Helen Pyotrovsky

                    Pussy Riot: From Intervention to Action

Five years have passed since the feminist group Pussy Riot did a performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Naturally, many events have occurred over those years. Two members of the group—Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova—served 21 months in prison and were released in late 2013; almost immediately they announced their intention to work on protecting prisoner rights. They continued making videos, did performances, wrote books, and even appeared as themselves in the acclaimed American TV show House of Cards. Occasionally they were invited by the few independent Russian media to comment on the social processes in contemporary Russia, primarily on the further merging of church and state. I imagine that their names appear more frequently and more loudly abroad, and if that is so, it can be apparently explained by the fact that world politics today are frighteningly monotonous: political figures in the most diverse countries are exploiting the waves of right-populist feelings and sometimes come to power on the crest of those waves. It is not surprising that the object of criticism for Pussy Riot is now the new president of the USA and his discriminatory policies.

Nevertheless, despite the change in external circumstances, the action of Pussy Riot taken in now-distant 2012 retains an inner logic that no circumstances can eliminate. I will not discuss their action from the point of view of any particular circumstances, that is, trying to find in them what could attenuate or illuminate the action in the church, presenting it, for instance, as a kind of portent of further social developments. By ‘inner logic,’ I mean the driving force or compulsion that selected this particular deed and went through it like an electric charge. The continuation of that compulsion was not art but politics—that is why the group members created a human rights organization with the telling name ‘Justice Zone.’ However, human rights of this sort have mainly a macropolitical dimension in our context. Generally speaking, such activity can be interpreted in a different way—as an attempt through these rights to reestablish life, which, in direct contradiction to the law, is crudely and cruelly flouted.

We have yet to learn what the future paths will be for this compulsion. Here we will return to the action itself, held in the main Moscow Orthodox church by Pussy Riot, and try to understand what prompted them to act thus in February 2012 and why they had to resign themselves to their fate, to put it idiomatically. To do so, we will have to recreate the context, albeit in most general terms. We must understand that even if we find ourselves once again in the times of this action (in the broad sense of the word, including the events that followed), we are not so much recreating historical facts per se as much as outlining the combination of generally heterogeneous elements that can open our eyes to Pussy Riot’s action—if we do not want to give it a clear-cut definition. Especially if we don’t want to define it at all. Why it makes sense to refrain from hasty conclusions in the discussion of this kind of action will be clear from the analysis to follow.

* * *

Upon arriving in Moscow in November 2013, Santiago Sierra declared: ‘I’m an actionist.’ A bit later he added: ‘I am simply an artist.’ It is interesting that the idea that he deals with performance, which was stated in the affirmative by his interlocutor, caused him doubt. ‘What is performance?’ Sierra parried. ‘In English it simply means to perform.’ I want to  extend this statement; to be more exact, I want to preserve and possibly develop this attitude or mood.. We are talking about distinguishing an artistic act that eschews traditional expressive means, a separate component that is simply and briefly conveyed by the word ‘action.’ Creativity as action. Or, to paraphrase, the creative act as a deed. This is what we learned from the young women from Pussy Riot, even though we are still not able to appreciate what they did. In part, despite the artistic appearance they performed a deed. It is this dimension of their action, which I consider of primary importance, and on which I would like to concentrate.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the action of Pussy Riot in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was the most significant event  on the Russian art scene. But exactly which scene—artistic, social, political? There is also no doubt that its effect will be felt for a long time—its consequences are postponed by definition, and it generates a chain of events of a serial nature. We will find continuation of its logic both in the actions of two participants of the group serving a prison sentence and persevering in their resistance, and in the actions of those who equally belong and do not belong to the artistic sphere. By the former, I mean the artist Pavlensky, whose actions were directly tied to Pussy Riot (at least two of them were protest actions in support of the group), and by the latter I also mean the spontaneous forms of civil resistance by people who did not relate themselves openly to Pussy Riot. Nevertheless, the protest on Red Square against establishing resident’ registration or the action quickly organized on Tverskaya on May 9, 2013 and addressed as the ‘Kremlin occupiers,’ all expressed the same logic.

