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International Women’s Day Special: The Professors in the Ikea Balaclavas

March 8 marked the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day celebrations in Russia. This is the fourth in a series of posts focusing on the work and plight of several different women involved in political and social activism in Russia today.

On February 21, 2013, the first anniversary, of Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” protest, TV Rain’s Maria Makeyeva interviewed Irina Karatsuba, an ecclesiastical historian and Ph.D. in cultural studies, and Elena Volkova, an expert on religion and artistic culture. Earlier in the day, Karatsuba and Volkova had been detained at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in balaclavas while attempting to lay flowers on the altar as way of showing their solidarity with the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot. They were later released from Khamovniki police precinct after questioning.

Мaria Makeyeva: What made you, two female academics, go to Christ the Savior Cathedral? I understand that police were expecting someone to show up there on the anniversary of Pussy Riot’s protest action, but it was you, two scholars, whom they found. Was this a scholarly action or a form of research? What was it?

Elena Volkova: It was, first of all, a human action. We wanted to express our solidarity with Maria [Alyokhina] and Nadezhda [Tolokonnikova] on this day, to show them that people remember and appreciated what they did a year ago, that there are people who sympathize with them, share their views, and support the [protest] action they performed in Christ the Savior Cathedral. We went there in solidarity, support, and sympathy. As scholars, we’ve spent the past year on educating people. I ran a “Pussy Riot school” on the Web, where I tried to explain [what they did], because it seemed to me that people perceived the punk prayer so aggressively simply because they didn’t know church history, the history of resistance within the church, the history of the holy fools, Biblical prophecy, and ecclesiastical counterculture. I wanted to educate people, and so as scholars we have been actively involved in outreach the whole [past] year, and we carried balaclavas in our bags.

Makeyeva: As a historian of the church, what do you think of what Pussy Riot did a year ago?

Irina Karatsuba: I think there are several important dates in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in the twentieth century. For example, the Church Council of 1917–1918, at which the Patriarchate was restored and a reform program was drafted, but none of these reforms was carried out. This continues to haunt us today. Or Metropolitan Sergei’s 1927 declaration, in which the church bowed down before an atheist state and thanked it: this is a very important milestone in the history of our church’s apostasy from Christ. Or 1943, when Comrade Stalin allowed the Church Council to convene and elect a new patriarch. He thus bound the church firmly to the atheist state, and the church firmly attached itself to it.

Makeyeva: But what about the “punk prayer”?

Karatsuba: The “punk prayer” completes this sequence. It tries to put everything in its place: render unto God what is God’s, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. And it calls on members of the church not to support Caesar, thus closing the books on a very important feature of church-state relations in the twentieth century. Moreover, the girls told the truth, and told it in such a way that everyone heard it. We experts had been writing about this for the past five years, six years, but very few people hear what experts have to say. But [Pussy Riot] were able to say it in a way that everyone heard it, and that is to their great credit.

Makeyeva: You both were expert witnesses in the Pussy Riot case.

Karatsuba: We were expert witnesses for the defense whose testimony no one wanted to hear. We sat in the stairways at the Khamovniki district court for two days along with [famous Russian novelist] Ludmila Ulitskaya, who is seventy today, God bless her, and Irina Levinskaya, who had written an expert opinion on the expert opinion [commissioned by the prosecution]. She showed how meaningless what the court-appointed experts had dashed off was.

Makeyeva: Could you say more about the balaclavas you carried in your bags for a whole year?

Volkova: We made them for an opposition rally, before the ban on covering one’s face [was introduced]. We made them from Ikea pillowcases five minutes before going to the rally.

Karatsuba: Elena came over to my house and quickly made two balaclavas from an Ikea pillowcase I had.

Volkova: Later, we put them on outside the courthouse when we went there to support the girls. And then I carried it in my bag as a talisman, as a way of maintaining my connection with the persecuted women.

Makeyeva: And where are they now?

Volkova: The guards at Christ the Savior Cathedral tore them off and didn’t give them back to us, unfortunately. The tulips they threw at our feet: we had bought brightly colored tulips by way of stylizing Pussy Riot’s bright outfits.

Makeyeva: And then what happened?

Volkova: And then for some reason one of the cleaning ladies began frantically removing flowers from the icons, apparently fearing we were going to take them from their vases and throw them on the altar. Then the police took us to the paddy wagon, where two strange men appeared. One of them asked why we did it. We talked about the historical role of the “punk prayer,” that Russia had changed after this, that it has had a huge impact on Russian history. To which he replied. . . It was Ira who engaged him in a dialogue from that point on.

