Pussy Riot is No ‘Riot Grrl’: How Western Media Misinterpreted Russian Protest Culture, 2012-2015

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This piece was published in the Acheson Issue, Volume 11

Abstract

Between 2012 and 2015, Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky gained international fame as artist-activists who used provocative art to call attention to political causes in Russia. While they succeeded in mobilizing attention and discussion outside of Russia, some Western portrayals of their work simplified and obscured important nuances and considerations. By analyzing a corpus of 20 articles from Western media sources, I show how international coverage of both artists reinforced a rhetorical binary that pitted East against West. Artistic interventions were read as a struggle between the values of a liberal West and a backward, unenlightened Russia. Shoehorned under the catch-all of “anti-regime” activists, Western discourse tended to construct Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky as essentially “Western” in sensibility and in practice: Pussy Riot was viewed largely as a Russian version of America’s riot grrrls, while Pavlensky’s engagement with the complex dynamics between state and citizen was all too often framed as straightforward anti-regime protests. A literature review of existing scholarship on Pussy Riot and Pavlensky, however, highlights that both artists consciously combine both international and Russian inspirations in their work. I argue that this hybridity is the key to the artists’ international appeal: although Western media may overlook important dimensions of their work, Pussy Riot and Pavlensky still maintain agency in shaping and presenting their work to different viewers. Thus, we should view both artists as conscious translators who actively interpret and present their work for global audiences.

Introduction

During what was widely perceived as an authoritarian turn in Russian politics from 2012 to 2015,[1] Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky gained international fame as activists who used art to call attention to political causes at home. Pussy Riot, a feminist art collective, catalyzed a media storm in 2012 when they were arrested for a performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, during which they protested the increasingly close ties between the church and the state. Their trial and subsequent incarceration, widely deplored as a biased and farcical exercise of state power, received widespread coverage by Western press.[2] Western media tended to frame Pussy Riot as fearless critics – and, after they were indicted on charges of hooliganism, as guiltless victims – of an authoritarian state. Although such coverage did contribute to a widespread awareness of Pussy Riot and its goals, it also obscured important nuances in Pussy Riot’s performance. Pussy Riot was widely misunderstood as a punk band rather than as a deliberately provocative performance art group. These generalizations contributed to skewed, or at least fragmentary, impressions about both the lineage of their work and the nuances of their criticism.  

A similar misapprehension arose in the international coverage of Petr Pavlensky’s artistic interventions. Pavlensky, a performance artist drawing on a history of post-Soviet actionist interventions, gained attention for his self-harming actions,[3] the most infamous being фиксация, or Fixation (2013), during which he stripped naked and nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones of the Red Square. While Pavlensky’s actions never garnered the same level of attention and international support as Pussy Riot’s 2012 performance, they were nevertheless scrutinized — and in many cases, lionized — by Western media outlets. As with Pussy Riot, the art publications that were drawn to Pavlensky’s work tended to overemphasize the anti-government, anti-regime bent of his work. While Pavlensky garnered a more academic reception, being recognized as an artist working in the conceptualist and performance-based tradition, commentators nonetheless took a selective view of his approach. Often, their analyses were limited to exploring how Pavlensky’s work eroded the legitimacy of the institution of Russian government while overlooking his critique of individual apathy in such a society. Applied to both Pussy Riot and Pavlensky, the term “anti-Kremlin activist”[4] became a convenient catch-all that collapses the nuances and specificities that distinguish the two artists, making them interchangeable stand-ins for anti-state resistance in Russia.  This paper aims to understand the limitations and blind spots of this interpretation. I ask: How did Western media understand Pussy Riot and Pavlensky, and what was lost in the dominant Western interpretation of their work? 

To answer these questions, I first describe the most important protest actions by Pussy Riot and Pavlensky. Following this, I conduct a discourse analysis of 20 media articles about the two artists to understand how their works were received by Western commentators. In doing so, I show that Western media coverage of Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky tended to ascribe liberal, Western ideas to the artists while ignoring the Russian histories and traditions driving their art. This coverage, I argue, ultimately reinforces the binary of a backward, authoritarian Russia that stands in direct opposition to a liberal, enlightened West. By contrasting my analysis against a brief literature review of key works on Pavlensky and Pussy Riot, I highlight the nuances that are missed in this simplistic, “East-versus-West” account of Russia’s protest artists. Ultimately, I contend that both Pussy Riot and Pavlensky understand this binary and consciously “translate” their work for Western audiences by self-consciously incorporating Western influences and perspectives in their work and public statements. 

The Protest Actions of Pussy Riot and Pavlensky

Pussy Riot first gained notoriety for their performance of “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away,” staged just three weeks before the presidential elections in which Putin ran for (and ultimately won) a third term in power. On February 21, five members of Pussy Riot entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Patriarch Kirill.[5] Clad in colorful balaclavas, loose dresses, and tights, the five members crossed the gate that separated the nave from the iconostasis[6] and the sacred altar,[7] an area from which women have traditionally been barred,[8] to sing and dance wildly. While the members were removed from the altar in under 2 minutes, having only performed about 50 seconds of the song, they later uploaded an edited, 2-minute YouTube video that gave the impression of a complete performance. In this video, live footage was combined with a prerecorded version of the song, which alternated between supplications to Mary and denunciations of the Russian government. The structure and style of the song, according to Yngvar Steinholt, comprised

[a] church choir theme, mimicking Russian Orthodox liturgical song. The clear voices remain true to generic demands and carry no audible spite or irony […] The punk parts of the song follow the established Pussy Riot standard with drums, distorted bass, and guitar on mini-amps. Their vocals are enhanced by shouts of “Sran’ gospodnia!” (“Shit of the Lord!”), directed at Putin and his retinue. The voices directed at Virgin Mary sound earnest and respectful; verbal aggression is reserved for Putin and his government.[9]

A week after the performance in the cathedral, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, three of the five performers, were arrested and charged for hooliganism. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina would later be convicted under the charge of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in a penal colony.[10] While Pussy Riot’s protest action itself had generated limited coverage, their indictment and subsequent imprisonment prompted a frenzy of media attention and recrimination. Western audiences, in particular, decried the trial as a thinly-veiled crackdown on free speech. The ensuring media furor sparked the support of governments, high profile artists, and celebrities alike, precipitating a slew of solidarity protests worldwide that put balaclava-sporting demonstrators on the streets of New York, Edinburgh, and Toronto. 

It was in this context of widespread transnational support for Pussy Riot in the West that the next internationally-lauded Russian activist-artist, Petr Pavlensky, came into the spotlight.  Pavlensky staged his first action, Stitch (Шов) at a protest in support of Pussy Riot in 2012, standing outside the cathedral with a sign that made a biblical justification of Pussy Riot’s protest action.[11] The image that made headlines, however, was of his stitched-up lips, which had been sutured together with red thread, ostensibly to protest the Russian state’s ‘silencing’ of its victims. The brutality of his protest action prompted law enforcement officials on the scene to call an ambulance rather than arrest him. This first action illustrated two defining elements of Pavlensky’s practice: first, the use of shocking and often brutal self-mutilation, and second, the incorporation of state officials into his performance. The same elements were at work in Туша, or Carcass (2013), which followed the implementation of laws banning “homosexual propaganda” and restricting NGO action.[12] During his action, Pavlensky entrapped his naked body within a cocoon of barbed wire and stationed himself in front of the main entrance of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly. Here again, law enforcement officials were unwittingly transformed into actors in Pavlensky’s performance as they cut him out of the cocoon. A similar dynamic may also be observed in Фиксация, Fixation (2013, on Russia’s National Police Day)during which Pavlensky nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones of Red Square and awaited the arrival and intervention of law enforcement officials.[13]Indeed, Pavlensky’s actions often articulated a relationship with, and even a dependence on, agents of state power. On a structural level, his performances were bookended by the arrival of police officials. On a substantive level, these officials had to decide whether to arrest Pavlensky or to arrange for medical intervention, and thus became primary actors in determining the outcome of each action. Pavlensky anticipated and actively courted state reaction through his artistic interventions, as seen with Угроза, or Threat (2015), where, after setting fire to the doors of the Lubyanka Building, he repeatedly requested the police officials on scene to apply the heavier charge of terrorism instead of vandalism. Where Pussy Riot’s performance was prematurely cut short and interrupted by police officials, Pavlensky’s actions were purposely designed to involve the participation of state officials, whose actions – as I discuss in the literature review that follows – took on new meanings in the context of his art. Pavlensky’s art, designed to trigger and then disrupt ‘normal’ procedures of policing and arresting, subtly enmeshed state officials within the artistic and philosophical vocabulary of his actions. 

