Academic journal article Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies

Pussy Riot vs. Civil Obedience: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Two Texts

Academic journal article Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies

Pussy Riot vs. Civil Obedience: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Two Texts

Article excerpt

In February 2012, at the height of that year's presidential campaign in Russia, a short video was uploaded to YouTube by a member of the Pussy Riot punk feminist band (Matveeva). The video featured four young women in brightly colored masks and short dresses in front of the altar of Russia's major Orthodox temple, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Lifting their legs, kneeling and crossing themselves, the women lip-synced a "punk prayer" that they had set to the music of a sacred Orthodox song,1 in which they pleaded with the Virgin Mary to "drive Putin," who was running for his third presidential term, "away."

The clip, which also contained scenes from an earlier Pussy Riot performance in another cathedral, lasted a little less than two minutes. It was nearly twice as long as the actual performance, a fact revealed five months later in court, in which three Pussy Riot members identified by the police as the participants of that performance - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Mariya Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich - were put on trial and charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred ("Opublikovano"). Heavily covered by the domestic and international media ("O Pussy Riot"), accompanied by mass protests ("Pussy Riot Supporters"), comments and appeals from government officials (Nakamura and Weiner) and public figures ("Madonna Urges Russia"; "Yoko Ono Awards") around the world, the trial ended in August 2012. The women were found guilty and sentenced to two years in a penal colony ("Prigovor").

In October 2012, Samutsevich's term was converted into a suspended sentence (Tsoi and Ledniov). Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were freed from prison three months before their scheduled release, in December 2013 ("Jailed Pussy Riot Activ- ists"). The reason for their release, as the Russian authorities emphasized, was a nationwide amnesty to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution, but it was interpreted by the band members as a PR stunt ("Freed Pussy Riot Activists") before the Olympic Games that were hosted by Russia in February 2014.

The timing and the multitude of the conflicting interpretations of the performance have transformed the Pussy Riot affair - using the term that that Chilton made famous - into a "critical discourse moment" (12) that put issues of religious satire, political critique, and the boundaries of free speech at the center of public discourse in Russia.

The video footage itself, however, was far from remarkable in terms of the audience reached: two years after the performance, the number of views on YouTube did not exceed 3 million, a figure hardly comparable to that for videos considered viral (Broxton et al.). While the video footage did find its way to a wider audience by other means, such as TV broadcasts or pictures in newspapers, the lyrics were usually mentioned in passing, with references not going far beyond citing the title of the prayer. When demonstrated on mainstream Russian TV as part of the news reports that covered the trial, the video of the performance was generally accompanied not by the original soundtrack, but by the comments of reporters or experts who most often suggested its blasphemous nature. The clearly provocative visual component of the performance made it an easy target for such interpretations, which led to overlooking the content of the prayer.

One of the rare lengthy readings of the prayer was provided in court, in the form of a 21-page report from the psychological and linguistic experts who supported the prosecutor's case (Feygin) and were cited in the court decision ("Prigovor"). Aiming to refute Pussy Riot's claims that the performance was a political critique and to present the performance as having been motivated primarily by religious hatred, the experts conducted a complicated semantic analysis to argue that the performance was self-evidently "unacceptable" to Russian society, making the report quite an interesting discursive product of its own. …

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