Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

An Inadvertent Sacrifice: Body Politics and Sovereign Power in the Pussy Riot Affair

by Anya Bernstein


On the crisp morning of February 21, 2012, five young women walked into the Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Situated in the heart of the Russian capital, the cathedral is the tallest Orthodox church in the world. Wearing a blaze of color in sleeveless dresses, neon tights, and their signature balaclava ski masks, they jumped on the altar, turned their backs to the lavish icon screen, took out their electric guitars, and began a song that was a mix of punk-rock riffs and traditional Orthodox chant. The lyrics criticized the close relations between the Russian Patriarch Kirill and President Putin, the Orthodox Church’s conservative anti-woman and anti-LGBT rhetoric, while the refrain—styled as a traditional Orthodox prayer chant— addressed the Mother of God directly, pleading her to “oust Putin” and “become a feminist.” The women were apprehended by security before they could finish—a key moment in the trial that would follow, when a judge determined that it mattered very much just which of their lyrics were leashed upon confused onlookers. Following their initial release from the church, they mixed a video of their performance with a more elaborately scored soundtrack and scenes recorded elsewhere days earlier, and released their work on YouTube. Less than two weeks later three members of the group were arrested, and a long trial commenced that would make this “punk prayer” world famous.[1] The members of the all-female collective known as Pussy Riot were eventually found guilty on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and received two-year prison sentences in distant, all-female Russian labor camps.

While most Euro-American coverage of this famous trial focused on familiar dichotomies between “free speech” and “blasphemy,” “the secular” and “the sacred,” or even “rationality” and “obscurantism,” and in general seemed bewildered by what appeared as a disproportionate reaction of the Russian state to this affair, the local public response was at best mixed. Whether or not one supported or condemned Pussy Riot, a common sentiment was that they crossed a mysterious invisible line, breaking a previously unspoken taboo, and thereby, revealed its existence. If there were any consensus across the wide social and political spectrum of the Russian public, it was that Pussy Riot sharply divided society. However, what exactly the lines of this division were has proven, and continues to prove, a subject of hot debate.

While global press coverage was quick to describe the conflict in classic terms: believers against atheists, nationalists against internationalists, or the liberal intelligentsia against the conservative narod (people), local debates presented a far more complicated picture. Although most Pussy Riot supporters indeed generally belonged to the intelligentsia, even the most staunch defenders made sure to clarify that they separated the act itself from the state’s response to it. Although the frequent consensus among the band’s supporters was that the performance venue was a decidedly poor choice, most very much disagreed that such offences should be punishable with a prison sentence. As the trial progressed, there eventually appeared within Russia a vocal opposition to Pussy Riot’s imprisonment; however, a large part of the population was still clearly hostile to the women, with many demanding even harsher punishment, calling for the maximum seven-year prison sentence. Still others, while hostile to the group, did not think Pussy Riot should serve a prison sentence at all, invoking, instead, a radically different kind of punishment.

Strikingly, the Pussy Riot affair provoked unprecedented debates over the usefulness and varied meanings of corporal punishment in Russia, from flogging and birching, to even tarring and feathering. As time passed, the narratives around the trial increasingly came to focus specifically on the three convicted female bodies. These bodies first appeared to the public as anonymous and hidden behind their colorful balaklavas. They later came unmasked, only to be hidden again, this time behind iron bars and inside the glass cage where Russian courts keep defendants during hearings.

In short, what these bodies thematized and made increasingly visible to contemporary Russians and their observers around the world was the spectacular violence of sovereign power. Indeed, many Russians interpreted these young women as a threat to the very core of the Russian state and especially its recently elaborated doctrine of “sovereign democracy.” Drawing on the scholarship on sovereignty and the body—with an added attention to notions of gender at work in “the political”—I argue that under conditions of postsocialist transformation in Russia, the bodies of the Pussy Riot participants became vital sites for the enactment of sovereignty for a wide range of citizens.[2] These three female bodies, which became increasingly vulnerable during the trial and subsequent imprisonment but at the same time stunned the audiences by their stubborn vitality, were remarkably multivalent. For some, their punishment ratified and strengthened the legitimacy of the Russian polity, while for others it revealed both the brutality and ultimate impotence of the Russian state. What united these diverse perspectives, and what invites us to reflect here on their consequences for contemporary sovereignty in Russia, was an implicit narrative of sacrifice—the legitimacy and desirability of which is still hotly debated—through which sovereign violence inscribed itself upon Pussy Riot’s bodies.


The Bodies of the Condemned

In the days immediately following the performance in the cathedral and before the arrest of the two women,[3] the punk-prayer was a subject of discussion among diverse if sometimes otherwise arcane Moscow circles, including members of the arts world, select Orthodox clergy, grassroots Orthodox and nationalist groups, and the radical feminist community. These particular publics were created and brought in virtual dialogue by the series of conflicts between contemporary artists and the Orthodox Church that have been going on since the late 1990s, when the first post-Soviet art trial found a well-known Moscow conceptual artist guilty of “inciting religious hatred.” The case became notorious as the first post-Soviet “blasphemy trial,” a stunning reversal of course in a country where militant blasphemy against religion was something that was close to official ideology for most of the twentieth century.[4]