Considered together, both Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky, working within the broad approach of staging unsanctioned and public artistic interventions, developed distinctive artistic and visual approaches to express their criticisms of contemporary Russian society. They deployed distinctive visual strategies to express their particular preoccupations: for Pussy Riot, their raucous church performance condemned the increasingly close ties between the state and the Orthodox church, and also subverted gendered orders of the church by occupying spaces that were off-limits to women. Their costumes, while striking, intentionally effaced vestiges of the individual, obscuring individual features and emphasizing the commonality of the collective. Pavlensky, on the other hand, repeatedly drew on the vulnerability and dependence of his naked body to interrogate the condition of the “social body” of Russian society and its complicated relationship to the state.[14] These clear differences in their respective artistic practices attest to fundamentally diverging , not all of which can be neatly encapsulated within the category of ‘anti-Kremlin sentiment.’ [CZ2] 

Discourse Analysis

Scholars such as Andrey Makarychev and Alexandra Yatsyk have claimed that the “human rights focus, as well as the fervent art practices of its articulation” of protestors like Pussy Riot and Pavlensky were “not only noticed but well understood in Europe and the West (emphases mine).”[15] I challenge this argument, employing a discourse analysis of 20 Western media articles to show that extensive coverage did not amount to extensive understanding. Indeed, I argue that Western media coverage of Pussy Riot and Pavlensky emphasized particular readings of their art but did not engage fully with the scope and substance of the artists’ goals and practices. As a result, popular discourses surrounding Pussy Riot and Pavlensky reflected only a partial understanding of their protest art.

Though Pussy Riot and Pavlensky pursued distinctive approaches and artistic considerations in their respective practices, these nuances tended to be overlooked by Western media. Articles in Western media sources on Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky, admittedly, were not meant to provide a full understanding of all aspects of each artist’s work, but were rather attempts to make Russian protest art, in general, intelligible to Western readers. Consequently, they tended to refract Russian artists through the “discourses and products of the Western gaze.”[16] This Western gaze produced a series of truths and distortions, which I highlight through an analysis of 20 articles – mostly opinion or commentary sources – from publications in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

The scandal of Pussy Riot’s arrest, widely considered to be an overreaction issued directly from the upper echelons of the Kremlin, precipitated a flurry of criticisms of the Russian state, and  particularly of Putin, who was widely assumed to be responsible for the arrests of Pussy Riot members.[17] Western support of Pussy Riot was often expressed through an “East-versus-West” binary, praising Pussy Riot for its association with Western values and Western artists, while denouncing the Russian state as the antithesis of liberal and egalitarian ideals. Carole Cadwalladr, in covering the court trial of Pussy Riot for The Guardian, wrote: “It’s extraordinary what Pussy Riot have done. How they have taken feminism to one of the most macho countries on Earth.”[18] Declaring that feminism had been “taken” to Russia, Cadwalladr suggested that feminism was essentially foreign to Russia’s hostile and “macho” regime, and furthermore that Pussy Riot, with its feminist ideals and activism, was fundamentally Western in its outlook. 

Beyond ascribing essentially Western beliefs to the work of Pussy Riot, news agencies often framed the very mediums of Pussy Riot’s artistic expression as “Russian” equivalents of existing Western movements. Journalists like John Harris, for example, emphasized the similarities between Pussy Riot and the 1990s riot grrrl movement in the United States: 

The heritage of protest and provocation on which Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was drawing was confirmed as soon as I saw her picture […] it was as if she had been plucked from the Anglo-American subculture known as riot grrrl circa 1992, and dropped into modern Russia.[19]

Like Cadwalladr, Harris suggests that Pussy Riot’s ideals and artistic expression are fundamentally Anglo-American in nature. Framing their similarity as a transplant from West to East , Harris argues that Pussy Riot’s aesthetics have been “plucked from” Anglo-American history and “dropped into modern Russia.”[20] Here, Pussy Riot’s feminism and its punk aesthetic, then, are all seen as part of an existing canon of ideas and subcultures that, having originated from the West, were simply grafted onto Russian movements. The contrast between “subculture […] circa 1992” and “modern Russia,” for example, reinforces the division between an enlightened West and “backward” Russia that has belatedly heralded a decades-old American movement. Pussy Riot members are thus portrayed as the persecuted champions of Western ideals, with scant mention of other Russian contexts and influences in their performance. 

In constructing Russia as a politically and socially inferior counterpart to the West, commentators often casted Pussy Riot as blameless victims of the Russian state. Masha Lipman, writing for the New Yorker, interprets the trial thus: “But at the end of the day [the trial of Pussy Riot] boils down to an unapologetic demonstration of force by the state. The three women, members of a punk-rock band who fell victim of the state’s repressive machine, showed, in contrast, spiritual and moral strength.”[21] Lipman’s pronouncement places Pussy Riot and the entire apparatus of the Russian state within a clear normative binary, stressing that Pussy Riot was unfairly and undeservedly persecuted by the state. However true these critiques might have been in general, the rhetorical strategies, which set out a clear delineation between aggressor and victim, persecutor and persecuted, flattened out important issues of intention and of agency. Such perspectives tended not only to reduce the Russian government to a Putin-controlled monolith, but also to minimize the agency of Pussy Riot members. In the scramble to decry Pussy Riot’s trial and to absolve Pussy Riot of any potential guilt, some publications downplayed the calculated provocativeness of Pussy Riot’s protests. This approach may have made Pussy Riot more sympathetic victims, but missed out the fact that Pussy Riot members had explicitly stated that illegality is a defining characteristic of their performance art. This difference highlights an underlying contradiction between popular imaginations of Pussy Riot and the group’s self-defined mission and goals. Nowhere was this misalignment clearer than in characterizations of the group’s nature and aims. Despite the fact that Pussy Riot had no real connections to the punk or music scene in Russia,[22] commentators, hoping perhaps to underscore the popular influence or judicial innocence of Pussy Riot, tended to portray them as nothing more than an all-female punk band. Pussy Riot was, in their words, a “pop crossover […] a brilliant brand,”[23] or alternatively “a band that has yet to release an album.”[24]Their performance, too, was reduced to “lip-syncing to a punk song in a church for 40 seconds”[25] or a “raucous anti-Putin ditty.”[26] The term “anti-Putin ditty”[27] in particular reduces Pussy Riot’s considered performance to nothing more than a song. It also implies that it was only Pussy Riot’s lyrics that had caused offense, when much of the uproar had centered around their incursion into an Orthodox church. In reality, many witnesses had never even heard the lyrics of the Punk Prayer, since the members had been swiftly removed from the altar. By writing about Pussy Riot as only a punk band, Western sources obscured other important elements of Pussy Riot’s performance: the political and gendered significance of the cathedral, for example, crucially complicated the meaning of Pussy Riot’s performance. In framing Pussy Riot as faultless victims of Putin’s regime, Anglo-American media not only reinforced normative binaries between Russia and the West but also fundamentally misconstrued the character and purpose of the group.