Naturally the first thing that comes to mind is to unite the artistic and non-artistic phenomena in the category of political protest. Perhaps under our conditions, the political character of an action is the guarantee of its sincerity. For it is those who dare to go into a public space with political slogans that risk the most. Let’s be frank: those who do not take a risk, do not elicit trust today even if they consciously stick to the platform of contemporary art. But this blitz overview is already creating problems. For example, it includes the problem of the division of art and non-art. Where do you draw the line between civil activism and artistic actionism? And in general, does it exist? Is it enough verbally—nominally— to declare an action to be contemporary art for it to become so? What is a ‘punk prayer’ and how does this phrase help us to understanding the action of Pussy Riot?

Indeed, there is a certain amount of justification for bringing in politics. But in this case, the politics must be understood in a certain way. It is not so much and not only resistance—to the state, the authorities, and so on—as a disclosure of the very basis of collective existence. We are always already together, we are always already tied to one another. On the symbolic level this connection is embodied in the idea of a social contract—the very contract that unites otherwise seemingly sovereign individuals. Politics in this case can be understood as a form of living together. My freedom—the highest value in democratic societies—is possible only when its premise, according to Arendt, is non-sovereignty.1 In other words, it is only under plurality, that is, solely in the presence of others who coexist and act together with me, that I can truly be free. We could say that both civil protest and artistic action reveal this foundation of politics as being-together [in Russian, so-bytiia; sobytie is ‘event’ or ‘action’].

This dimension is appropriated and deformed by real politics. That is why political art, just as civil activism, eventually chooses a concrete slogan for itself. And that is what the women from Pussy Riot did. The line from the song that everyone knows now was the reason for their persecution and imprisonment. But their action goes beyond the narrow political framework, however monstrous the reaction of the authorities may be. I have already suggested that this action reveals a certain inner necessity that I called a ‘deed.’ I now add that a deed is done only in the community of people. This means that a deed has an ethical dimension, and we should judge it solely on its own basis. The deed—if it is truly a deed and not an arbitrary action, of which there are many—does not fit the preexisting frames of theoretical knowledge, and there are no formal obligations to which it must conform. The ethics, like the necessity, come from it alone.

I want to stress one more time: everything that will be said here is what Pussy Riot teaches us. Perhaps the lesson is not obvious, but it is precisely what we have to learn. Action always precedes thought. Action is unstoppable and self-sufficient. And it is always performed in view, that is, in the presence, of others. Its own ethics derive from it. Let us look at the thesis more closely.

The Unheroic Character of a Deed

I will begin by saying that the deed of which we speak has no author, despite the fact that it is performed by specific people in specific circumstances, propelled by equally definite goals and mindsets. This can be understood in two ways. First of all, we cannot attribute any external qualities to the deed. From the point of view of qualities, it remains indeterminate. That is the case here. Pussy Riot’s performance, tentatively called a punk prayer, slips away from any generic identification. Of course, there had been attempts to establish the genealogy if not of the action itself then of its previously anonymous collective. Its sources are considered to be some Western groups working in punk rock, including the feminist movement Riot grrrl of the 1990s, as well as the Moscow division of the Voina art group.

Naturally, these references on their own say nothing, except perhaps about the preferences of the collective members and how they see themselves. But if we return to the action, we must admit that all its visible—discernable—elements are patently inadequate in terms of the deed itself. Indeed, the musicians are in no hurry to recognize their performance as an example of new musical and acoustic experiments (and it is not because Russian musicians have manifested unprecedented conformity—unlike their Western colleagues who reacted not so much to the music as to the persecution of the performers). The lyrics do not try to be a poetic work. The video as final product on the Internet combining all the residual elements of figuration (musical, poetic, carnivalesque, and so on) fits the perception of the new, high-speed documentality set in the YouTube format. And finally, the outfits—balaclavas, simple bright dresses and equally bright tights—are more of a hint of a costume than a costume in its usual (theatrical) sense. Taken together, I must say, it fully corresponds to the general tendency of contemporary art, i.e., the rejection of all forms of figurativeness in the name of intervention, which was probably best embodied by interventionism as the contemporary art of action.