In the case of Pussy Riot, a surprisingly unanimous negative reaction ensued from all of the above communities, albeit for largely diverse reasons. The celebrated gallery owner and art critic Marat Guelman, who previously supported artists condemned by the Orthodox Church, wrote that the punk-prayer was offensive and inappropriate, as it was done in a “sacred” space, as opposed to the “profane” space of a gallery.[5]  Indeed, all of the artists previously condemned by the church had performed in galleries and museums. The feminist community took issue with one member of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova, who as part of another well-known radical art-collective, Voina, had participated in a notorious stunt titled, “Kiss the Cop,” whereby members of the collective forcefully kissed policewomen on the street. Some feminists viewed this controversial performance as constituting violence against women.[6] One of the most unexpected responses, however, came from a religious intellectual, a senior deacon Andrei Kuraev, who wrote the following on his blog on the day of the Pussy Riot performance:

I would offer them some bliny (traditional Russian thin pancakes), pour them a cup of honey wine, and invite them to come back for the forgiveness ceremony. And if I were a layman elder, I would also give them a fatherly pinch… To bring them back to their senses. . . . And it’s Maslenitsa time (the week before Lent in the Orthodox calendar, similar to Mardi Gras): the time for the social cosmos to turn upside down.[7]

While this turned out to be by far the most benevolent response by a senior Orthodox leader, his seemingly playful message strategically depoliticized Pussy Riot’s performance in his choice of mythical and carnivalesque imagery. It further delegitimized the women by infantilizing them, portraying them as children who committed a prank that should be at best ignored. But it is the idea of “pinching” the “girls” as an appropriate reaction of an adult Russian male that resonated, spiraling the symbolic violence and drawing their bodies further into the orbits of the state.

On the same day, a well-known journalist and TV presenter, Maksim Shevchenko wrote: “I think Orthodox women should catch and flog these little bitches with birch rods. Let them also have a ‘performance’.”[8] An influential conservative intellectual, Egor Kholmogorov, opined that, “If I was working for this church, I would first call the TV crews and then undress them, cover them with feathers and honey, shave their heads, and kick them out to the freezing cold in front of the cameras.”[9] In the coming days and months, the blogosphere exploded with cruel fantasies, often of a sexual character, such as the calls “to strip them naked,” ”to have them tarred and feathered,” “to strip them naked and tie them to the whipping post,” to “spank” (otshlepat’), “flog” (vyporot’), “whip” (vysech’), and “birch” them (otkhlestat’ rozgami), or to “give them “a fatherly spanking” (otecheski otshlepat’). Speaking outside the courthouse on the first day of the trial, Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician and leader of a liberal-democratic coalition that is regularly critical of Putin, said, “If I could get my way, I would spank these girls and let them go. What is going on here is sadism and cruelty.”[10] On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Gennadii Ziuganov, the leader of the Russian Communist Party and the main opposition to Putin’s “United Russia,” stated: “I would take a good leather belt, give them a good spanking, and then send them back to their children and parents. This would be a good administrative punishment for them. And I would tell them not to engage in such blasphemy anymore.”[11] Putin himself referred to the performance in the Cathedral as “witches’ gathering” (shabash) and did not fail to mention that he was informed of the women’s involvement in group sex during one of their previous performances. In an awkward attempt at humor, he quipped that group sex can be better than “individual” sex, because one can always “slack off” (sachkanut’).[12] Indeed, the Russian left, the right, and the centrists became unwittingly united by drawing Pussy Riot’s bodies into these discourses of desire.

Commenting on these suddenly common and troubling narratives, journalist Maksim Sokolov sarcastically quipped that, if LGBT culture was insufficiently established in Russian culture, it appeared that BDSM was doing quite well.[13] Indeed, among the multiple photographs taken during the trial, the ones that enjoyed the widest circulation featured the women in handcuffs, their faces peeking from behind bars. It was a genre that Bulgarian artist Boryana Rossa mockingly called the “wonderful aesthetics of beauties behind bars.”[14] Various kitsch images of the women also appeared online. One of these was a drawing of the three women with exposed breasts being burned at the stake under the gaze of Putin, Patriarch Kirill, Reverend Chaplin, and Judge Marina Syrova. Another featured a stylized icon of Tolokonnikova as the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, wearing a bondage mask and a dog collar with a large chain hanging from her neck, her halo traced by barbed wire. The sympathies of these particular image-makers lay on the side of Pussy Riot, yet the sexualized gaze to which the three female bodies were subjected bore striking similarities across sociopolitical boundaries.

Supporters of the women called attention to the fact that the trial evoked a macabre medieval spectacle, as the judge read aloud the “experts’ statements,” accusing Pussy Riot of violating the rules regarding proper attire in a church, rules which had been passed by the Council of Trullo held in 692 under Byzantine emperor Justinian II. Yet some Pussy Riot defenders perhaps did more damage than good to their cause, as members of the liberal intelligentsia misunderstood their radical agenda. Pussy Riot’s ultra leftist, anti-capitalist, and feminist views were, in fact, closer to the international radical artistic and political movements, such as the “Situationists” in the 1960s or the contemporary “Occupy” movement, than to those of conventional Russian liberals.[15] As Rossa noted, Pussy Riot’s feminist agenda was particularly misunderstood. [16] The beauty of two of the women, Nadezhda and Maria, was constantly praised: Nadezhda was compared to the Virgin Mary, and Maria to Mona Lisa. It was consistently pointed out by defenders that the women should be set free, as two of them were beautiful mothers of small children. Ekaterina Samutsevich, who was older, childless, unmarried, and possibly not heterosexual, was the less visible one of the three, but still was positively assessed by one sympathetic blogger as “every inch a Russian” (a recent neologism rusopiatyi, Russian to the heels), as if she “came off a Soviet-era poster, glorifying our woman.”[17] Coincidentally, it was Samutsevich who was acquitted—on the premise that she was pulled away by security before she managed to get to the altar and thus technically did not take part in the performance—days before the two other women were convoyed to their respective penal colonies. As the two women donned prison uniforms and started their work in labor camps, their bodies continued to be closely observed with an intense, voyeuristic media gaze, as they were subjected to relentless disciplinary practices of trudoterapiia (labor therapy) in the Russian penitentiary system.