If Pussy Riot members’ punk rock aesthetics, feminist attitude, and political persecution made them palatable “ideal activists”[28] for media outlets, the tone of popular coverage for Pavlensky was decidedly more ambivalent. Pavlensky’s art, which more frequently pushed the boundaries of legality, public decency, and well-understood forms of protest, did not receive the same level of mainstream media attention and praise. Three important differences made Pavlensky a less sympathetic dissident character. First, there were few well-known Anglo-American predecessors to which Pavlensky could be compared. Pussy Riot’s work, having been assimilated into a history of American feminist protest, was made more intelligible to a Western audience. By contrast, Pavlensky’s work was more directly influenced by Russia’s ‘actionist’ performance art tradition, which was harder to contextualize for a foreign audience. Second, Pavlensky’s activism represented a shift from the references and ideas of mass culture to the rarefied frameworks and vocabularies of high art. Not only was Pavlensky invoking a far less familiar body of work, he was also employing a more abstracted, theoretical approach in his art. While his work was by no means esoteric or inaccessible, the intensity and extremity of his art shocked and confused audiences instead of generating widespread support or personal sympathy. Third and more specifically, Pavlensky’s art practice involved crossing general standards of public morality and decency while directly courting arrest and imprisonment. As his actions were often deliberately provocative or illegal, Pavlensky was a less compelling ‘victim’ of the state, though he was no less appreciated as an anti-regime dissident. Thus, while Pavlensky’s numerous interventions did not receive the same level of attention and support as Pussy Riot’s punk prayer, they were nonetheless keenly analyzed by art and culture critics, who analyzed his actions as criticisms of the Russian government. 

As with Pussy Riot, the dichotomy between the West and Russia framed and directed analyses of Pavlensky’s actions. This dichotomy was most strikingly deployed in Jonathan Jones’ article for The Guardian, which describes Pavlensky’s 2015 action, Threat, during which Pavlensky set fire to the doors of Lubyanka building. Responding to Pavlensky’s arrest and subsequent trial, Jones writes: 

This puts our own fears of spies (or lack of such fears) into perspective. In Britain the intelligence services are accused of intruding on privacy. In Russia they are suspected of political murder. […] Behind that burning door lies the true horror of state surveillance (emphases mine).[29]

Like many media commentators on the Pussy Riot case – Jones compares the United Kingdom to Russia to delineate the dichotomy between a liberal, democratic order and an authoritarian regime. In this view, Pavlensky’s actions are direct responses to a repressive state; by his estimation, Russia is exactly the antithesis of the United Kingdom. The threat posed by Britain’s own organs of surveillance is, by this comparison, neutralized: it is the Russian state that represents the “true,” ultimate horror of state surveillance. Pavlensky’s activism is thus framed as a response to an oppressive Russian autocracy, one that is defined against Western democracies. Indeed, Jones further suggests that Pavlensky has “[set] Russia’s evil history ablaze,” adding a normative dimension to the West versus Russia binary. 

Against this East-West binary, commentators in art and cultural publications as in mainstream news have tended to read Pavlensky’s work as critiques of a dysfunctional Russian state. A 2017 article for the Economist frames Pavlensky as “an artist whose work is aimed against an authoritarian regime known for its use of entrapment and blackmail to neutralize its opponents.”[30] The article, which discusses the conflicting perspectives on ongoing sexual allegations against Pavlensky, casts Pavlensky as an artist whose work explicitly and exclusively addresses the Russian government, here seen as “an authoritarian regime” that may have been conspiring against him. More tellingly, the article is filed under the header “Enemies of the Kremlin,” which plainly positions Pavlensky as – similar to the Pussy Riot members – a potential victim of the Russian state, and as a political activist whose work directly challenges the institution of Russian government. 

Such a view of Pavlensky is common among art publications, who view Pavlensky purely in terms of his resistance to the Russian government. Matthew Sedacca’s 2015 article for Vice, for instance, portrays Pavlensky as a representative protest artist of contemporary Russia. Sedacca asserts that Pavlensky “is speaking out for many of his countrymen scared into their unwillingness to take […]  an opinionated anti-government stance.” He further argues that Pavlensky can be considered to be the voice of Russians who dare not speak out about their reservations against a government that actively silences its citizens. Further, Sedacca juxtaposes this image of Pavlensky as an artist-spokesperson for an intimidated Russian people against a discussion on the conservatism and repression in Russia: the article alludes to a “predominantly bleak situation for expression in Russia” and to strict “Kremlin-sanctioned confinements of censorship.”[31] The contrast between Pavlensky’s “speaking out” against the silence enforced by a “highly conservative government” closely follows the patterns of discussion for the Pussy Riot protestors, in that both artists are framed as lone wolves railing against a dystopic and repressive state. 

A similar dynamic is at work in Bloomberg’s interpretation of Pavlensky’s art as a criticism of Russia’s laggard economy. The controversial Fixation was used as the lead-in for a pessimistic forecast of Russia’s economic policiesbecoming a symbol of Russia’s dysfunction: “the apathy and fatalism [Pavlensky] so dramatically depicted is clear in the Russian economic ministry’s long-term development forecast.” Here, too, the vocabulary of development and economic growth is used to highlight the differences between the United States and Russia. Insinuations of an economically backward Russia abound throughout the article, which argues that “Russia will keep lagging behind other developing nations” and “will only […] reach 66 percent of the U.S.’s productivity level” by 2030.[32] The measure “66 percent of the U.S.’s productivity level” emphasizes Russia’s struggle to keep up with America; against this backdrop, Pavlensky’s action is once again seen as an attack against the Russian government, this time against “apathy and fatalism” of its economy. Here, too, Pavlensky is seen primarily as a dissenter against the Russian state: his art, in this view, is directed only at the Kremlin, and highlights failures specific to the Russian government. 

However, as many analyses rightly point out, the perspective that Pavlensky is primarily an anti-Kremlin political activist presents an incomplete account of Pavlensky’s art. A 2016 article in the BBC, for instance, undermines the argument that the Russian state apparatus is acting uniquely or especially repressively against Pavlensky in describing the performance of Threat: “Unsurprisingly, he was arrested – I can’t think of a country where he wouldn’t have been – and is [was] currently standing trial.”[33] Another article by Dasha Filippova in ArtSlant outlines this nuance at length, countering the media tendency to interpret Pavlensky and the Russian government as two opposing entities: 

International news headlines on Russian activism tend to evoke outdated, Cold War-inspired notions of repression, and unfortunately miss the subtlety of terms that make up Pavlensky’s conceptual methodology and the specificity of his notions of freedom. 

[…] This way of framing Pavlensky suggests his innocence in an evil machine, and yet most of his actions […] would be prosecuted in the finest specimens of the First World’s judiciary institutions, as is his intent to show.[34]  

Filippova shifts from the tendency to view Pavlensky’s art purely as a critique of the Russian government and instead highlights the more philosophical preoccupations that underlie Pavlensky’s work. She points out that the opposition between a “victimized” artist and an “oppressor” state is not clear-cut, given that Pavlensky – just like Pussy Riot – intentionally sought out state intervention with his actions, which would have pushed the boundaries of legality in any other country. Yet these details, as in the case of Pussy Riot, tended to be occluded in Western commentaries, which generally focused more on the anti-government character of the artists’ interventions. Despite extensive and often erudite analysis of Pavlensky’s diverse artistic influences and preoccupations, his work was frequently categorized within the same “anti-government” mold as Pussy Riot. The “anti-Kremlin protestor” moniker, used to define both artists as anti-regime activists, elided the specificities and expansiveness of their respective artistic practices. Instead, it spoke to what Filippova calls the “Cold War-inspired notions of repression,” emphasizing a view of Russia that is defined by its alienness from the Anglo-American world, and invoking a binary between a backward, oppressive Russia and a free, enlightened West. 