But even if contemporary art tried to discover a new Kunstwollen,2 expressed in a switch to action and rejection of all methods of representation (which would, of course, require further explanation), we must note that an action takes on a form only accidentally. The formula of an action is highly indifferent to external qualities or definitions. This means that a deed is merely the trace of transformation, that non-quality—indeed the absence of any distinct qualities—becomes its most characteristic feature. A deed is a gradient of life itself, a print left by the forces of the living. To act is to be a conductor of the flows of life, which explains the particular compulsion contained in this type of action.

There is another point here. Besides the fact that a deed has no qualities, it has no belonging either. It unfolds contrary to existing institutions, including the institution of contemporary art. While an action may still belong to the territory of art, while it still takes into account the identifying marks mapping out that territory (let’s recall Sierra, for example), this type of deed totally breaks with all conventions. It is no one’s and it is nowhere. It is a different matter that it is immediately appropriated—by art, politics, the politics of art, and so on. And it must be acknowledged that there is a certain contradiction in the deed itself. Being the effect of impersonal forces, it is nonetheless done by me. Perceived by me as a choice, it exists only on the condition of plurality, in other words, in the presence of others. This may explain why a deed is always unheroic—it is made heroic post factum by the circumstances in which it continues to have a long-lasting effect. If I appear to suggest that the action of Pussy Riot was unheroic, I have just one thing in mind. It was the manifestation of life, which we perceive as the simplest need: to act is as natural as it is to drink, eat, and breathe.

Compellent Force

In an early work, presumably from the early 1920s, Mikhail Bakhtin elaborated the idea of the ‘compellentness’ of an act.3 It’s clear that the word denotes an obligation or an ‘ought-to’, but its source for Bakhtin is neither the world of theoretical abstractions nor the abstract prescriptions of moral philosophy elevated to a moral law, but the realization of my own uniqueness in Being, which from a mere given-ness is supposed to be turned into action or a ‘deed-performing’ [postuplenie. This realization is possible only as far as there are others equal to me. Of course, this can be seen as a source for the dialogical conception that brought the author fame, but we will try to find out these thoughts, tinted in neo-Kantian and phenomenological tones, propositions that pertain to our topic.

It must be said that there haven’t been many attempts to formulate an independent philosophy of action. Apparently, among other reasons, is the fact that an act does not of itself require any external justification. Moreover, the division of deed into ‘its objective sense and the subjective process of its performance,’ in Bakhtin’s words, does not take into account the main point, that is, the ‘synthetical truth’ of an act that comes from its answerability. The act is responsible. This may be understood as a characteristic that does away with the regrettable division of the two worlds—the world of culture, where an act is always objectified, and the world of life, where it is actually performed. Answerability, according to Bakhtin, there is a peculiar inner law of action, thanks to which we can at once reject the idea of a deed as something subjective and psychological and assert the ‘unitary plane’ in which alone it should be examined.

The unitary plane of an act overcomes the disconnection of such categories as meaning or fact, general or individual, real or ideal. Moreover, the ontological priority of action over theoretical constructions explains what Bakhtin calls the ‘initiative of an actually performed act in relation to sense.’ Sense forms an independent and self-sufficient world, for which I and my actions are random. The world of abstraction, or the theoretical world, remains indifferent to the fact of my active uniqueness in Being—situated outside practice, it cannot offer me any criteria, including moral ones. On the contrary, the initiative of an act in relation to sense asserts the necessary character of my action, turns passive giving into ‘what-is-to-be-attained’ [zadannost’]: I did not simply find myself in Being, but I am required to realize my uniqueness in the face of others like me, in direct interaction with them.

As I have said, Bakhtin tries to formulate a new phenomenology of action (the attempt was not completed). Hence his claim to create a first philosophy based on Being-as-event, defined through an answerable deed, and the interpretation of ‘the ought-to’ as an attitude of consciousness with a determinate structure. Even ’the other’ in this schema is interpreted primarily in axiological terms. I imagine, however, that we could accentuate certain points that are not related to Bakhtin’s strict context of philosophizing. First of all, we have the very idea of creating an ontology of action. It is noteworthy because the act becomes a form of the organization of the world itself, and human life is unthinkable outside action and independent of it. A person may, of course, ignore his nature, but then, according to Bakhtin, he is doomed to remain an impostor. Action, further, is not captured by theoretical knowledge and is not a product thereof: in order to comprehend it, it is necessary to create from scratch a moral philosophy that takes into account the concrete architectonic of each action. The architectonic (the word Bakhtin used) is not a passive structure of intraworldly ties, as might be said, but that which is created by action; in other words, it is a network of active relations that arise from the interweaving and overlapping of multiple acts.

