Readings — From the November 2012 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
From a May 23 expert-witness statement submitted as evidence in the trial of three members of the Russian activist collective Pussy Riot, who were sentenced in August to two years in prison for performing their song “Punk Prayer” in a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Moscow. Translated from the Russian by Alan Yuhas.
The song by the members of the group Pussy Riot uses the abusive term “bitch” in relation to priests of the Russian Orthodox Church: “It’d be better to believe in God, bitch.” “Bitch” is a well-known swearword, and the performers could not be unaware of its semantics. That the term was publicly pronounced in a religious building represents a brute violation of the social order, an expression of disrespect toward society, and a crudely contemptuous, offensive attitude toward Orthodox believers and everyone else who recognizes conventional norms of behavior. That the performers executed this feat in only one couplet, in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, is not essential to the analysis.
Textual analysis shows a technique of combining the sacred and the obscene, by pairing the term “shit,” with its anal-excremental semantics, and the term “of the Lord,” an expression of the highest values in Christianity, in the line: “Holy shit, shit, shit of the Lord.” The repetition amplifies the negative effect and precludes the possibility of an unintentional, unconscious pronunciation. Moreover, it precludes any sort of political rationale or motivation. The dictionary of V. I. Dal defines the word shit as “anything bad, foul.” The Dictionary of Russian Slang, by V. S. Elistratov, observes that the term derives from “to shit,” which, in turn, means “to defecate.” Joining “shit” and “of the Lord” (considering that God is the object of religious worship in Orthodox Christianity) radically amplifies the offensive, mocking character of the construction “shit of the Lord” in its entirety.
The song also includes homosexual semantics: “Ghost of freedom in Heaven/ Gay Pride sent to Siberia in chains.” Considering the Russian Orthodox Church’s repeated declaration of its negative attitude toward homosexuality, this itself is an element of disrespect toward Orthodox believers on the basis of religion. This derisive effect carries into the subsequent phrases—“Virgin Mary, Mother of God, be a feminist/ Become a feminist, become a feminist”—since it is disparaging to connect the Virgin Mary’s image with the Church’s negative appraisal of feminist ideology, some elements of which are in antagonistic opposition to Christian doctrine.
The lines “Black robe, golden epaulettes/ All the parishioners crawl to bow” attribute to Orthodox believers the moral and behavioral qualities of servility (slavish obsequiousness) before state security agencies (as shown by the subsequent lyrics: “the head of the KGB, their highest saint”), an unfounded claim that falsely labels the group. The line labels the clergy as secret collaborators with state security agencies, which, in essence, is slander.
The phrase repeated at the end of the song, “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, cast Putin out/ Cast Putin out, cast Putin out,” looks completely extraneous and out of context in a song dedicated to offending not Putin but Orthodox believers. Given that this fragment does not use obscene language in relation to Putin, it can only indicate subsidiary and collateral motivations of political hatred or enmity. The participants most likely used the surname “Putin” with the aim of creating grounds for future expressions of political protest against authority, against senior officials, etc. Aware of the possibility of punishment, and anticipating said liability, they sought to depict themselves as prisoners of conscience, persecuted by the authorities for their criticism. In reality, this well-known method of “removing liability” has become a common trick.
More from Alan Yuhas: