An Open Letter in Support of Pussy Riot
by Faculty of the Rodchenko School for Photography and Media Art, Moscow, and Other Members of the Russian Art Community
We, faculty of the Rodchenko School of Photography and Multimedia and other members of the Russian art community, are extremely alarmed by the trial of the three young women accused of hooliganism as a result of their performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Many of us know one of them, our alumna artist Ekaterina Samutsevich, quite well, but we also know the others, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, from their performances. We write this letter to express our complete solidarity with them and also to elaborate on a few points belonging to our field of professional competence.
The accusations against Pussy Riot are false and hypocritical. They are based on “sacrilege,” a term that does not exist in current criminal law. They are a disguised form of political repression: nobody would have persecuted these women had they asked the Virgin Mary to defend Putin, even in a non-traditional manner. The trial against Pussy Riot is a trial against dissidents, and the way the defendants have been treated and detained has been unreasonably severe. As citizens, we are outraged by this repressive trial and, like many other people in our country and around the world, we demand an end to this shameful mockery of justice, and the full vindication and release of Pussy Riot.
People involved in contemporary art in Russia have particular reason to be outraged and alarmed. During the trial, the phrase “contemporary art” was always, when uttered by the prosecution, accompanied by the mocking addendum “so-called.” Its very right to exist was thus questioned. It was implied that contemporary art is a species of hooliganism, which, to make matters worse, is supported “from abroad.” We therefore deem it necessary to speak out on this issue.
Contemporary art, by its very nature, is a public statement about the present day. Its themes and forms may vary, but if the present day is such as it appears in Russia today—a present day characterized by lawlessness, lack of political choice, criminal oppression of citizens by the authorities, the absence of impartial courts, obscurantism and fundamentalism—then the artist has no choice but to stop worrying about formal nuances and become a political artist. It would be impossible and immoral to draw boundaries here, and we refuse to accept the other notions of art, safer for the authorities, that are being imposed on us.
Art is always an act, a deed. To be heard in contemporary Russia, the artist is forced to engage in extreme acts. This has been proven by the huge impact that Pussy Riot’s action has had.
However, we support Pussy Riot not because we think they are entitled to special rights with respect to other citizens—for instance, the right of “provocation.” Mindless provocation has never been the goal of real artists. As artists, Pussy Riot have no special rights, but they do have a special duty—the duty to represent a society whose political will is shackled, a society deprived of freedom and justice, a society with a poor understanding of human rights, a society whose mouth is politically gagged and whose eyes are blinded by mendacious TV channels. Pussy Riot upheld this duty in full. Thanks to their deed and the authorities’ reaction to it, there are now people in all parts of the country who have begun to understand what is happening to them.
As experts, many of us are constantly asked how we assess the quality of Pussy Riot’s performance. Some of us thought from the very outset that it was outstanding, while others of us have changed their opinion over time. The quality of an artwork is not contained in the work itself, but is reflected, rather, in its power, its impact, in commentaries by the artist who made it, and, to a great extent, in the public’s reaction to it. Pussy Riot’s action is an incredibly powerful work of protest art and activist art: it has revealed such profound ills in our society that its impact will continue to be felt for a long time to come. It is only thanks to Pussy Riot that we have begun to discuss things that have not been open to debate for many years. During the months of their detention, as the authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church became more and more relentless, Pussy Riot’s action acquired more and more value, and they themselves grew in our eyes tremendously. Throughout the trial, their public statements and comments were clear, philosophically profound and morally impeccable. We are proud of them. Those speeches will undoubtedly, like the action in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, find their place in the history of Russian social life.
We also need to stress out that our support for Pussy Riot does not imply an anti-clerical stance; the same is true of the unfairly accused artists. The stance taken by the Russian Orthodox Church in this case contradicts the feelings, thoughts, interests and faith of many ordinary believers, whose eyes have opened by the Pussy Riot case to the real state of affairs in the country and the church. Splitting society (and the art world) into believers and non-believers benefits only the authorities and the corrupt leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. Pussy Riot spoke on behalf of everyone, and we support them in this.
Contemporary art is not art only for non-believers, or only for the educated, or only for the rich. It is for those who are concerned about what is happening in the present. Contemporary art should be the conscience of society, and that conscience can tell society unpleasant or painful things, sometimes in a way that is irritating and uncomfortable. It is not separated from the common people: it is the first to feel pain, express it and thus attempt to heal it. We are glad that Pussy Riot—as we have come to know them during the trial—have finally shown us the image of what the artist in Russia should be: not a senseless provocateur and prankster, but an orator, a citizen, a hero.
The impact of their action is such that it we believe it absolutely right that Pussy Riot be nominated for the Kandinsky Prize in the “Project of the Year” category. It is also necessary to answer the frequent accusation that artists work for awards. All those involved in contemporary art in Russia know that, given the near-total absence of grant support and professional education, awards are the only form of material and moral mutual support available to the art community. By nominating Pussy Riot, the art community underlines its solidarity in the face of a common threat. We support this and will do everything possible to increase the contemporary art world’s sense of its strength, solidarity and independence in relation to the current unjust regime.
Many of us—Russian artists, curators and critics—work in an international context and know quite well how our country is regarded in cultural circles around the world. Russia’s reputation is now very bad and is already approaching that of Belarus, which is a blank spot on the cultural map.
We declare with all seriousness that a guilty verdict in the Pussy Riot trial, no matter how “light” the subsequent punishment allegedly is, will cause irreparable damage to Russia’s international reputation (if that reputation can still be saved) and put an end to our country’s integration into the international cultural context. It will be a verdict on the entire country, on all of us. A cultural boycott is no mere empty phrase if there is no other way to influence what is happening in our country.
We demand that the court completely vindicate Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.
The original letter, in Russian, was first published on the web site of Novaya Gazeta on August 11.