Literature Review: Lost Contexts of the “East-versus-West” Binary

The images of Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky that emerge from an analysis of Western media sources are strikingly similar. Western media narratives tended to see the two artists as proponents of purportedly “Western” ideals of liberty and, in the case of Pussy Riot, feminism. More importantly, they were also understood in opposition to the Russian government, as predominantly anti-regime agitators that were railing against a repressive state. This coverage yielded paradoxical perceptions of Pussy Riot and Pavlensky that were at once Western and foreign: the artists were Western in that they were imagined as the torchbearers of “Western” ideals of feminism and freedom. At the same time, such narratives also emphasized the exoticism and opacity of the artists’ Russian identities: if the two “anti-regime” artists embodied enlightened Western ideals, then their Russia was an exotic, inscrutable “other,” defined only as the absence of said ideals.[35]

A similar tension can be seen in existing scholarship on the two artists. For Pussy Riot, works in cultural and music studies on one hand restored Russian contexts and influences to Pussy Riot’s art. On the other hand, scholarship in communication studies and political science continue to emphasize the transnational nature of Pussy Riot’s appeal by examining the ways in which Pussy Riot’s work engaged with Western ideas and audiences. For Pavlensky, art historians highlighted the more philosophical concerns that undergird his practice and also explored both Russian and international influences in his work. Yet these analyses continued to rely on “East-versus-West” narratives to contrast Pavlensky’s work against what was seen as the particularly repressive and undemocratic nature of the Russian state. In short, academic literature on both artists highlighted contesting, and often contradictory, elements of the artists’ craft and points of view. For Pussy Riot, the tension is between national and transnational interpretations of their church performance. For Pavlensky, on the other hand, the tension resides in the question of whether his work addresses only the Russian state or if it articulates a general philosophical criticism of the relationship between states and citizens. It is precisely this heterogeneous mix of ideas and influences, I argue, that defines Pussy Riot and Pavlensky as part of a new generation of Russian performance artists who seek out and address both local and international audiences.

Responding to the limitations of mainstream media coverage, analyses of Pussy Riot’s performance in the field of music studies and religious studies restored Russian contexts to Pussy Riot’s work. Western media had interpreted Pussy Riot’s performance in terms of its Western parallels and inspirations, overlooking the collective’s cognizance and incorporation of Russia’s religious traditions in their performance. Indeed, scholars like Ingvar Steinholt and Nicholas Denysenko contended that religion, a little-discussed aspect of Pussy Riot’s work, was in fact central to their performance. Denysenko, in particular, pointed out that Pussy Riot’s performance was influenced by the Russian Orthodox tradition of holy foolery. Pussy Riot, with their unabashedly provocative stance, can be seen[36] as a modern Holy Fool (Юродивый), a figure whose appearance, speech, and activities are counter-cultural and offensive, but belie a deep spiritual conviction and prophetic understanding.[37] Going one step further, Bruce points out that the very timing of Pussy Riot’s performance suggested an awareness of the significance of Holy Foolery. Pussy Riot staged their performance during Lent, a period that was, in medieval times, a carnival season where commoners were permitted to disrespect or mock church authorities.[38] In fact, Bruce contends that Pussy Riot’s incorporation of Rachmaninov’s Ave Maria in their performance references a long historical tradition of praying to Mary in times of national crisis – in other words, Pussy Riot’s supplication to Mary was an attempt to reclaim the church space from the conservative, pro-Putin views advocated by Patriarch Kirill. In this light, the religious elements of Pussy Riot’s performance should be seen as considered and deliberate elements of their performance, contrasting the dominant view among Western journalists, who generally regarded the charge of blasphemy as a pretext for an essentially politically motivated trial against Pussy Riot. Given the significance of religious traditions of the performance, Pussy Riot’s performance should not be seen as a purely political reaction against Putin, bereft of any cultural meaning other than the literal content of their song, but as a protest that drew extensively on longstanding religious traditions to decry the political capitulation of Russia’s Orthodox Church and its leaders. 

While some commentators focused on the Russian influences that were critical to Pussy Riot’s performance, scholars in political science interrogated the ideas and symbols that made Pussy Riot so appealing to Western audiences. All of them pointed out fissures in Pussy Riot’s apparent “Westernness,” revealing an artistic practice that included both Russian and Western ideas and symbols that were constantly shifting in their meaning. Valerie Sperling, for example, highlights that Pussy Riot was neither the forerunner nor the representative of the feminist movement in Russia. Drawing on interviews with feminist groups and individuals in Russia, Sperling demonstrates that Pussy Riot’s feminism did not necessarily resonate with those of other Russian feminists, who took issue with Pussy Riot’s copious use of gender normative and homophobic insults in their lyrics.[39] In a similar vein, Marina Yusupova, in analyzing why Pussy Riot had failed to catalyze greater support for feminism in Russia, highlights the difficulty of translating Western feminist ideals across cultures. Just as the Russian contexts of Pussy Riot’s work often eluded Western commentators, Yusupova argues, so the perceived “Westernness” of Pussy Riot prevented their ideas from being fully communicated to Russians. Yusupova points out that the name “Pussy Riot” is in English; therefore, its meaning may not immediately be obvious to Russians, and may further emphasize the foreignness of “Western” feminist ideas and value systems. Yet these ideas itself – as Sperling shows – are only imperfectly or selectively conveyed in Pussy Riot’s performance, which many Russian feminists regarded as flawed or problematic assertions of feminist beliefs. [40] The complications raised by Sperling and Yusupova suggest that Pussy Riot places itself at the intersection of Western and Russian influences – their art does not fully belong to either culture and loses parts of its meaning before different audiences. 

 A similar dynamic is at work in visual analyses of Pavlensky’s art. While the “East-versus-West” binary was not as frequently used in media and academic discussions about Pavlensky, most academics still considered his work within a predominantly anti-Kremlin framework. Craig Stewart Walker, for instance, argues that Pavlensky’s actions deliberately destabilize the control of the Russian government. By proclaiming his actions art, Walker argues, Pavlensky effectively disrupts the meanings produced by Russia’s criminal code, according to which his public exposure is both criminal and undesirable. In doing so, Pavlensky suggests a second field of meaning for his actions, pulling away from state-driven understandings of his work and suggesting that his “criminal” action has aesthetic and conceptual value. To Walker, this process is targeted mainly at the Russian government, ultimately aiming to “[show] how [the symbolic field embodied in the Russian Criminal Code] inevitably perpetuates injustice.”[41] Walker, despite astutely analyzing the ways in which Pavlensky uses art to assert the autonomy of an individual in society, ultimately places his argument in an “anti-Putin” framework. To him, Pavlensky’s art directly targets the system of law in Russia, a system that Walker assumes to be fundamentally and irreducibly oppressive.  

At the same time, scholars acknowledged that Pavlensky’s art often arose out of more complicated conceptual and philosophical considerations, even as they undermined the specific institutions and laws of the Russian state. Ingrid Nelson, for instance, acknowledges Pavlensky’s own statement that his 2013 Fixation was as much a protest against the apathy and political indifference of Russian citizens.[42] The performance, staged on National Police Day, was an embodied expression of Russian citizens’ acquiescence to the routines, value systems, and beliefs about criminality and autonomy that have been imposed by the state. The intention of Pavlensky’s performance, which the artist himself had explicitly stated,[43] had often been ignored by commentators, who instead took his art as a criticism levelled towards the Russian government. Though the state was certainly a key preoccupation of his work, in this case Pavlensky’s art grappled specifically with the condition of civil and mass society in Russia. For Pavlensky, the relationship between state and citizen is, if not equal, then at least reciprocal. Fixation drew attention to the culpability of a populace that, it would seem, remained passive and immobile in response to government repression. As art critics like Banu Bargu suggest, Pavlensky’s deliberate acts of self-harm can be taken as an indictment of a self-defeating populace: using his body as a medium, Pavlensky depicts the self-destruction wrought by political apathy and indifference. In doing so, Pavlensky claims the position as the body politic of Russia and, through his extreme act of self-harm, illustrates the absurdity of its acceptance of a coercive, oppressive state apparatus.[44] In this light, headlines like “Artist mutilates self as Putin paralyzes Russia,” fundamentally misunderstood the substance of Pavlensky’s work. It implied instead a causality between Putin’s apparent ineptitude and Pavlensky’s action, once again reverting to the assumption that Putin was the single, natural target of Pavlensky’s action. 

