about things:

And yet, what to make of this? I was wondering that all night, as the lead singer of harmlessly affable Cali rockers Cake took the stage in a t-shirt that shrugged, “Killing People Is Rude,” up until the long night’s end, when the Flaming Lips closed with a visually dazzling but apolitical set featuring their cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Pussy Riot stayed on my mind. In the perceived conflict between the collective and Nadia & Masha, who is wrong? Who is “right”? These are not necessarily the questions we should be asking.

If you are not inclined to read the think-pieces on the apparently troubling phenomenon of Masha and Nadya’s newfound fame, you can instead get your news straight from the horse’s mouth, i.e., a message that the Pussy Riot collective posted on Livejournal hours before the concert. Relevant (translated) excerpts are as follows:

We are very pleased with Masha’s and Nadia’s release. We are proud of their resistance against harsh trials that fell to their lot, and their determination by all means to continue the struggle that they had started during their stay in the colonies. Unfortunately for us, they are being so carried away with the problems in Russian prisons, that they completely forgot about the aspirations and ideals of our group – feminism, separatist resistance, fight against authoritarianism and personality cult, all of which, as a matter of fact, was the cause for their unjust punishment. Now it is no secret that Masha and Nadia are no longer members of the group, and they will no longer take part in radical actionism. Now they are engaged in a new project. Now they are institutionalized advocates of prisoners’ rights. […] Yes, we lost two friends, two ideological fellow member, but the world has acquired two brave, interesting, controversial human rights defenders – fighters for the rights of the Russian prisoners. Unfortunately, we can not congratulate them with this in person, because they refuse to have any contact with us. But we appreciate their choice and sincerely wish them well in their new career.

I confess that when I first read this yesterday my reaction could be summed up as: LOLactivism. And after 24 hours of sober thought I continue to feel that way on most levels. I speak as somebody who’s spent years hanging around anti-globalization activists and Occupy Wall Streeters and feminist collectives, and who in many ways personally shares their pie-in-the-sky ideals and politics. As that person, I can still see a very deliberate excommunication in these remarks, however politely and precisely phrased they are. Let’s be clear: “institutionalized advocates” and “they refuse to have any contact with us” are the kind of phrases you only include in a statement like this when you are on the attack.

Also as that person, I understand why the collective wants to distance itself from the media-industrial complex that is about to engulf these women. Most journalists don’t seem equipped to recognize this, but for activists, engaging with the media at all is a necessary evil. This has on some level always been the case. Assign the most diligent, principled reporter alive to write a story about the likes of Nelson Mandela, and you’re still likely to get a very different story than the one he would write about himself. Slavoj Žižek hinted at this once when he pointed out that the media was very shy about Pussy Riot’s anti-capitalist leanings. And the whole thing is aggravated by the fact that these days journalists love any story that involves a “celebrity.” Where none can be found, as was originally the case with Nadya and Masha, journalists are often looking to make a celebrity, and they’re usually pretty good at getting that done.

My point being: it’s all compromise. It’s as much a compromise to do the first press interview as it is to stand on a concert stage with Susan Sarandon, and in fact the only real choice you have is whether or not you do the first one, because thereafter things tend to run away with you. One of the benefits of activism, and I say this with no sarcasm at all, is that it allows you to remain in a cocoon. You get to hatch your ideas away from the noise of the wider world. I would never pretend that that isn’t valuable.

But the value doesn’t obviate the weirdness of the fact that now, not two months after they left Russian penal colonies, we’re sitting around debating whether Nadya and Masha are still “punk,” or “radical.”