The Return of the Repressed?

Many Russians were dissatisfied with imprisonment as an appropriate form of “reeducation” for Pussy Riot. As if to illustrate the erotic and phantasmatic dimension of political domination, the initial violent reactions by public figures triggered heated debate on the return of corporal punishment. The results of a survey conducted by sociologists from the Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion in the wake of the trial scandalized liberal circles revealing that 27% of the population would support the reintroduction of corporal punishment for defendants such as Pussy Riot.[18] Russia’s oft-remarked split identity, once again, became the focus of debate, as bewildered liberal commentators sorrowfully concluded that finally, “we are more definitely the West of the East rather than the East of the West.”[19]

Medieval precedents aside, over the course of the nineteenth century Russian spectacles of sovereign violence, such as theatrical corporal punishments, were gradually being replaced by the disciplinary practices of the penitentiary system—not unlike the trajectory that Foucault famously traced for western Europe.[20] A quintessential instrument of imperial sovereignty, the knout, a stiff thong of rawhide fastened by a bronze ring to a braided leather whip attached to a wooden stick, also served as a boundary establishing mechanism between various social groups, ethnicities, and genders. Thus, already in 1795, the wealthier estates were exempted from being whipped with a knout. While lower-class women were flogged as much as men, the redefinitions of gender eventually led to their exemption.  It was argued that not only women were biologically weaker than men, but the shame of being naked and lashed in public compromised their femininity and maternal roles and therefore threatened the broader social order.[21] While women were viewed as crucially important to the empire given their reproductive capacity, they were also increasingly viewed as dangerous as a result of their potentially uncontrolled sexuality. Thus, it was believed that public punishments might exacerbate the case, as the sense of shame would make women “turn to depravity,” destroying “family happiness” and corrupting “the morals of her female intimates and friends.”[22] As reproductive function became increasingly important in discourses on women and the nation, at first pregnant women, then breast-feeding women, and then, during the Great Reforms, [23] in 1863 most women became exempt.[24]

Yet, despite the arguments against reforms advanced by conservative Russians such as writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (he insisted that, counter the spirit of the Great Reforms, there was a certain authenticity in pain suffered from the birch-rod, which led him to oppose the cold rationality of the European legal system and “bourgeois hypocrisy”[25]), women’s exemption from corporal punishment did not lead to liberation. On the contrary, women’s punishment essentially became privatized, as they became subjects to punishment only by their husbands, thus reinforcing the status of a peasant male and “constituting the family as his inviolable domain and reinforcing the wife’s ‘private’ status.”[26] Given this historical background of women’s corporal punishment in Russia, what do we make of the current calls to violently punish Pussy Riot? Are we witnessing, to use Freud’s auspicious phrase, a “return of the repressed,” a coming back of the socially and judicially unacceptable desires, a kind of affective counter-modernity?

A closer look at the punitive discourses around Pussy Riot reveals an interesting range of perceptions across varied modes of punishment and suffering. Contemporary champions of flogging argued that while administrative punishment, such as a fine, would be too little, prison would be too much. Prisons do not re-educate people, they break them or make them into real criminals.[27] Corporal punishment in these discourses inevitably emerges as something more authentic, more sincere, a sign of Russian national distinctiveness, superior to the  “western” bourgeois rationality of the judiciary system, similar to the way wife-beating was praised by Dostoyevsky as “part of Russian folkways.”[28] Yet, unlike other contexts where whipping has been advocated as a way to ritually purify the violator with the purpose of his or her subsequent reintegration into the community,[29] re-inclusion did not appear to be the issue at hand. Prison, it was argued, needs to be avoided, because it would might make the women into heroines and martyrs while corporal punishment—where as some proponents stressed, shame is more important than pain—would humiliate them and make everyone forget the “dumb prank.”

“We need to forget Pussy Riot,” one blogger proclaimed, echoing another popular sentiment. “In the film ‘Merlin,’ the worst punishment for the pagan goddess Mab was to forget her. I think forgetting Pussy Riot would be the worst punishment for these blasphemers (koshchunnitsy). So that we, the people, would stop paying attention to them.”[30] In forgetting, Pussy Riot will no longer exist, erased from the fabric of social memory. By this logic, in addition to latent eroticized violence paired with anti-western nationalist rhetoric, the calls to physically punish the women also amount to the desire for the total social death of the participants, their exclusion from the ranks of “we, the people.” Martyrdom, on the other hand, would be an exact opposite of such a death and, as many commentators repeatedly warned, needs to be avoided at all cost.[31]

Yet the rituals of sovereignty are so inextricably linked to the need for sacrifice that even Pussy Riot’s detractors recognized the sacrificial character of the trial. The latter, however, argued that the women did not constitute legitimate subjects of sacrifice:

The state fell victim to the provocation by starting this prolonged and dreary trial, turning the hooligans into no less than “martyrs of the regime.” This is what most likely was the real goal of the performance’s organizers, who will continue to reap the benefits from the blundering and awkward actions of our authorities.[32]

As some of Pussy Riot’s opponents argued, it was preferable that the women suffer a certain kind of social death through the shame of corporal punishment and subsequent societal forgetting, as long as perceptions of sacrifice and martyrdom were avoided. Thus Pussy Riot may (or rather should) have been killed (or whipped, or tarred and feathered), but they were not to be sacrificed. Yet, killing without sacrifice (despite what Agamben famously argued) proved an impossibility in this context, as such acts of sovereign violence necessarily create sacrificial victims.[33] Indeed, as the case continued to stir Russia, multiple sacrificial processes revealed themselves as essential to the reconstitution of political sovereignty through the Pussy Riot’s bodies, first degraded and then reconstituted, much as the moral nation itself, in a sanctified domain. But first, as all sacrificial victims, they required purification.

In what follows I demonstrate that this purification was achieved through a deliberate evacuation of what is often understood as “the political” in Russia. As the trial progressed, the prosecution consistently denied what they referred to as a “political motif,” resulting in the final charge of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” This denial of the political to a protest song, whose most famous words were “Mother of God, oust Putin!” might seem ironic. It is also noteworthy that such a reading of the performance did not provoke much of a debate within Russia and went almost unnoticed in the international coverage. To understand why this is the case, it is important to consider the notions of gender at work in what is conceived as “the political” in contemporary Russian public life.  


A Sovereign Sacrifice

A central paradox of contemporary Russian political life is that while it is arguably a “weak” state, defined as a “highly corrupt state that still cannot fully control its borders, monopolize the legal means of violence, or clearly articulate its role in the contemporary world,”[34] it is also frequently glossed as increasingly “authoritarian.” Many see no contradiction in these assessments, as Russia today is also described as an emblem of “weak state authoritarianism,” a type of authoritarianism that stems precisely from the fact that the state is too weak to control itself, resulting in its abuse of its own citizens.[35] Despite the international rhetoric of the “weak state,” internally the persistent belief in the existence of the strong central power coincides with the quest for it as a constant object of desire, a relentless pursuit that many—from Kremlin ideologues to Siberian villagers—believe requires constant sacrifice. A common sentiment was that if Pussy Riot were left unpunished the reputation of Russia as a world power would be compromised. This persistent fetishism of the state[36] is reinforced by the logic of necessary sacrifices, ritual excesses, and ceremonial enactments of sovereignty, manifesting as violence inflicted upon potentially threatening human bodies.

In 2005-2006, Putin’s government articulated a new doctrine to reconcile this overwhelming desire for a “strong” state with the more restrained tenets of the modern world system. Elaborated as a response to “color revolutions” in Georgia and the Ukraine, widely believed to have been orchestrated by western-funded organizations, the doctrine, entitled “sovereign democracy,” purported to ensure Russia’s sovereignty against the globalizing world while challenging what was locally seen as a western monopoly for democracy and asserting Russia’s right to develop in its own way.[37]  The notion of “sovereign democracy,” first proposed by the leading Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov as a platform for Putin’s United Russia party, implied that democracy was not a universal value to be “exported” (from “the West”). Instead, Russia reserved the right to be the “other” democracy, one that cannot be held to abstract international standards. Sovereignty, here, was the freedom for the Russian government to define the polity as it likes, regardless of international norms. When some dismissed the idea of “sovereign democracy” as an inherently tautological notion,[38] Surkov was steadfast:

Not all of the “political creativity” of nations results in sovereignty. Many countries do not see sovereignty as a goal, existing under the patronage of other nations and periodically changing their patrons. The proliferation of recreational (razvlekatel’nye) “revolutions” and democracies governed from the outside is natural among such countries. As far as Russia is concerned, foreign governance (inovlastie) is unthinkable here. Fringe alliances of former bureaucrats, actual Nazis, or run-away oligarchs encouraged by visiting foreign diplomats, might try to destroy us, but they will never be able to subjugate a society, for which sovereignty is a civil value.[39]

The text above is emblematic of Russian narratives of the state in that it defines the characters (oligarchs, foreign diplomats, Nazis) who are enemies of Russian sovereignty, revealing a Schmittean understanding of politics as defined by the life-or-death struggle against enemies.[40] Was it the case that Pussy Riot—with its own “color revolution” and whose radical anti-nationalist politics enjoyed ample international support—was viewed by Surkov and others as having joined the ranks of Russia’s political foes, threatening the “civil value” of sovereignty?[41]

When asked about Pussy Riot, President Putin stated that they threatened the “moral health of our society,” and therefore needed to be punished. “It is not allowed to endanger the moral basis of society and to destroy the country. What will remain of us then?”[42] Most liberal commentators understood this as an official proclamation that offending the Russian Orthodox Church equaled an offense to the Russian state, as the ruling United Russia party had on more than one occasion proclaimed that Russian Orthodoxy should become the “moral basis” of society.[43] Yet, paradoxically, Putin also insisted that the Pussy Riot performance did not have a “political subtext.” He claimed that while the perpetrators had tried to portray it as such, their main goal was to desecrate a sacred space. “The court expertise revealed that everything regarding the president was recorded later and edited in that music video,” the President stated. “Nothing like this was actually uttered in the church. If this is the case, then the performance was a) a way to attract attention to themselves, and b) a method of self-defense so that they can say later that they did not just commit hooliganism and crapped in the temple (nagadili v khrame), but were engaged in a political activity.”[44] By this logic, the punishment of Pussy Riot should not be seen as a political retaliation, but a defense of “hard-won” religious rights.