While it may be argued that criticizing an apathetic populace and denouncing an authoritarian government are two sides of the same coin, Walker – along with Ingrid Nordgaard, Banu Bargu, Andrey Makarychev, and Sergey Medvedev – show that Pavlensky’s art ultimately goes beyond mere criticism of “Putin’s Russia,” speaking to a more abstract, philosophical interest in the relationship between the individual and the state. [45]  While Pussy Riot’s performance might be considered more “topical” in explicitly railing against specific policies or political outcomes, Pavlensky’s actions tended to explore a more conceptual tension between individual freedom and the exercise of state power and control. Banu Bargu, Andrey Makarychev and Sergey Medvedev, for example, understand Pavlensky’s work as “biopolitical art.” Drawing on Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, they argue that the state polices and politicizes individual, material bodies in society: biopower “normalizes and regulates the private lives and corporeal practices of individuals,”[46] incorporating citizens into a system of laws and control. Critically, citizens are subjugated not through coercive action or “extra-institutional” methods of repression, but through the status quo regulations and structures that order their bodies, activities, and aspirations in society. Such control is total and biological, and Pavlensky’s art, especially his deliberately self-harming actions, aims to disrupt this system of control, and reclaim his bodily autonomy from the state.[47] In the words of Bargu, 

The artist’s body is not wounded in order to unsettle the subjectivity it embodies but to problematize that subjectivity’s political self-expression and psycho investments in the structures of power that materialize on that body. In these performances, the body is reclaimed as the expression of an irreducible materiality that is the wellspring of a deeply political and, indeed, recalcitrant subjectivity, one that counters the relations of power that engulf it and resists being subsumed by them.[48]

The act of intentional self-harm enables the artist – in this case Pavlensky – to wrest control back from the state in two ways: first, by behaving in a way that is irrational or criminal according to the logic of state regulations, the individual expresses an ungovernable agency over their own, material body. Second, by proclaiming such action art, Pavlensky subverts the normal, often state-prescribed, systems of meaning – such as medical insanity or criminality – that are ascribed to such acts of self-mutilation. Importantly, Pavlensky’s critique of a government’s biopolitical control over its citizens implicates not only Putin or Russia, but underscores a general discomfort with state control over the individual sovereignty of its citizens. In this light, the assumption that Pavlensky’s work responds to a uniquely repressive Russian state bears revisiting, given that he has performed similar actions[49] in a “freer” France, where he was granted political asylum in 2017. Instead, we are perhaps better served by considering also the philosophical ideas that underpin Pavlensky’s art, which consistently reveals a deep-seated suspicion towards mechanisms of state power regardless of the specific state or country in which they are put to use. As in the case of Pussy Riot, Russian contexts of Pavlensky’s work coexist with other influences – in this case, with philosophical concerns about reclaiming individual sovereignty against the meanings and controls imposed by state policies.  

How, then, can we reconcile the different contexts and ideas in Pavlensky’s and Pussy Riot’s work, which is at once Russian and Western, philosophical and reactive? Research in communication studies offer important insights in understanding both Pussy Riot and Pavlensky as artists who consciously address both Western and Russian audiences in their work, in the process generating varying interpretations of their work. Caitlin Bruce, for instance, analyzed Pussy Riot’s signature balaclava as a transnational icon and an “affect generator” that took on different meanings for different audiences. On the most basic level, Bruce argues, Pussy Riot’s practice combines both Russian and Western frames of reference, and “draws on transnational frameworks for feminism, human rights, and GLBTQ recognition, using and extending national repertoires for protest, including Russian oriented political and nationalist iconography.”[50] This eclectic and sometimes contradictory blend of Western and Russian influences is what catapulted Pussy Riot to the status of a protest icon – instead of a fixed, core identity, Pussy Riot comes to represent different values and identities depending on their audience. Bruce’s work focuses specifically on how the balaclava, which transformed into a symbol of solidarity with Pussy Riot, retains meaning and operates across national contexts as a representation that indexes a particular group, while remaining generic enough to facilitate identification with different groups.[51] Her idea of the balaclava’s power as an “affect generator,” however, can also be applied to the art of Pussy Riot and Pavlensky in general. Bruce defines an “affect generator” as “a supercharged image that enables multiple claims and performances of solidarity and identification to take place.”[52] Like Bruce’s “affect generator,” the diverse influences in Pussy Riot’s and Pavlensky’s art, alongside their own explanatory comments about their work, lend themselves to different interpretations across various cultural contexts. For example, Katharina Wiedlack argues that Pussy Riot selectively and critically incorporated riot grrrl and Bikini Kill inspirations into their work, and intentionally emphasized these influences in interviews with Western publications.[53] By highlighting their punk rock influences and Anglo-American predecessors, Pussy Riot made their dissent, which had been anchored in Russian contexts, accessible to Western audiences. 

In a similar way, it may be argued that Pavlensky has also actively curated his persona to a Western audience, frequently participating in interviews and clarifying the perspectives and intents of his actions. While a comprehensive review of his interviews and of the views that he emphasized falls outside of the scope of this paper, it is clear that Pavlensky was keenly aware of the Western interest in his work, and his earlier statements about the Russian government affirmed pre-existing perceptions about the repressiveness of the Russian government. Yet his later interviews, particularly after he had left Russia, reflected a far more general, latent distrust of state power. In a recent interview, for instance, he declared that all governments are essentially instruments of repression, and use but different techniques to control its citizens.[54] According to Ingrid Nelson, who situates Pavlensky and Pussy Riot within the lineage of post-Soviet Actionists, this mode of conscious self-presentation and explanation is what distinguishes Pavlensky and Pussy Riot as internationally-oriented performance artist-activists. In designing actions that could be easily, though always incompletely, interpreted by audiences in different cultural contexts, Pavlensky and Pussy Riot can broadly be considered as a generation of artists whose protest actions against the Russian government also incorporate Western perspectives, allowing them to capture the attention, shock, and support of international audiences. 

Conclusion: Towards “Transnational” Political Art

Western media coverage of Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky constructed a valorizing but incomplete understanding of the two artists, who are swept into the narrative of defiant “anti-Kremlin activists.” Closer analysis, however, shows that even as they are limited and defined by their resistance to a purportedly evil, repressive machine, these artists use these “East-versus-West” binaries to their advantage by devising actions and interpretations that also resonate with Western onlookers. The art of Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky, which often integrates a variety of different influences and concerns, allows them to take on different meanings and capture international recognition, solidarity, and support. Thus, while Western media coverage tended to essentialize and reduce the art and preoccupation of Pussy Riot and Pavlensky, both artists drew on these tendencies to strengthen international support for their art. In other words, Pussy Riot and Pavlensky interpolated and interjected in the conversations and interpretations of their art, creating multiple and overlapping narratives about the meaning and intention of their work. Despite this, it should be noted that the process of “cultural translation” is far from straightforward. Future research on the two artists may consider how Western audiences respond to the two artists when their art criticizes not only an exoticized Russia, but also the liberal Western institutions that are supposed to be antithetical to Russia’s repressive state instruments. There appears to be limits to the extent that Pussy Riot and Pavlensky can incorporate Western influences and histories while retaining the support of Western commentators. Pussy Riot drew criticism for their 2015 music video, I can’t breathe, which referenced the case of Eric Garner,[55] and connected police brutality in the United States to the experience of state-sanctioned violence in Russia. This time, commentators asserted that it was impossible for Pussy Riot to understand the experiences of persons of color in America.[56] Likewise, Pavlensky was widely denounced for his 2020 action in which he published an intimate video of Benjamin Griveaux, who was then running for mayor in Paris. Many suggested that he had been aided by the Russian government, [57] or even that he was a secret agent for Putin.[58] Although both artists successfully mobilized the “East-versus-West” binary to gain Western attention, they tread a delicate balance, which may be disrupted if they either criticize or borrow too much from the West. To what extent did international support for the two artists depend on an exoticized view of a peculiarly repressive and backward Russia? Can political artists completely shed “local contexts” and become truly “international” in their art? Researching the changes and continuities in the practices of Pussy Riot and Pavlensky, particularly as their work increasingly began to respond directly to Western contexts, will be a promising first step to answering these remaining questions.         


