Examining International Media Coverage and Responses to Pussy Riot by Kevin M. F. Platt

// CGCS presents an in depth look at international media and citizen reaction to the Pussy Riot trial and sentence. Dr. Kevin M. F. Platt, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Chair for the Program in Comparative Literature and Literature Theory at the University of Pennsylvania.

//Image courtesy of linksfraktion

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The summer of 2012 will be remembered for a variety of international media stories, including: heavy coverage of the London Olympics, the buildup to the 2012 U.S. presidential election, and censorship and humanitarian aid in connection with the earthquake in Azerbaijan. Perhaps, however, we will remember it most vividly as the summer of Pussy Riot. However, Pussy Riot itself will be remembered in a wide variety of ways, corresponding to the extraordinary range of distinct narratives that the feminist punk collective has generated across the globe and in various media.

Although some commentators have critiqued international response to Pussy Riot as sympathetic, ignorant, hypocritical, or opportunistic, the total range of responses should rather be understood as a mark of the wild success of the collective’s strategy for social protest, the prison sentences of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich notwithstanding.

In the days and weeks immediately following their February 21st protest in Moscow’s Church of Christ the Savior, the group circulated a remixed video of their assault on the cathedral. It spread quickly and widely through Russian social media, evoking responses ranging from moral outrage to enthusiastic admiration. Follow­ing the arrest and imprisonment of the three women of Pussy Riot just a few weeks later, the affair gained ground steadily not only in Russian, but also in international news coverage, blogs and social media.

Cultural figures from across the globe from Madonna and Bjork to Paul McCartney and Russian pop icon Alla Pugacheva voiced support for the imprisoned women. Public actions—museum shows, benefit con­certs, demonstrations—expres­sed solidarity with the women both in Russia and abroad.

In Russia, these public displays of support were matched by public censure of Pussy Riot by church and political leaders, as well as by counter demonstrations, including mass prayer meetings held in defense of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The timing of their trial, which began with little advance warning on July 30, was likely calculated to minimize press attention and to limit public demon­strations of support in Russia—at the time, the London Olympics were already consuming airtime and during August, Muscovites typically head off on vacations to dachas (vacation homes far from the city) or abroad. Yet in the US the trial coincided with the lull in domestic political news following primaries that comes just ahead of the conventions. In short, this had the makings of a perfect media storm.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, across these many media outlets, the Pussy Riot story took on a variety of forms, corresponding to the particular interests of discrete authors, voices and institutions.

Within the Russian mediascape, an enormous gulf was revealed between the urban, cosmopolitan population that powered opposition rallies of the preceding twelve months and the larger majority of Russians who reelected Vladimir Putin in March. The former, while not uniformly viewing the Pussy Riot protest with approval, understood the action as an assault on the symbiotic relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin. The latter condemned it as a blasphemous attack on the Orthodox faith and its representatives. This divide was made all the more apparent by the polarization of media outlets in Russia. On one hand, you have the majority of mass media, which are subject to state oversight and editorial influence, and on the other, a handful of relatively independent media sources and social media networks like Facebook and Livejournal, which serve as alternative platforms for news and self-expression.

Although western coverage cannot be accused of overlooking the Russian context and significance of the Pussy Riot protest entirely, western media and public responses focused more frequently on the abstract principles activated by the Pussy Riot affair, which offered an opportunity to promote other concerns. These ranged from Madonna’s championing of freedom of artistic expression and LGBT rights, to the London Times’ critique of “Putin’s creeping authoritarianism” (July 14, 2012), to the ACLU’s concern with free speech and incar­ceration rates in the USA.

Most recently, the burgeoning proliferation of Pussy Riot commentary has elicited a wave of meta-commentaries regarding media response to the affair, which typically have branded “main­stream” or “western” representations as misguided and shallow.

As many commentators have noted, the predominant narrative uniting most western journalistic coverage, editorial response and public support has presented the three women as victims of political repression, unjustly and disproportionately punished for their critique of Vladimir Putin. As anthropologist Sarah Kendzior observes on the Atlantic Monthly website, coverage of the story has been heavily inflected in gendered terms, focusing excessive attention on the appearance and youth of the women, and offering up “familiar narratives of youthful rebellion or damsels in distress.” According to Kendzior, this representation unwittingly echoes that of Russian clerical, political and judicial authorities, which have “sexualized and infantilized the women of Pussy Riot, likely in order to marginalize their critiques and to drain them of their political value.”

A number of commentators have remarked on what they view as the irony of powerful western media organizations aligned with state interests critiquing the Russian political regime and system of justice for its response to the Pussy Riot happening, given that the feminist collective positions itself against values and institutions that are as much “Western” as they are Russian.

In a comment in the New York Times, Vadim Nikitin remarks that “Pussy Riot’s philosophy, activism and even music quickly took second place to its usefulness in discrediting one of America’s geopolitical foes.” He concludes that because Pussy Riot is against “patriarchy, capitalism, religion, conventional morality, inequality and the entire corporate state system … we should only support these brave women if we, too, are brave enough to go all the way.”

In the Guardian, where endless expressions of support for Pussy Riot’s cause also appeared, columnist Glenn Greenwald accused the American Media of “hypocrisy” for condemning the persecution of the Pussy Riot women, yet standing by “complacently while excessive force and mass arrests are unleashed on the far more peaceful Occupy movement,” and saying “nothing about the systematic prosecution of American Muslims for core free-speech activities.”

There is, as noted above, much truth to the claim that the Pussy Riot affair served as an opportunity for a wide variety of actors in Russia and the world over to promote their own interests and deliver their own messages. Yet, setting aside the legitimate concerns of various commentators with other, more or less comparable cases of injustice, this widespread opportunism is best understood as an intentional outcome of Pussy Riot’s activist happening.

The performance in the church, a work of conceptual art rather than a political speech or well-crafted manifesto, as well as their subsequent performances in the courtroom, spoke to any number of distinct audiences. Depending on angle of vision, their protest expressed some combination of: opposition to Putin, feminist liberation, artistic freedom, freedom of political expression, youth rebellion, freedom from church hierarchy, and critique of church-state relations. Subsequent statements by the members of the group added ecological activism and LGBT rights to this list. In their faceless balaclavas and incoherent lyrics, the Pussy Riot women provided a flexible image of protest that could be appropriated to a range of issues.

While response to the open-ended nature of the happening generated at times potentially contradictory significances and alignments, this is surely a symptom of the success of Pussy Riot’s strategy. Certainly, the media objectification of the women has been used, especially in Russia, to diminish the significance of their protest, yet it also was a key tool of self-fashioning that appears to have been inten­tionally utilized by the women both in the performance and in the courtroom to render their message more appealing. And while some of the meanings attributed to the happening may exceed the intent of the women, I doubt very much that the total response, including both anti-Putin critiques in the London Times and sympathy protests promoted by OWS can be conceived as counter to the artistic and activist impetus of Pussy Riot.

In sum, rather than criticize those who intentionally or unintentionally “got the message wrong,” one should instead marvel at the effectiveness of the women of Pussy Riot, who catalyzed a world-wide discussion and debate concerning the principles and political issues they espouse. As editor-in-chief of GQ Russia, Michael Idov put it in a comment published in the Guardian, these women have managed their own happening and the media response to it with astonishing “professionalism.” Rather than rob them of their agency in this affair, we must recognize that despite their prison terms, their meta-story is one of triumph over the mediascape.

 

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