And finally, I would like to focus attention once again on the ‘ought’, or answerability as an internal measure of the act itself. For Bakhtin the ‘ought’ relates to what he defines using the well-known formula ‘non-alibi in Being.’ This is the compellent force that inheres in my very uniqueness: my uniqueness demands action (equated with life as a whole) as a form of its realization. The ‘ought-to’ or obligation, I stress, is inseparable from action itself. Since Bakhtin was dealing with a moral subject, he maintained that it is not the content of the obligation that is obligating but the fact of recognizing it, or the signature I place beneath it. This ‘contentless’ obligation is the compellent force that makes us act. Developing the thought further, you could say that I act when I meet the power of obligation that has no formalized equivalents—for me it is an irrefutable prescription. In other words, I act when the law of the action becomes a law for me. However, there is no code to which this law belonged beforehand. It is rather the imprint of the necessity and inevitability of life itself, resonating in us as an echo of compulsion (i.e., need) prior to any imperative.

Let me note that in daily life we learn of this compulsion only through its negation. Official ideology is busy denying the compellent power of an act, seeing in it only the manifestation of dependence on external forces or economic interest. This applies to Pussy Riot, whose members were accused of playing to someone’s script, fulfilling a cunning ‘commission.’ This also applies to any form of spontaneous civil disobedience, presented as the manipulation of passive and inert material by some shady world conspiracy. Why one should be surprised? State institutions (including the institutions managing the contemporary art) are built on different economic foundations. The non-economic logic of action is interpreted as hostile and even overtly subversive. Indeed, this logic applies to many at once: an action is contagious. It is as fast and irreversible as a mass epidemic, but it is also contagious by way of affect. If you remember Kant’s thoughts on how large-scale historical events affect changes in the spectators’ ‘mode of thinking.’4

The Ethics of the New

‘Action, seen from the viewpoint of the automatic processes which seem to determine the course of the world, looks like a miracle,’5 said Hannah Arendt following Locke. To be sure, the new is what escapes the framework of theoretical and, more broadly, rational thinking and is affirmed in only one way, namely, through action. I will not try to say in a few words what Pussy Riot’s action gave rise to, but somehow both those who sympathize and their fierce opponents see the event as a point of no return.6 This irreversibility is attenuated by incarceration. We can recall Slavoj Žižek in his correspondence with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: ‘The Pussy Riot performances cannot be reduced just to subversive provocations. Beneath the dynamics of their acts, there is the inner stability of a firm ethic-political attitude.’ Žižek explains that this attitude runs contrary to the ‘opportunist cynicism’ of contemporary capitalism, showing thousands of people that there is still something worth fighting for.7

This statement, which also mentions a ‘common cause,’ undoubtedly assumes there is an alternative to the existing forms of civil life. Even if it is difficult today to believe in the victory of the new order, the dream of a different social organization is as real as ever. To put it more generally, being in touch with the new, discovering the new becomes part  of utopia. You must understand, however, that utopia in the contemporary world is a criterion for the change of the social imagination. Whenever a shift in it occurs, it opens up space for politically successful actions. The thin fabric of the imagination is probed and simultaneously is transformed by the occasional puncture of the act. Thus, there are no reasons for the new, and yet it happens. The new is an act in all its historical concreteness, in all its uniqueness and indispensability. The new is the consequences it sets in motion, and their range and development cannot possibly be predicted.