References

[1] Storch, Leonid. “The Pussy Riot Case: Anti-Westernism in the Paradigm of the Beilis Trial.” Russian Politics & Law 51, no. 6 (2013): 11.

[2] Lipman, Masha. “The Absurd and Outrageous Trial of Pussy Riot.” The New Yorker, August 7, 2012. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-absurd-and-outrageous-trial-of-pussy-riot.

[3] By “action,” I refer to Pavlensky’s term, акция, which he uses to distinguish his work, inspired by actionism, from performance. 

[4] Pussy Riot was described as an “Anti-Kremlin protest group,” in a 2018 article, ‘It’s Not Putin’s Russia – It’s Our Russia.’ Pussy Riot Members on Protests, Poisonings and Politics in Time, whilst Pavlensky has been called an “anti-Kremlin protestor” by Dazed Digital in their 2017 article, Russian artist Petr Pavlensky sets fire to Paris bank.

[5] The church is also seen as a site of the unstable, shifting negotiations of the relationship between the church, state, and citizenship. The building was dynamited in 1931 under Stalinist rule. Discussions over reconstructing the church in the 1990s saw contesting perspectives towards Russia’s Soviet and tsarist past. In the 2000s, it has overseen several political events, and was the site where the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, lay in state before burial. 

[6] Bruce, Caitlin. “The balaclava as affect generator: Free Pussy Riot protests and transnational iconicity.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 12, no. 1 (2015): 51.

[7] Steinholt, Yngvar B. “Kitten Heresy: Lost Contexts of Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer.” Popular Music and Society 36, no. 1 (2013): 123.

[8] Sperling, Valerie. “Russian feminist perspectives on Pussy Riot.” Nationalities Papers 42, no. 4 (2014): 598.

[9] Steinholt, “Kitten Heresy,” 123.

[10] Esslemont, Tom. “Pussy Riot Members Jailed for Two Years for Hooliganism.” BBC News. BBC, August 17, 2012. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-19297373

[11] The sign, “Выступление Pussy Riot было переигрыванием знаменитой акции Иисуса Христа (Мф 21:12-13)”, is translated thus: “Pussy Riot’s performance replayed a famous action by Jesus Christ (Matthew 21:12-13).”

[12] These laws were, respectively, the law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Deniial of Traditional Family Values” and “On Amendments to Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation regarding the Regulation of the Activities of Non-profit Organizations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent.” The first law banned the dissemination of “homosexual propaganda” in media, while the second required NGOs that were receiving aid from non-Russian sources to register themselves as “foreign agents.”

[13] Bargu, Banu. “The Corporeal Avant-Garde: Petr Pavlensky.” Bodies of Evidence: Ethics, Aesthetics and Politics of Movement (2018): 104.

[14] Nordgaard, Ingrid. “Documenting/Performing the Vulnerable Body: Pain and Agency in Works by Boris Mikhailov and Petr Pavlensky.” Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture 5 (2016): 99-101.

[15] Makarychev, Andrey, and Alexandra Yatsyk. “Refracting Europe: Biopolitical conservatism and art protest in Putin’s Russia.” In Russia’s Foreign Policy, pp. 150. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2015.

[16] Wiedlack, Katharina. “Pussy Riot and the Western Gaze: Punk Music, Solidarity and the Production of Similarity and Difference.” Popular Music and Society 39, no. 4 (2016): 411.

[17] These assumptions are captured by article headlines like “Pussy Riot digs its claws into Putin,” “Putin’s religious war against Pussy Riot,” and more illuminatingly, “Putin v.  the Punk Rockers.” Both titles directly pit Pussy Riot against Putin and suggest that Pussy Riot’s trial was personally initiated and sustained by Putin. Even more explicit were articles that assume that Pussy Riot’s sentence was predetermined: Anna Politkovskaya, writing for the Financial Times in a 2012 article titled “Pussy Riot can rock the Kremlin to its foundations,” argues, “Congratulations Vladimir Putin. […] Few can doubt that the Kremlin had a hand in the decision to sentence Pussy Riot to two years in prison.”

[18] Cadwalladr, Carole. “Pussy Riot:  Will Vladimir Putin Regret Taking on Russia’s Cool Punks?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, July 28. 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jul/29/pussy-riot-protest-vladimir-putin-russia.

[19] Harris, John. “From Pussy Riot, a Lesson in the Power of Punk | John Harris.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, August 19, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/aug/19/pussy-riot-power-of-punk.

[20] In other parts of the article, Harris emphasizes interviews in which Pussy Riot members credited Bikini Kill and bands in the riot grrrl movement, declaring Pussy Riot’s songs “a product of exactly the same aesthetic.”

[21] Lipman, Masha. “The Absurd and Outrageous Trial of Pussy Riot.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, August 7, 2012. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-absurd-and-outrageous-trial-of-pussy-riot. Later in the article, Lipman also connects the trial to the political trials of Soviet dissidents, casting an even more rigid moral binary between the dissidents and the prosecutors: “Then as now, those in the dock were voices of reason, honesty and morality, while their prosecutors were cruel, absurd, and ultimately immoral.” 

[22] Currie, Janus C. “Like a Prayer: The Dissensual Aesthetics of Pussy Riot.” Rock Music Studies 4, no. 2 (2017), 93.

[23] Elder, Miriam. “Pussy Riot Trial: ‘We Are Representatives of Our Generation’.” The Guardian. The Guardian News and Media, August 17, 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/aug/17/pussy-riot-trial-representatives-generation

[24] Ibid.

[25] Idov, Michael. “Opinion | On Trial, Putin v. Pussy Riot – The New York Times.” The New York Times. The New York Times, August 7, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/07/opinion/on-trial-putin-v-pussy-riot.html

[26] Politkovskaya, Anna. “Pussy Riot Can Rock the Kremlin to Its Foundations.” Financial Times. Financial Times, August 20, 2012. www.ft.com/content/e4fbca60-eab7-11e1-984b-00144feab49a

[27] Ibid.

[28] This idea was invoked in Joe Nocera’s 2014 article, Pussy Riot Tells All, for The New York Times“You couldn’t ask for more appealing activists. Not only had their prosecution been unjust, but they were young and attractive and intelligent and fearless.” 

[29] Jones, Jonathan. “Pyotr Pavlensky Is Setting Russia’s Evil History Ablaze.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, November 9, 2015. www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2015/nov/09/pyotr-pavlensky-is-setting-russias-evil-history-ablaze

[30] S., N. “Petr Pavlensky, Accused of Sexual Assault, Flees Russia.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, January 20, 2017. https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2017/01/20/petr-pavlensky-accused-of-sexual-assault-flees-russia.

[31] Sedacca, Matthew. “Russian Actionist Petr Pavlensky Talks Censorship in the Motherland.” Vice. Vice Media, September 18, 2015. https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/78e7v4/a-russian-artist-poked-the-bear-and-almost-got-away-with-it.

[32] Bershidsky, Leonid. “Artist Mutilates Self as Putin Paralyzes Russia.” Bloomberg Opinion. Bloomberg,  November 12, 2013. https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2013-11-11/artist-mutilates-self-as-putin-paralyzes-russia

[33] Gompertz, Will. “Pushing the Art of Protest to New Limits.” BBC News. BBC, April 28, 2016. www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-36163543.

