I was finally able to read an English translation of the closing statements of Maria Alyokhina today, the third member of Pussy Riot on trial. Just in time for the final pissing-on of justice that involved a guilty verdict and a two year sentence, resulting in excessive flag waving surliness on my behalf at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox church, and joining a feminist art collection called Permanent Wave in a snarled-from-the-diaphragm rendition of “Punk Prayer”.
This trial is highly typical and speaks volumes. The current government will have occasion to feel shame and embarrassment because of it for a long time to come. At each stage it has embodied a travesty of justice. As it turned out, our performance, at first a small and somewhat absurd act, snowballed into an enormous catastrophe. This would obviously not happen in a healthy society. Russia, as a state, has long resembled an organism sick to the core. And the sickness explodes out into the open when you rub up against its inflamed abscesses. At first and for a long time this sickness gets hushed up in public, but eventually it always finds resolution through dialogue. And look—this is the kind of dialogue that our government is capable of. This trial is not only a malignant and grotesque mask, it is the “face” of the government’s dialogue with the people of our country. To prompt discussion about a problem on the societal level, you often need the right conditions—an impetus.
And it is interesting that our situation was depersonalized from the start. This is because when we talk about Putin, we have in mind first and foremost not Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin but Putin the system that he himself created—the power vertical, where all control is carried out effectively by one person. And that power vertical is uninterested, completely uninterested, in the opinion of the masses. And what worries me most of all is that the opinion of the younger generations is not taken into consideration. We believe that the ineffectiveness of this administration is evident in practically everything.
And right here, in this closing statement, I would like to describe my firsthand experience of running afoul of this system. Our schooling, which is where the personality begins to form in a social context, effectively ignores any particularities of the individual. There is no “individual approach,” no study of culture, of philosophy, of basic knowledge about civic society. Officially, these subjects do exist, but they are still taught according to the Soviet model. And as a result, we see the marginalization of contemporary art in the public consciousness, a lack of motivation for philosophical thought, and gender stereotyping. The concept of the human being as a citizen gets swept away into a distant corner.
Today’s educational institutions teach people, from childhood, to live as automatons. Not to pose the crucial questions consistent with their age. They inculcate cruelty and intolerance of nonconformity. Beginning in childhood, we forget our freedom.
I have personal experience with psychiatric clinics for minors. And I can say with conviction that any teenager who shows any signs of active nonconformity can end up in such a place. A certain percentage of the kids there are from orphanages.
In our country, it’s considered entirely normal to commit a child who has tried to escape from an orphanage to a psychiatric clinic. And they treat them using extremely powerful sedatives like Aminazin, which was also used to subdue Soviet dissidents in the ’70s.
This is especially traumatizing given the overall punitive tendency and the absence of any real psychological assistance. All interactions are based on the exploitation of the children’s feelings of fear and forced submission. And as a result, their own cruelty increases many times over. Many children there are illiterate, but no one makes any effort to battle this—to the contrary, every last drop of motivation for personal development is discouraged. The individual closes off entirely and loses faith in the world.
I would like to note that this method of personal development clearly impedes the awakening of both inner and religious freedoms, unfortunately, on a mass scale. The consequence of the process I have just described is ontological humility, existential humility, socialization. To me, this transition, or rupture, is noteworthy in that, if approached from the point of view of Christian culture, we see that meanings and symbols are being replaced by those that are diametrically opposed to them. Thus one of the most important Christian concepts, Humility, is now commonly understood not as a path towards the perception, fortification, and ultimate liberation of Man, but on the contrary as an instrument for his enslavement. To quote [Russian philosopher] Nikolai Berdyaev, one could say that “the ontology of humility is the ontology of the slaves of God, and not the sons of God.” When I was involved with organizing the ecological movement, I became fundamentally convinced of the priority of inner freedom as the foundation for taking action. As well as the importance, the direct importance, of taking action as such.
To this day I find it astonishing that, in our country, we need the support of several thousands of individuals in order to put an end to the despotism of one or a handful of bureaucrats. I would like to note that our trial stands as a very eloquent confirmation of the fact that we need the support of thousands of individuals from all over the world in order to prove the obvious: that the three of us are not guilty. We are not guilty; the whole world says so. The whole world says it at concerts, the whole world says it on the internet, the whole world says it in the press. They say it in Parliament. The Prime Minister of England greets our President not with words about the Olympics, but with the question, “Why are three innocent women sitting in prison?” It’s shameful.
But I find it even more astonishing that people don’t believe that they can have any influence on the regime. During the pickets and demonstrations [of the winter and spring], back when I was collecting signatures and organizing petitions, many people would ask me—and ask me with sincere bewilderment—why in the world they should care about, what business could they possibly have, with that little patch of forest in the Krasnodar region–even though it is perhaps unique in Russia, perhaps primeval? Why should they care if the wife of our Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wants to build an official residence there and destroy the only juniper preserve in Russia? These people . . . this is yet another confirmation that people in our country have lost the sense that this country belongs to us, its citizens. They no longer have a sense of themselves as citizens. They have a sense of themselves simply as the automated masses. They don’t feel that the forest belongs to them, even the forest located right next to their houses. I doubt they even feel a sense of ownership over their own houses. Because if someone were to drive up to their porch with a bulldozer and tell them that they need to evacuate, that, “Excuse us, we’re going raze your house to make room for a bureaucrat’s residence,” these people would obediently collect their belongings, collect their bags, and go out on the street. And then stay there precisely until the regime tells them what they should do next. They are completely shapeless, it is very sad. Having spent almost half a year in jail, I have come to understand that prison is just Russia in miniature.