But are we ready to accept the new with its vast, unknown consequences? Obviously not. Nevertheless, there is the understanding that rational thinking cannot cope with the reality of an act. Bakhtin not only complains about the isolation of theory from the world of practical life—he addresses his rebuke directly to the various forms of moral philosophy that either proclaim the law before the deed or equate the abstract principle of conformity to the law (as we see in Kant) with the lived obligation or ‘ought-to’. It is impossible to derive an act from abstract prescriptions, just as it is impossible to proclaim an a priori universal law for it. But it is abstraction—intellectual speculation, culturally approved codes—that guides us in daily life. Moreover, we project onto an act our already acquired knowledge, thereby depriving it of the unpredictability and openness that requires from us no less than special hospitality, not conditioned by anything at all. The act seems to warn us: instead of projecting our own views, rules, and expectations, we should learn from it—learn to be different, learn to understand and speak differently.

In conclusion I will permit myself a return to art. Speaking of the experience of art, Gilles Deleuze liked to repeat a phrase he borrowed from Klee: ‘un peuple qui manque.’ He meant the public that does not exist yet, but is created by a work of art. For Deleuze the work of art is directly related to experimentation: it is what reveals the new, including in ourselves, even if we don’t know anything about it yet. But a work of art does not exist in a void: ‘[I]l y a une affinité fondamentale entre l’œuvre d’art et l’acte de résistance [there is a fundamental affinity between a work of art and an act of resistance],’8 Deleuze declares. We could immediately think about the unexampled resistance, human and civil, that Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova have been demonstrating all along. I might note that there is nothing accidental about it; a logical extension of their action/act, this resistance expands, deepens, and adds weight to the latter.

There is an idea that the new,  either born of an act or of resistance as an act, is a challenge to human finitude. Doomed to death, people assert themselves when (and this does indeed resemble a miracle) – they begin something new. The new is the way truly human life unfolds itself. This point is where art, act, and resistance combine. I want to finish with the words of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, spoken at the trial in Mordovia in April 2013: ‘Once again in Russia we are in circumstances where resistance, not least of all aesthetic resistance, becomes our only moral choice and civic duty.’9 Apparently this is what Pussy Riot made irreversible for us: the combination of creativity, resistance, and action.


1 See: Arendt, H. Vita activa, ili O deiatel’noi zhizni / Trans. from the German and English by V. V. Bibikhin, ed. by D. M. Nosov. St. Petersburg: Aleteiia, 2000, p. 312 ff. [Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition. Intro. by Margaret Canovan (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 235 ff.]

2 For a more detailed interpretation of Riegl in the spirit of Gilles Deleuze see: Rajchman, J. The Deleuze Connections. Cambridge, Mass.; London: The MIT Press, p. 119 ff.

3 Bakhtin, M. M. K filosofii postupka // http://www.infoliolib.info/philol/bahtin/postupok2.html [M. M. Bakhtin. Toward a Philosophy of the Act. Trans. and notes by Vadim Liapunov, ed. by Vadim Liapunov and Michael Holquist (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1993)], p. 25.

4 Kant, I. Spor fakul’tetov [trans. by M. Levina] // Idem. Collected Works in 8 volumes, gen. ed. professor A. V. Gulyga, vol. 7. Moscow: Choro, 1994, p. 102. [Immanuel Kant. ‘Conflict of the Philosophy Faculty with the Faculty of Law,’ in: Idem. On History. Ed., with an Intro. by Lewis White Beck. Trans. Lewis White Beck, Robert E. Anchor, Emil L. Fackenheim (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963).]

5 Arendt, H. Ukaz. soch., p. 327. [Hannah Arendt. Op. cit., p. 246]

6 ’[F]rom the viewpoint of art and politics their [Pussy Riot’s] action is a point of no return.’ (Pavlensky, P. ‘I became an acting entity as a result of the punitive trial of Pussy Riot’ // POLIT.RU, 5 December 2013: http://www.polit.ru/article/2013/12/05/pavlensky/).

7 Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot’s prison letters to Slavoj Žižek // The Guardian, 15 November 2013: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/nov/15/pussy-riot-nadezhda-tolokonnikova-slavoj-zizek?CMP=twt_gu

8 Deleuze, G. Qu’est-ce que l’act de création? Conférence donnée dans le cadre des ‘Mardis de la Fondation,’ le 17 mars 1987 // http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DskjRer95s

9 Cited in: Gessen, M. Sud kak missiia. Khudozhestvennaia // The New Times, 12 August 2013, No. 24 (292):