[34] Filippova, Dasha. “The Russian Terrorist: Petr Pavlensky.” ArtSlant. ArtSlant, June 20, 2016. https://www.artslant.com/ny/articles/show/46065-the-russian-terrorist-petr-pavlensky.

[35] This dynamic closely parallels ideas about narrating the other in subaltern studies. Edward Said, in particular, addresses this idea in arguing that European identity was strengthened when it was defined against ideas about the Orient: “that Orientalism makes sense at all depends more on the West than on the Orient, and this sense is directly indebted to various Western techniques of representation that make the Orient visible.” Further insights that subaltern studies will contribute to our reading of Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky are, unfortunately, outside the scope of this paper. 

[36] In fact, Tolokonnikova herself had directly connected the practice of holy foolery to Pussy Riot’s 2012 performance.

[37] Denysenko, Nicholas. “An appeal to Mary: An analysis of Pussy Riot’s punk performance in Moscow.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 81, no. 4 (2013): 1063. A more detailed account of holy foolery in this article also argues that “[b]y virtue of his inner freedom, through his laughter and his playfulness, he ‘mocks’ and calls in question any attempt to reduce the Christian life to the level of respectability and conventional moral standards. He mocks all forms of legalism that turn Christianity into a code of “rules” […] he bears witness to the preeminent value of persons rather than rules.”

[38] Bruce, Caitlin. “The balaclava as affect generator: Free Pussy Riot protests and transnational iconicity.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 12, no. 1 (2015): 52.

[39] See for example Sperling, Valerie. “Russian feminist perspectives on Pussy Riot.” Nationalities Papers 42, no. 4 (2014): 591-603.

[40] Another example of this, which does not fit into the discussion at present, is Makarychev’s and Medvedev’s admission that Pussy Riot had expressed deep reservations with Western societies  — Tolokonnikova, for example, had exchanged letters with Slavoj Žižek which were “sympathetic to a highly critical view of capitalist Europe as being in a state of decline and crisis, unable to tacke its domestic troubles effectively and even less capable of a well-thought-out strategy towards its neighbours,” even going so far as to declare that Pussy Riot members intended to make art against consumerist capitalism.   

[41] Walker, Craig Stewart. “Madness, Dissidence and Transduction.” Palabra Clave 20, no. 3 (2017): 697.

[42] Nelson, Ingrid. “Artist for a New Age: Dissident Russian Performance Art and the Work of Petr Pavlenskii.” Russian Literature 96 (2018), 287.

[43] On the topic of his performance, Pavlensky has said: “my idea was to tell people, ‘You will have Police Day for the rest of your life if you don’t act.’” On his website, Pavlensky described his action as “a metaphor of the apathy and political indifference and apathy of the modern Russian society.”

[44] Bargu, Banu. “The Corporeal Avant-Garde: Petr Pavlensky.” Bodies of Evidence: Ethics, Aesthetics and Politics of Movement (2018): 101-19.

[45] Nordgaard, “Documenting/Performing the Vulnerable Body,” 101.

[46] Makarychev, Andrey, and Sergey Medvedev. “Biopolitical art and the struggle for Sovereignty in Putin’s Russia.” Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe 26, no. 2-3 (2018): 165.

[47] Nordgaard, “Documenting/Performing the Vulnerable Body,” 98-99.

[48] Bargu, “The Corporeal Avant-Garde,” 106-7.

[49] In 2017, for example, Pavlensky set fire to the doors of the Banque de la France on Place, echoing his 2015 action, Threat, staged at the Lubyanka Building.

[50] Bruce, “The balaclava as affect generator,” 45.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Bruce, 45.

[53] Wiedlack, Katharina. “Pussy Riot and the Western Gaze: Punk Music, Solidarity and the Production of Similarity and Difference.” Popular Music and Society 39, no. 4 (2016): 410-3.

[54] In his 2020 interview with The New York Times, Pavlensky states: “all governments, whether French or Russian, “are instruments of repression. The mechanics of power are the same everywhere, only the techniques are different.”

[55] Mathias, Christopher. “Eric Garner Said ‘I Can’t Breathe’ 11 Times — Now Activists Are Making 11 Demands In His Name.” HuffPost. HuffPost, December 12, 2014. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/eric-garner-protests-demands_n_6308956

[56] Dzero, Irina, and Tatyana Bystrova. “Pussy Riot and the Translatability of Cultures.” Transcultural Studies 13, no. 2 (2017): 282.

[57] Collet, Benoît, and Afp. “Affaire Griveaux : Pavlenski ‘a sans Doute Été Aidé’, Estime Ndiaye.” RTL.fr, February 17, 2020. https://www.rtl.fr/actu/politique/affaire-griveaux-pavlenski-a-sans-doute-ete-aide-estime-ndiaye-7800108390.

[58] Costa-Kostritsky, Valeria. “What Is Pyotr Pavlensky Playing at?” Apollo Magazine, April 9, 2020. https://www.apollo-magazine.com/pavlensky-playing-benjamin-griveaux/


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

Pussy Riot

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  12. Nocera, Joe. “Pussy Riot Tells All.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 8, 2014. www.nytimes.com/2014/02/08/opinion/nocera-pussy-riot-tells-all.html.
  13. Pelly, Jenn. “‘We Are All Pussy Riot’: Kathleen Hanna Speaks on the Jailed Feminist Punk Group.” Pitchfork. Pitchfork, August 15, 2012. http://pitchfork.com/news/47516-we-are-all-pussy-riot-kathleen-hanna-speaks-on-the-jailed-feminist-punk-group/.  
  14. Politkovskaya, Anna. “Pussy Riot Can Rock the Kremlin to Its Foundations.” Financial Times. Financial Times, August 20, 2012. www.ft.com/content/e4fbca60-eab7-11e1-984b-00144feab49a.
  15. Pussy Riot. “We Wish Nadia and Masha Well – but They’re No Longer Part of Pussy Riot | Pussy Riot.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, February 6, 2014.  www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/06/nadia-masha-pussy-riot-collective-no-longer.
  16. Walker, Shaun. “Voices within Russia Join Outcry over Pussy Riot Sentence.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, August 12, 2012. www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/voices-within-russia-join-outcry-over-pussy-riot-sentence-8061486.html.
  17. Haynes, Suyin. “Pussy Riot’s Activists on Protests and Russia’s Politics.” Time. Time, November 2, 2018. https://time.com/5442791/pussy-riot-russia-poisoning-olga-kyrachyova-veronika-nikulshina/.