Karatsuba: He said that it wasn’t history that had changed, but something in our brains. “That’s okay,” he said, “we treat such alterations at the Serbsky Institute [for Forensic Psychiatry].”

Makeyeva: You mean they introduced themselves as specialists from the Serbsky Institute?

Karatsuba: They didn’t introduce themselves at all. It was just a remark he made.

Makeyeva: Were they in plain clothes?

Karatsuba: Yes, we decided we were going to be taken to the Serbsky Institute for treatment, but for now we haven’t been taken there.

Makeyeva: And then what happened?

Volkova: Then we were taken to the Khamovniki police precinct, where we spoke with a young name from Center “E,” the Center for Combating Extremism, who introduced himself as Ilya. He asked me different questions. As a teacher, it takes me approximately an hour to answer a question. I gave him a lecture on the history of the church, on the history of the holy fool tradition.

Karatsuba: I stood behind the door and listened with delight. Lena expressed herself one hundred percent: it was an amazing lecture.

Volkova: He asked questions and took notes. He asked me what the symphony between church and state was, and wrote down various dates and concepts. I think he liked it. He said he was in charge of religion at Center “E.” I told him he needed to get a religious studies education and advised him to enroll at the Russian State University for the Humanities. He said, “Can you give me the names of people to talk to [there]?” And with that he gave himself away, because this was clearly the question an investigator would ask: Whom did you meet with? What is your connection? What is this faction you mentioned?

Makeyeva: Irina, did you talk with this same young man?

Karatsuba: Yes. I didn’t really want to talk to him, and so our conversation didn’t really gel. He kept pestering me with questions. If I was so devout, he asked, why didn’t I go with those girls to prison? To which I replied that it reminded me of Ivan the Terrible’s logic from the correspondence with Prince Kurbsky: if you’re so righteous, why didn’t accept a martyr’s death at the hands of me, the wicked king, and ascend to heaven?” To which he replied, “And whose side are you? Ivan the Terrible’s or Kurbsky’s?” “I’m on Gagarin’s side,” I said. He sighed and said, “Our conversation hasn’t panned out.”

Makeyeva: And with that they just let you go?

Karatsuba: [Former Pussy Riot lawyer] Violetta Volkova, God bless her, arrived and quickly set the entire Khamovniki precinct straight. The police really wanted our fingerprints, but she said we didn’t have to let them fingerprint us.

Volkova: And that we shouldn’t have talked to the man from Center “E”—we didn’t know that. But it’s okay: we educated and enlightened him a little.

Makeyeva: So Violetta Volkova helped you?

Volkova: Yes, and Mark Feygin. They heard about it on the news and came and found us themselves. Violetta Volkova was the first to arrive. She had two warrants allowing her to act as our attorney, and we followed her advice.

Karatsuba: We wrote statements saying we refused to be fingerprinted, and we were released. Things could develop in different ways: they might summon us again; they might not. We’ll see.

Makeyeva: Irina, you mentioned that both you and Elena are Orthodox. Is this an active part of your lives? Do you go to church and confess?

Volkova: Yes, it’s an active part of our lives. We’ve been in the church for many years, and besides that we are teachers. Irina taught history for many years, including church history. My specialty is the Bible, Christianity, and literature. We taught for thirty years at Moscow State University, which we recently left.

Makeyeva: Why did you leave?

Volkova: There were many reasons, including the fact that they had begun telling us whom to invite and whom not to invite, what to say and what not to say.

Makeyeva: Whom to invite where?

Volkova: To speak at the university.

Makeyeva: This had nothing to do with Pussy Riot?

Volkova: No, it was before that, in 2011. We are not just Orthodox believers, people who practice Orthodoxy. For many years, I organized the Sunday school at one church, and I taught seminarians, who came to Moscow and attended my lectures on Christianity and English poetry. I have had many priests as students, and we were very active in the church for many years. It’s another matter that in the past year we realized that the church has completely turned away from Christian principles and values. Our hopes were very slight, so we stepped up our criticism of the church. When the “punk prayer” happened, we realized that the girls had sung about what we as experts had been saying for many years. People didn’t listen to us, but they heard what [Pussy Riot] said. We were really glad that someone had finally been able to make themselves heard. So we support them by all means, and as a believer, I am certain that it was Christ who sent them to Christ the Savior Cathedral, that they are God’s children, who came from God and said what needed to be said.

