Scenes from the Edge: Protest and Performative Identity in Contemporary Russia

A journalist investigates a government official and loses his job. He returns to find police have raided his home. Later, they beat him. Meanwhile, an artist sets fire to a government building – the whole act caught on video – and receives only a small fine.

These protest acts draw disparate consequences not in starkly different societies, but within one country: Russia, where contradictions abound between de jure and de facto politics, between the government’s official position and its actual practices. The US State Department lists restriction of civil liberties first in its catalogue of human rights violations in Russia. Out of 180 countries on 2016’s World Press Freedom Index, Russia ranks 148. The freedom of speech guaranteed in Russia’s constitution seems to apply only to an elite group of internationally known artists. By drawing international attention, these artists enable Putin to manipulate Russia’s image, distracting from rather than revealing the systematic silencing of those who oppose him.

When Vladimir Putin reassumed the Russian presidency in 2012, he launched a campaign against dissent, harassing regime critics with measures both legal and extralegal. After the Russian Broadcasting Company (RBC) investigated financial activities of Putin’s relatives, the Federal Security Service raided RBC parent media conglomerate ONEXIM Group’s offices. Three top RBC officials were fired soon after, though Russian authorities claim their dismissal was because of embezzlement rather than state censorship. Others, from former journalist Oleg Kashin to the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s Alexei Navalny, have been beaten, sometimes even in the presence of police.

Putin’s widespread crackdown on dissent has reached feminist punk group Pussy Riot. In 2012, the band performed a “Punk Prayer” on the altar of Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church. Band members danced to a song with lyrics imploring the “Blessed Virgin Mary, [to] throw Putin out.” Their protest challenged the close relationship between church and state.

After their arrest and five months of detention, a judge convicted three band members of “hooliganism” – more specifically, “an attempt to undermine the social order motivated by religious hatred.” Their punishment? Two years each in a penal colony. But rather than eliminating the threat, the band’s harsh treatment drew consequences to which Putin was unaccustomed and unprepared.

When the judge in the Pussy Riot case announced her verdict, one spectator stood and shouted “Shame!” Denunciations from outside the courtroom, outside even the country, quickly followed. Officials from the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union questioned the severity of the sentences. Protests took place in major cities like Berlin, Paris, Dublin, and Barcelona. Internationally renowned musicians like Madonna and Paul McCartney voiced their support, lending Pussy Riot the glint of their own celebrity in a demonstration of kinship and acceptance. In 2013, HBO released a documentary on the protest and criminal proceedings which one critic decried for providing “a neat summation of the Western understanding of Pussy Riot” that reduces deep-rooted flaws in Russian society to the conflict between band members and Putin’s administration. The film portrays band members as cartoonish protagonists fighting an archetypal villain.

Despite an outpouring of resistance abroad, the Punk Prayer received minimal support in Russia. Yekaterina Samutsevich, the only one of three band members to have her sentence commuted soon after the trial, told The Atlantic she was “surprised by the passive reaction of the art community to [Pussy Riot’s] arrest.” The lack of support reveals an incongruity between Pussy Riot’s views and those of the common Russian people. Only 19% of Russians viewed the Punk Prayer as directed at Putin; 42% saw it as an attack on the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian protest artists win international support not for giving their people a voice but for affirming progressive Western values. Their concordance with these values earns them Western approval, its own form of protection.

In December 2013, political prisoners became political pawns. President Putin and Russia’s Federal Assembly joined forces to grant amnesty to several thousand political prisoners, including the two still incarcerated members of Pussy Riot. The amnesty came just in time for the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. Their release constituted news in a way their imprisonment didn’t; pardoning famous artists in anticipation of the rigorous international press attention accompanying the games helped Putin distract from Russia’s human rights violations.

Pussy Riot’s fame changed how the Russian government treats protest artists, giving the band’s successors an impunity that distances them from Russia’s common people. Rather than applying the same stringent punishments it does to the press, the Russian government handles artists with care, hoping to attract minimal attention.

Pussy Riot’s fame changed how the Russian government treats protest artists, giving the band’s successors an impunity that distances them from Russia’s common people.

Pyotr Pavlensky, whom some have called a “shock artist,” provides an excellent example. In his pieces, Pavlensky embodies a commitment to civil liberties that is grueling, physical, and high stakes; each piece symbolizes a form of oppression of the Russian people. In 2012, he sewed his mouth shut to protest the Kremlin’s silencing of Pussy Riot. He has wrapped his naked body in barbed wire and placed himself on the steps of the Federal Assembly. He once nailed his scrotum to Red Square. In 2015, Pavlensky set fire to the door of Russia’s secret police headquarters, an act far more egregious than many which have garnered convictions of terrorism and extremism for others, but for which Pavlensky received only an $8,000 fine. The international attention Pavlensky receives worked in his favor this January, when he found refuge in Paris following allegations of sexual assault. In matters political and personal, Pavlensky’s work won him unique protections.

Both Pavlensky and Pussy Riot have expressed dismay at their own celebrity. Pussy Riot’s Samutsevich called it “unfortunate” that “the criminal case exposed [her] face…That happened against our will. This is the new situation, and we are just going to have to work with it,” she said. Ironically, the balaclavas the group once wore to protect their anonymity have become an internationally recognized symbol.

Pavlensky dislikes being called a hero, an archetype he recontextualizes as the “victim that society throws to the insatiable appetite of power.” International coverage often casts humans as heroes, overlooking the larger and less interesting systems from which they have fallen. In so doing, it tells an incomplete story of good guys versus bad guys, leaving Russia’s most vulnerable nowhere in sight.