While the President’s understatement of Pussy Riot’s political importance proved inaccurate (as the band’s lyrics and their previous performances of other anti-Putin songs in unusual and forbidden public places, such as in Red Square or on the roof of a trolley-bus, clearly cast them as political artists) it highlighted a clever rhetorical move also in use by the court prosecution.  Indeed, the prosecution based its argument that the action was “not political” on the grounds that Pussy Riot only managed to scream the lyrics of the first part of their song, and the only thing heard by the witnesses was something regarding the “crawling” parishioners and “the shit of the Lord.” This might have been offensive to the assembled faithful, but it did not constitute, in the eyes of the law, a political manifesto. Consider the full translation of the song:


Punk-Prayer "Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away”         

Black robe, golden epaulettes
All parishioners crawl to bow
The phantom of liberty is in heaven
Gay-pride sent to Siberia in chains 
The head of the KGB, their chief saint,
Leads protesters to prison under escort
In order not to offend His Holiness
Women must give birth and love 
        Shit, shit, the Lord's shit!
        Shit, shit, the Lord's shit! 
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist
Become a feminist, become a feminist 
       (end chorus) 
The Church’s praise of rotten dictators
The cross-bearer procession of black limousines
A teacher-preacher will meet you at school
Go to class - bring him money! 
Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin
Bitch, better believe in God instead
The belt of the Virgin can’t replace mass-meetings[45]
Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest! 
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away
Рut Putin away, put Putin away 
(end chorus)[46]


Despite these lyrics, soon widely circulating in the press, and well known to most members of the public, the judge’s final indictment stated,

The claim of the defendants that their performance was political and not motivated by the hatred for Russian Orthodox believers cannot be accepted as valid. As all the prosecution witnesses stated, there were no political claims in the church. No names of politicians were uttered.[47]

The insistence of the prosecution that the case had no “political motif,” the linking of “the political” exclusively to the fact whether or not names of politicians have been uttered, as well as the general claim that the case was purely about publicly offending a large number of religious people reveals an official understanding of “the political,” where the state—embodied in authority figures— is the sole bearer of politics, while other spheres, be it religion, gender, or “culture” are ideally conceived as relatively autonomous spheres. By such a definition, politics refuses debate or conflict. Politics is the province of elected officials exercising state roles.

The President’s and court’s claims about the lack of “political motif” in the Pussy Riot’s performance surely might have seemed a puzzle to readers abroad, where the press popularly portrayed the case as “punks against the regime” or “women against Putin.”[48] Yet the depoliticizing phrasing of the indictment did not provoke an outcry or even much of a reaction at all within Russia, even from many of the band’s supporters who thought the sentence was too harsh and inappropriate. Indeed, the only public intellectual who identified the denial of the political as a prosecution strategy was the opposition leader Aleksei Navalnyi, who himself still showed strong personal dislike for the collective. Navalnyi, known to American audiences as Putin’s most outspoken critic after The New Yorker recently ran a profile on him,[49] earlier referred to Pussy Riot women as “stupid girls” and “fools” (nerazumnye devitsy, dury) and called their performance “disgusting,” “imbecilic,” and “idiotic.”[50] Thus while opening up the domain of the political to challenge the official version, Navalnyi simultaneously foreclosed it by denying legitimacy to the women in question.

Such policing of the political’s gendered boundaries emerged not only through official discourse embodied in the figures of Judge Marina Syrova and President Vladimir Putin, but seems to flow through every capillary of Russian society. Indeed, many young urban liberals—the so-called “creative class” believed by some analysts to be the constituent of the large anti-Putin rallies in late 2011, and who otherwise supported Pussy Riot—still seemed genuinely bewildered by the women’s insistence that their performance was a political act. It could be art, it could be hooliganism, it could be stupidity, but it was not politics. Note the language used by one liberal male Moscow journalist writing for the trend-setting magazine Afisha (the equivalent of Time Out), as he covered an appeal trial of Maria Alekhina.  She had asked for early parole after spending almost a year in prison.

Alekhina turns herself to the judge. “When the state turns away from children, it is the worst possible scenario. There is nothing that could be worse.” The journalists in the foyer are quietly cursing: Why, why on earth are you speaking about the state? Why, if you really must, can’t you just talk about the state later, after you are released, at the Ekho Moskvy studio?[51] Why can’t you just ask for forgiveness from this f…cked-up state (sic) and go back to your child? … But no, here she comes again: She starts talking about honor and dignity. About how it is important to be a citizen and a person. … It starts resembling a sermon. She again quotes geniuses and saints. “No,”—seems to be the unspoken general consensus. “She is not going home.”[52]

Here and elsewhere we find the commonplace silencing and enforcing of gender, a process that transcends ideological divisions and social class in Russia. In the case of Pussy Riot, many well-meaning liberals believed that the women should be released, not because they appreciated their performance (they did not, most found it morally abhorrent) or agreed with their views (which were too far to the left in the eyes of most), but because they felt it was wrong to keep mothers of small children in prison. What is more, most did not recognize their actions as politics at all. By frowning upon and disapproving of Maria’s apparent refusal to follow the advice of her new attorney and focus on her motherhood as an alleviating factor, they also effectively silenced her right to (and indeed, what many saw as an inappropriate command of) political speech.