Police escort university professors Yelena Volkova and Irina Karatsuba after detaining them inside the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow

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Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “I have a tremendous urge to feel”

Oksana Baulina
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “I have a tremendous urge to feel”
August 1, 2012

The most famous member of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot at the moment of their arrest, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has already spent five months in Pre-Trial Detention Facility No. 6 in Moscow’s Pechatniki district. The outer walls of the three-storey prison building, on Shosseinaya Street, are windowless: the cell windows face the courtyard, thus ruling out even visual contact with the outside world. This has earned No. 6 the nickname “the Bastille.” When a few weeks ago I sent questions for Nadya, bypassing the Federal Penitentiary Service’s censored correspondence system, I was not sure that I would get a reply. A reply came, however, literally on the eve of the scandalous trial in the Khamovnichesky District Court.

— What reactions, actions and opinions surrounding your case have surprised you (both positively and negatively)?

— It hurts that there are still a good number of sincere, decent Orthodox people who believe we did something awful with our prayer in the temple. There are such people even amongst those who are firmly opposed to our arrest. Although we have been explaining for five months what this was about, it is painful that there are smart, decent people who see something in what we did that is not there and could not have been there.

I am glad that the greater part of thinking society has rallied around our cause, from the letter signed by two hundred cultural figures in our defense and the desperate hunger strikes of the Occupy the Court activists to the fantastic gestures of support from Faith No More, Franz Ferdinand and Red Hot Chili Peppers. We are extremely grateful to everyone, and I’m sorry we cannot say an individual thank you to everyone due to the cell bars between us. Thanks to all of you, life in a Russian prison is not so bitter!

— What have you learned about yourself, about society, about the state during your time in jail? Have you changed?

— The state and society behave like in a textbook on leftist theory: the state punishes and represses, while society resists and changes. Behind bars you see theory coming to life. All that remains is the desire to be, to grow and to give, to share. I want prison ecstasies, epiphanies and revelations about freedom, the lack of freedom and which of these a person needs more for his or her development. I have a tremendous urge to think and feel: in the absence of external stimuli, one’s inner life develops at a furious pace.

— Who are you? How do you define yourself—as a political activist, an artist, a prisoner of conscience, a feminist, a musician?

— A person should be described from various perspectives, but it is his task to escape this description by expanding and redefining the terms used to define him. Hardly anyone expected that feminism in Russia—and even in the world to some extent—would be associated in 2012 with balaclavas, bright clothes and punk music.

— Why, in your view, does the patriarchal model, the vertical model enjoy support in society?

— Man is by nature conservative, and it is more convenient for him to cling desperately to the familiar. Very few people are ready to break and remake what exists in order to change reality. People fear the unknown, and if a woman sees herself as nothing but an appendage to a man, it is quite hard for her to imagine another world and a different relationship.

— How does feminism benefit society? How do you imagine the ideal social order?

— As a Scandinavian social democracy with minimal government interference in the lives of those who want to shield themselves from the state and, simultaneously, strong social support for those who need it and are willing to cooperate with the state. As a society that cares about issues of gender equality, where a male government minister can go on paternity leave, as law enforcement ministers love to do in Finland, for example. There is nothing more natural than feminism. Feminism begins in the third grade, when you realize that all textbooks and clever books are written by boys for boys.

— How do you explain the clericalization of society?

— There is no clericalization. There is Putin, who allows law enforcement authorities to trample all conceivable legal norms and reference fourth-century church councils that forbade taking baths and communicating with Jews. And there is Vsevolod Chaplin, who with the patriarch’s blessing makes shocking, artistic statements and admires the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is no clericalization at all beyond the actions and speeches of these two characters. What clericalization can there be in a society where twenty years ago “scientific atheism” was a compulsory subject in universities?

— What events that have happened since you’ve been in jail do you especially regret not being able to witness and participate in?

— May 6 on Bolotnaya Square and Bolshoi Kamenny Bridge, of course! Then it became clear that in Russia and Moscow there are many thousands of people who are willing to fiercely defend their lives and their future, even if this means directly clashing with the savage riot police.

It was sad to watch stories about May 6 on TV and, even worse, to realize that society does not have the strength to defend the people unlawfully arrested because of these events. Society is still weak, and it’s very, very sad, and so the authorities are not afraid to continue the arrests.

— What do you regret?

— The fact that the books sent to us by our friends end up in the prison warehouse, not in our cells, because of the maliciousness of the authorities at Pre-Trial Detention Facility No. 6. So you end up reading the Bible and Russian revolutionary classics—Tolstoy’s current affairs pieces and Alexander Herzen. But I also want books from the twentieth century!


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