Petr Pavlensky

  1. Balmforth, Tom. “Russian Protest Artist Pavlensky Loses Award.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, July 11, 2016. www.rferl.org/a/pavlensky-havel-prize/27847886.html.
  2. Bennetts, Marc. “Acts of Resistance: Pyotr Pavlensky on Performance Art as Protest.” The Calvert Journal, December 1, 2014. www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/3373/pavlensky-performance-art-protest.
  3. Bershidsky, Leonid. “Artist Mutilates Self as Putin Paralyzes Russia.” Bloomberg Opinion. Bloomberg, November 12, 2013. https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2013-11-11/artist-mutilates-self-as-putin-paralyzes-russia.
  4. Cafolla, Anna. “Russian Artist Petr Pavlensky Sets Fire to Paris Bank.” Dazed. Dazed Digital, October 17, 2017. https://www.dazeddigital.com/politics/article/37783/1/russian-artist-petr-pavlensky-sets-fire-to-paris-bank.  
  5. Collet, Benoît, and Afp. “Affaire Griveaux : Pavlenski ‘a sans Doute Été Aidé’, Estime Ndiaye.” RTL.fr, February 17, 2020. https://www.rtl.fr/actu/politique/affaire-griveaux-pavlenski-a-sans-doute-ete-aide-estime-ndiaye-7800108390.
  6. Cook, Fiona. “Petr Pavlensky v Vladimir Putin.” Dazed. Dazed Digital, July 26, 2012. https://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/14077/1/petr-pavlensky-v-vladimir-putin
  7. Costa-Kostritsky, Valeria. “What Is Pyotr Pavlensky Playing at?” Apollo Magazine, April 9, 2020. https://www.apollo-magazine.com/pavlensky-playing-benjamin-griveaux/
  8. Eberstadt, Fernanda. “The Dangerous Art of Pyotr Pavlensky.” The New York Times. The New York Times, July 11, 2019. www.nytimes.com/2019/07/11/magazine/pyotr-pavlensky-art.html.
  9. Eshun, Ekow, et al. “The Naked Truth: the Art World Reacts to Pyotr Pavlensky’s Red Square Protest.” The Calvert Journal, November 14, 2013. www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/1768/pyotr-pavlensky-russian-artist-nails-red-square.
  10. Filippova, Dasha. “The Russian Terrorist: Petr Pavlensky.” ArtSlant. ArtSlant, June 20, 2016. https://www.artslant.com/ny/articles/show/46065-the-russian-terrorist-petr-pavlensky
  11. Higgins, Andrew. “An Artist Who Aspires to Be ‘a Bone in Everyone’s Throat’.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 28, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/28/world/europe/pyotr-pavlensky-interview.html.  
  12. Gessen, Masha. “The Protest Artist Who Stumps Putin.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, June 19, 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-protest-artist-who-stumps-putin.  
  13. Gompertz, Will. “Pushing the Art of Protest to New Limits.” BBC News. BBC, April 28, 2016.www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-36163543
  14. Guelman, Marat. “Why Russia Produces (and Quashes) so Much Radical Art.” CNN. Cable News Network, November 27, 2017. http://edition.cnn.com/style/article/russia-protest-art-saatchi-gallery/index.html?sr=twCNN112717undefined1147AMStory.  
  15. Jones, Jonathan. “Pyotr Pavlensky Is Setting Russia’s Evil History Ablaze.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, November 9, 2015. www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2015/nov/09/pyotr-pavlensky-is-setting-russias-evil-history-ablaze.
  16. Le Point, magazine. “Griveaux : Qui Est Piotr Pavlenski, L’artiste Russe Qui a Mis En Ligne La Vidéo Intime ?” Le Point, February 14, 2020. www.lepoint.fr/politique/griveaux-qui-est-piotr-pavlenski-l-artiste-russe-qui-a-mis-en-ligne-la-video-intime-14-02-2020-2362713_20.php.
  17. Liscia, Valentina Di, et al. “Released from a Yearlong Detention, Artist Petr Pavlensky Now Faces 10 Years in Prison.” Hyperallergic, October 17, 2018. http://hyperallergic.com/463704/artist-petr-pavlensky-now-faces-10-years-in-prison/.   
  18. Morissard, Aurelien. “Affaire Griveaux : Qui Sont Piotr Pavlenski Et Alexandra De Taddeo ?” France Bleu, February 17, 2020. www.francebleu.fr/infos/politique/l-artiste-russe-piotr-pavlenski-affirme-avoir-mis-en-ligne-les-videos-attribuees-a-benjamin-griveaux-1581673263.
  19. S., N. “Petr Pavlensky, Accused of Sexual Assault, Flees Russia.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, January 20, 2017. https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2017/01/20/petr-pavlensky-accused-of-sexual-assault-flees-russia.
  20. Sedacca, Matthew. “Russian Actionist Petr Pavlensky Talks Censorship in the Motherland.” Vice. Vice Media, September 18, 2015. https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/78e7v4/a-russian-artist-poked-the-bear-and-almost-got-away-with-it
  21. Sneider, Noah. “Body Politics.” 1843, July 27, 2016, www.1843magazine.com/features/body-politics.
  22. Walker, Shaun. “Petr Pavlensky: Why I Nailed My Scrotum to Red Square.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, February 5, 2014. www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/feb/05/petr-pavlensky-nailed-scrotum-red-square.

Other

  1. Mathias, Christopher. “Eric Garner Said ‘I Can’t Breathe’ 11 Times — Now Activists Are Making 11 Demands In His Name.” HuffPost. HuffPost, December 12, 2014. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/eric-garner-protests-demands_n_6308956.

Secondary Sources

  1. Bargu, Banu. “The Corporeal Avant-Garde: Petr Pavlensky.” Bodies of Evidence: Ethics, Aesthetics and Politics of Movement (2018): 101-19.
  2. Bruce, Caitlin. “The balaclava as affect generator: Free Pussy Riot protests and transnational iconicity.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 12, no. 1 (2015): 42-62.
  3. Currie, Janus C. “Like a Prayer: The Dissensual Aesthetics of Pussy Riot.” Rock Music Studies 4, no. 2 (2017): 89-101.
  4. Denysenko, Nicholas. “An appeal to Mary: An analysis of Pussy Riot’s punk performance in Moscow.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 81, no. 4 (2013): 1061-1092.
  5. Dzero, Irina, and Tatyana Bystrova. “Pussy Riot and the Translatability of Cultures.” Transcultural Studies 13, no. 2 (2017): 264-286.
  6. Glisic, Iva, and Biljana Puric. “Art as a Living Archive: Post-1989 Performance Art in Serbia and Russia.” Third Text 33, no. 2 (2019): 213-234.
  7. Kananovich, Volha. “Progressive Artists, Political Martyrs, or Blasphemous Hussies? A Content Analysis of the Russian Media Coverage of the Pussy Riot Affair.” Popular Music and Society 39, no. 4 (2016): 396-409.
  8. Kobets, Svitlana. “From the Tabennisi nunnery to Pussy Riot: female holy fools in Byzantium and Russia.” Canadian Slavonic Papers 60, no. 1-2 (2018): 87-107.
  9. Makarychev, Andrey, and Alexandra Yatsyk. “Refracting Europe: Biopolitical conservatism and art protest in Putin’s Russia.” In Russia’s Foreign Policy, pp. 138-155. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2015.
  10. Makarychev, Andrey, and Sergey Medvedev. “Biopolitical art and the struggle for Sovereignty in Putin’s Russia.” Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe 26, no. 2-3 (2018): 165-179.
  11. Miller, Andrew. “Perfect Opposition: On Putin and Pussy Riot.” Public Policy Research 19, no. 3 (2012): 205-207.
  12. Nelson, Ingrid. “Artist for a New Age: Dissident Russian Performance Art and the Work of Petr Pavlenskii.” Russian Literature 96 (2018): 277-295.
  13. Nordgaard, Ingrid. “Documenting/Performing the Vulnerable Body: Pain and Agency in Works by Boris Mikhailov and Petr Pavlensky.” Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture 5 (2016): 85-107.
  14. Schuler, Catherine. “Reinventing the show trial: Putin and Pussy Riot.” In Anthropology, Theatre, and Development, pp. 286-302. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2015.
  15. Sperling, Valerie. “Russian feminist perspectives on Pussy Riot.” Nationalities Papers 42, no. 4 (2014): 591-603.
  16. Steinholt, Yngvar B., and David-Emil Wickström. “The Pussy Riot Complex: Entering a New Stage of Academic Research into a Viral Russian Controversy.” (2016): 393-395.
  17. Steinholt, Yngvar B. “Kitten Heresy: Lost Contexts of Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer.” Popular Music and Society 36, no. 1 (2013): 120-124.
  18. Storch, Leonid. “The Pussy Riot Case: Anti-Westernism in the Paradigm of the Beilis Trial.” Russian Politics & Law 51, no. 6 (2013): 8-44.
  19. Wiedlack, Katharina. “Pussy Riot and the Western Gaze: Punk Music, Solidarity and the Production of Similarity and Difference.” Popular Music and Society 39, no. 4 (2016): 410-422.
  20. Walker, Craig Stewart. “Madness, Dissidence and Transduction.” Palabra Clave 20, no. 3 (2017): 686-701.
  21. Yusupova, Marina. “Pussy Riot: a feminist band lost in history and translation.” Nationalities Papers 42, no. 4 (2014): 604-610.

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