An ideological inversion of this argument was the objection by some feminists to the proposition that Pussy Riot members should be “released as women.”[53] As the well-known scholar and activist Elena Gapova wrote,

If they are to be released ‘as women,’ this means that the laws are different for men and women, and that women are not capable of rising to a universal abstraction. It means that they are not covered by the law, similarly to the ways in which minors are not covered in some cases. It means that women should be judged not through the law but through ‘charity,’ because they are mothers first, and only then citizens. The losses for women’s citizenship [caused by the rhetoric to release Pussy Riot “as women”], as well as for the citizen-state relations, are tremendous.”[54]

What also emerges in this imagery of female “captives” is its distinctly sacrificial rhetoric, which highlights the violence of sovereign enactments. Whenever Pussy Riot’s supporters appealed to their normative gender roles, their detractors often countered that mothers do not engage in “demonic twitchings” (besovskie dryganiia)[55] on an altar. Such “bad” mothers, the latter argued, should be deprived of parental rights.  It is this deviant femininity signified by non-normative motherhood that made them legitimate objects for sexualized verbal violence expressed through calls for their corporal punishment which dominated public discourse in the wake of the performance.

The calls to strip Tolonnikova, Alekhina, and Samutsevich naked and flog them with a birch rod, I suggest, were eventually realized symbolically. Their performance was stripped of its political content, just as their bodies were stripped of their colorful garb, replaced by prison uniforms, and sent to be purified in labor colonies.  This aura of purification further endowed the trial with a sacrificial character as perceptions of the women ran the entire gamut from outcast scapegoats to ritually pure sacrificial lambs. While the notions of sacrifice being mobilized here are diverse and often at odds with each other, what they share is that the women’s bodies became inevitably instrumentalized as a medium of communication between conflicting parties.  

Already during the trial, the reports of violence that penetrated into their bodies appeared in the press. It became widely known that the women were regularly denied adequate food and sleep, as they were being shuffled between ten-hour trial hearings and their prison wards.[56]  At some point, one of the three started a hunger strike. Nonetheless, the women, although looking pale and emaciated, continued to be calm and dignified during the trial, often smiling as the judge and the plaintiffs read their accusatory statements. These smiles, however, were widely misunderstood as gender deviance, often glossed as “smirks” and “sneers” in the hostile press. They became an aggravating factor for the prosecution, indicating a lack of repentance and a general obscene and non-normative character of the condemned. Yet, as many scholars noted, afflicted bodies, such as those of criminals or prisoners, often acquire a purified and almost sublime character, often by the fact of their sheer life force and resistance.[57] These qualities became especially highlighted—at the risk of the aestheticization of suffering—as the first reports from the colonies became available in the press. As of winter 2013, the women worked long days as sewing machine operators, Nadya making linings for military coats, and Masha sewing mittens. One exclusive video report by a journalist from Novaya Gazeta, the main liberal opposition newspaper, particularly shocked liberal imaginaries. Pussy Riot’s bodies again became an intense focus of public attention. Focusing the camera on Nadya’s hands, which appeared knobby and slightly crooked, the journalist asked:

Nadya, what happened to your hands? I noticed during the trial you had very well cared for hands.

Nadya: I think that many beginning seamstresses have hands like that, this is not really special to this colony. It is normal for a person who operates a sewing machine all day. Maybe it just happens when one is a beginner. One always stitches through one’s fingers (proshivaet pal’tsy). People who sew here for years, they also stitch through their fingers, just like me.

Journalist: Is this because one has to sew very fast?

N: Of course, you have to sew very fast. You cannot let your brigade down.

J: How many of these inner linings do you need to produce in a day?

N: 320.

J: Do you have hot water?

N: No, only cold water.

J: How do you wash?

N: We go to the public bathhouse once a week.

J: What do you do the rest of the time?

N: It’s OK, you can deal with cold water. [Previously she mentioned that the temperature outside reached -30 C, and the premises were not very well heated. Nadya is being interviewed inside but wearing a long prison outer coat and head scarf]

J: What other everyday maintenance and household difficulties do you experience besides the fact that you do not have hot water and cannot wash every day?

N: You know, I do not think much about everyday maintenance issues. I have always been a bit of an ascetic, and household issues are the least of my concerns.

J: And what about food?

N: The food is fine.

J: That is you can eat it?

N: Yes, the food is quite bearable, that is you can eat it, and nothing will happen to you.[58]

Such video reports by sympathetic journalists, where one could at last hear the voice of the women—as previously, besides their vocals in the cathedral, only sound-bites appeared on state-controlled television—highlighted the calm demeanor, fragility, and youth of the women (who were 23 and 24 at the time), juxtaposing their inhuman surroundings with the life force of the prisoners.