One could also begin with the system of governance. This is that very same power vertical, in which every decision takes place solely through the direct intervention of the man in charge. There is absolutely no horizontal delegation of duties, which would make everyone’s lives noticeably easier. And there is a lack of individual initiative. Denunciation thrives along with mutual suspicion. In jail, as in our country as a whole, everything is designed to strip man of his individuality, to identify him only with his function, whether that function is that of a worker or a prisoner. The strict framework of the daily schedule in prison (you get used to it quickly) resembles the framework of daily life that everyone is born into.
In this framework, people begin to place high value on meaningless trifles. In prison these trifles are things like a tablecloth or plastic dishes that can only be procured with the personal permission of the head warden. Outside prison, accordingly, you have social status, which people also value a great deal. This has always been surprising to me. Another element [of this process] is becoming aware of this government functioning as a performance, a play. That in reality turns into chaos. The surface-level organization of the regime reveals the disorganization and inefficiency of most of its activities. And it’s obvious that this doesn’t lead to any real governance. On the contrary, people start to feel an ever-stronger sense of being lost—including in time and space. In jail and all over the country, people don’t know where to turn with this or that question. That’s why they turn to the boss of the jail. And outside the prison, correspondingly, they go to Putin, the top boss.
Expressing in a text a collective image of the system that . . . well, in general, I could say that we aren’t against . . . that we are against the Putin-engendered chaos, which can only superficially be called a government. Expressing a collective image of the system, in which, in our opinion, practically all the institutions are undergoing a kind of mutation, while still appearing nominally intact. And in which the civil society so dear to us is being destroyed. We are not making direct quotations in our texts; we only take the form of a direct quotation as an artistic formula. The only thing that’s the same is our motivation. Our motivation is the same motiviation that goes with the use of a direct quotation. This motivation is best expressed in the Gospels: “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” [Matthew 7:8] I—all of us—sincerely believe that for us the door will be opened. But alas, for now the only thing that has happened is that we’ve been locked up in prison. It is very strange that in their reaction to our actions, the authorities completely disregard the historical experience of dissent. “[H]ow unfortunate is the country where simple honesty is understood, in the best case, as heroism. And in the worst case as a mental disorder,” the dissident [Vladimir] Bukovsky wrote in the 1970s. And even though it hasn’t been very long, now people are acting as if there was never any Great Terror nor any attempts to resist it. I believe that we are being accused by people without memory. Many of them have said, “He is possessed by a demon and insane. Why do you listen to Him?” These words belong to the Jews who accused Jesus Christ of blasphemy. They said, “We are . . . stoning you . . . for blasphemy.” [John 10:33] Interestingly enough, it is precisely this verse that the Russian Orthodox Church uses to express its opinion about blasphemy. This view is certified on paper, it’s attached to our criminal file. Expressing this opinion, the Russian Orthodox Church refers to the Gospels as static religious truth. The Gospels are no longer understood as revelation, which they have been from the very beginning, but rather as a monolithic chunk that can be disassembled into quotations to be shoved in wherever necessary—in any of its documents, for any of their purposes. The Russian Orthodox Church did not even bother to look up the context in which “blasphemy” is mentioned here—that in this case, the word applies to Jesus Christ himself. I think that religious truth should not be static, that it is essential to understand the instances and paths of spiritual development, the trials of a human being, his duplicity, his splintering. That for one’s self to form it is essential to experience these things. That you have to experience all these things in order to develop as a person. That religious truth is a process and not a finished product that can be shoved wherever and whenever. And all of these things I’ve been talking about, all of these processes—they acquire meaning in art and in philosophy. Including contemporary art. An artistic situation can and, in my opinion, must contain its own internal conflict. And what really irritates me is how the prosecution uses the words “so-called” in reference to contemporary art.
I would like to point out that very similar methods were used during the trial of the poet [Joseph] Brodsky. His poems were defined as “so-called” poems; the witnesses for the prosecution hadn’t actually read them—just as a number of the witnesses in our case didn’t see the performance itself and only watched the clip online. Our apologies, it seems, are also being defined by the collective prosecuting body as “so-called” apologies. Even though this is offensive. And I am overwhelmed with moral injury and psychological trauma. Because our apologies were sincere. I am sorry that so many words have been uttered and you all still haven’t understood this. Or it is calculated deviousness when you talk about our apologies as insincere. I don’t know what you still need to hear from us. But for me this trial is a “so-called” trial. And I am not afraid of you. I am not afraid of falsehood and fictitiousness, of sloppily disguised deception, in the verdict of the so-called court.
Because all you can deprive me of is “so-called” freedom. This is the only kind that exists in Russia. But nobody can take away my inner freedom. It lives in the word, it will go on living thanks to openness [glasnost], when this will be read and heard by thousands of people. This freedom goes on living with every person who is not indifferent, who hears us in this country. With everyone who found shards of the trial in themselves, like in previous times they found them in Franz Kafka and Guy Debord. I believe that I have honesty and openness, I thirst for the truth; and these things will make all of us just a little bit more free. We will see this yet.
This speech in particular resonated with me, naturally, as Maria describes unhelpful, unproductive stints in psychiatric wards, and unhelpful, unproductive, anti-psychotic medications, which she also alludes to as having less-than-altruistic end goals than mental wellness. Not that I could choose a favorite statement. Each of them was powerful, eloquent and thought-out, but though all three women have a commonality in their politics and ideals, each wrote a statement with a unique voice and approach to her activism. This seems like the ideal of what a collective experience should be, everyone bringing something unique and valuable to the table, and then unified transforming it into something else great entirely. It may not work at that way in all other instances I’ve seen, but in the case of Pussy Riot, it’s inspiring.