These video recordings positively influenced public opinion. One viewer said in a comment, “First, my attitude to this prank was very negative. I thought it was a pure provocation and PR. Now that I watched the interviews, I really feel sorry for the girls. I think it is time for our government to start thinking about releasing them. And one more thing: they look so much better without balaklavas. Some life we have: first you see them in masks in a church, then you finally see them with open faces—but they are already in prison…”[59] Nonetheless, even among the sympathetic, Pussy Riot did not escape a routinized sexualized gaze, as when one commenter indicated that he preferred their good looks to their masked political personae. Certain uses of the body, Hansen and Stepputat write, can defy disciplinary power and challenge sovereign violence: “like other manifestations of sovereignty, such display of will, sacrifice and disregard of death appear both frightening and awe-inspiring as it thematizes the almost sacred character of life itself.”[60] In a way, enactments of sovereignty always create sacrificial victims: as Walter Benjamin noted, even the “great” criminals come to enlist the sympathy of the public—not because the public approves of their deeds—but because their bodies bear witness to the violence of the law.[61] These reports, which highlighted the women’s vitality and remarkable disregard of the harsh conditions of the labor colony, making visible the violence inscribed in their bodies, produced the effect that Pussy Riot’s most outspoken detractors feared the most—that the women slowly started turning into martyrs, who may be legitimately sacrificed but not killed and forgotten.


 “Pussy Riot’s Flesh and Blood”

Although the two leading members of Pussy Riot were not literally sacrificed in the sense of being ritually killed, the sacrificial aesthetics of their indictment and subsequent exile to remote labor colonies is hard to overlook. This feeling was epitomized in a blog post on the liberal political website,, by filmmaker Arthur Aristakesian. He titled it, “The Flesh and Blood of Pussy Riot”:

[The women] went beyond the voice of the opposition. They put themselves above the authorities, above all accepted norms. They became an ideal victim for everyone. The opposition parties sacrificed the women to the authorities for the right to hold its little protests. The authorities, in turn, sacrificed the women to the people (narod) who replied to the authorities with their devotion. And what about the narod? The narod does not want to see its kingpins—Putin and Medvedev—as sacrificial victims. The narod sees Pussy Riot dancing on the altar as victims. Because the girls are talented and beautiful, while Putin and Medvedev are dull and mediocre. In this sense, the narod cannot be tricked, as the narod does not eat rotten meat. The narod needs fresh flesh and the blood of the god Dionysius, fresh flesh and the blood of Christ. [62]

A stream of comments greeted this rather poetic and evocative essay, whose gist was a poignant critique of the “opposition,” and especially the anti-corruption nationalist blogger, Aleksei Navalnyi, as its most prominent leader.[63]  Opposition leaders come and go, Aristekasian, in effect, was saying. But the people, the narod, “with the depths of its dark being, feels the power (sila) in this unlawful barbarous sacrifice and remains on the side of the one who is stronger. The one who sacrificed the Law.”[64] The law was sacrificed here, many contended, given that Article 29(1) of the Russian Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech.[65]

What Aristakesian invokes in the passage above are two distinct sacrificial processes: the sacrifice of Pussy Riot to various audiences, and the sacrifice of the law itself, artfully maneuvered in the sovereign’s enactment of the state of exception. Yet what could such claims regarding what the narod wants, thinks, or will accept mean in this context?

Remarking on the intricate cultural meanings and the essential untranslatability of the word narod, anthropologist Nancy Ries writes that in Russian, “to say narod is not just to refer to a denotative category, but to invoke an entire story, a sacred epic—and to invoke that saga is to claim not only its personal meaning but indeed one’s own identification with narod in that saga.”[66] Yet such identifications play out in complex ways, as Aristakesian—a member of the intellectual class but one who sees himself above it in “speaking for” the narod and praising it as the carrier of a certain Russian “savage” authenticity—also indulges in primitivizing tropes. While such ventriloquizing might effectively deny the narod its agency, the narod does not emerge as merely a passive actor in these ritual enactments. 

This tripartite scheme is worth pausing over. On the one hand, it mobilizes the notion of sacrifice as a vehicle for communication across competing spheres. The victim may be destroyed in the course of the ceremony, but remains a medium all the same, a notion similar to the theory of sacrifice elaborated by Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert.[67] In the Pussy Riot case, not one but three social groups could be considered agents of this sacrifice: the sovereign power, the opposition, and the narod. The recipients, in turn, shift, depending on who is performing the ceremony: the sovereign power sacrifices Pussy Riot to the narod, the opposition sacrifices them to the government, and the narod performs an apotropaic sacrifice while longing for a sublime sovereign power.

Despite the calls of those who warned that the women should not be turned into martyrs, their punishment—although arguably following the letter of the law—ended up acquiring a distinctly sacrificial character. Some stressed ascetic denial and martyrdom, emphasizing Christian-like self-sacrifice, while others emphasized the ways in which Pussy Riot became an inadvertent medium for ritual action and communication between multiple actors. What these discourses seem to share is a rather well worn theme throughout human history: the use of women’s bodies as the means of communicative practices—sacrifice, hierarchical discipline, and legal warnings. Pussy Riot’s bodies, almost inevitably, became appropriated and saturated with signification as they became objects of violence and, at the same time, sites of its vital resistance. In the end, it was not the extensive international support or the condemnation of the government by its vocal opponents at home, but a public recognition of the sacrificial undertones to Pussy Riot’s trial that turned out to be so challenging for the Russian government’s triumphant pageant of sovereign rule.

Acknowledgements: I thank Bruce Grant, Jean Comaroff, Nica Davidov, Lucas Bessire, Steve Caton, Kerry Chance, and a Critical Inquiry anonymous reviewer for their generous and thoughtful comments on earlier versions of this article.  A draft was presented at the Political Anthropology workshop at Harvard University, and I am grateful to the Anthropology Department’s graduate students who commented and critically engaged with the paper.  Translations from Russian are my own. 

[1] There were five members of the group in the Cathedral, but only three were arrested. Pussy Riot does not have a fixed membership, and many participants remain anonymous.

[2] For approaches to sovereignty that focus on the body as the site and object of sovereign power, see, for example, Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, 1998); Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (Vintage, 1979); Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003):11-40; Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat, Sovereign Bodies: Citizens, Migrants, and States in the Postcolonial World (Princeton, 2005).

[3] They were arrested March 3, 2012. The third convicted participant, Ekaterina Samutsevich was arrested on March 16, 2012.

[4] As of today, Russia does not have blasphemy laws. Instead, the court deploys a law roughly parallel to the European hate speech laws, as per Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code. For the discussion of the art-trials from 1998-2010, see Anya Bernstein, n.d. “Caution, Religion! Iconoclasm, Secularism, and Ways of Seeing in Post-Soviet Art Wars.” Manuscript.

[5] Marat Guelman, blog entry, February 21, 2012,

[6] “Oni nazvali sebia feministkami,” March 2, 2012,

[7] Andrei Kuraev, “Maslenitsa v khrame Khrista Spasitelia,” February 2, 2012,

[8] “Smeshenie neba i preispodnei,” Vzgliad: delovaia gazeta, February 21, 2012,

[9] Quoted in Vladimir Abarionov, “Sviato mesto Pussy Riot,”, February 27, 2012,

[10] Elena Kostiuchenko, “V Khamovnicheskom sude zavershen pervyi den’ slushanii po delu Pussy Riot,” Novaya Gazeta, July 30, 2012,

[11] “Ziuganov: Vyporol by Pussy Riot khoroshim remnem,” Vzgliad: delovaia gazeta, August 21, 2012,

[12] “Vladimir Putin: Interview telekanalu Russia Today,” September 6, 2012,

[13] Maksim Sokolov, “Vygoda telesnykh nakazanii,” Vzgliad: delovaia gazeta, September 25, 2012.

[15] A performance, such as Pussy Riot’s, would have most likely been at least somewhat misunderstood by an average Euro-American liberal as well, but it was particularly incomprehensible to contemporary Russian liberals who tend to be “free market” capitalists and largely traditionalist in their understanding of gender. Furthermore, the form—radical street performance art—was mostly unfamiliar and thus illegible to many Russians who were brought up on “high culture” of Pushkin and classical ballet.

[16] Rossa, 2012.

[17] “Putin i krasavitsy Pussy Riot”урод-и-красавицы-pussy-riot/, August 18, 2012

[18] “Bit’ ili ne bit’, vot v chem vopros, ili o vozrozhdenii telesnykh nakazanii v Rossii,” September 19, 2012,

[19] Ekaterina Dobrynina, “Chetvert’ rossiian toskuet po rozgam,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, September 19, 2012,

[20] Foucault, Discipline and Punish.

[21] Abby M. Schrader, Languages of the Lash. Corporal Punishment and Identity in Imperial Russia (Northern Illinois, 2002).

[22] Laura Engelstein, The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-De-Siecle Russia (Cornell, 1992), p. 73.

[23] The1860s and 1870s are known in Russia as the period of the “Great Reforms,” which resulted in the emancipation of serfs and the progressive changes in the judicial, military, and administrative systems introduced during the rule of Alexander II.

[24] Schrader, p. 144. The only women who were still subject to corporal punishment at that time were exiled convicts. The practice of punishing the banished women persisted until 1893, and all corporal punishment was abolished in 1903.

[25] Svetlana Boym, Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea (Chicago, 2012), pp.103-159.

[26] Engelstein, The Keys to Happiness, pp. 74-75. Similar privatization of punishment was applied to minors.

[27] “Surov ili spravedliv prigovor Pussy Riot?” Komsomol’skaia Pravda, August 17, 2012,

[28] Boym, Another Freedom, p. 115

[29] Mark Goodale and Sally Engle Merry, The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the Local and the Global (Cambridge, 2007), p. 221.

[30] “Ni posta, ni kommenta,” March 26, 2012,

[31] Ibid.

[32] Vadim Andriukhin, “Usi-Pussi. Kto stoit za skandal’noi aktsiei Pussy Riot,” Novoe delo, August 9, 2012,

[33] Agamben 1998. I thank Jean Comaroff for bringing this point to my attention. She makes this argument in Jean Comaroff, “Beyond the Politics of Bare Life: AIDS and the Global Order.” Public Culture 19, no. 1 (2007): 197-219.

[34] Stephen E. Hanson, “The Uncertain Future of Russia's Weak State Authoritarianism,” East European Politics & Societies 21, no. 1 (February 2007): 67-81.

[35] Hanson, ibid; Marie Mendras, Russian Politics: The Paradox of a Weak State (C Hurst, 2012).

[36] Michael T. Taussig, The Magic of the State (Routledge, 1997).

[37] See political scientist James Richter’s article for further analysis of the notion of “sovereign democracy.” “Putin and the Public Chamber,” Post-Soviet Affairs 25, no. 1 (2009): 39-65.

[38] See, for example, political philosopher Artemii Magun, “Suverennaia demokratiia ili otchaiannyi konservatizm,” Russkii zhurnal, October 24, 2006,

[39] Vladislav Surkov, “Natsionalizatsia budushchego (paragrafy pro suverennuiu demokratiiu),” in Suverennaia demokratiia: ot idei k doctrine, pp. 27-45 (Evropa, 2007), p. 34.

[40] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago, 1997).

[41] Following the Pussy Riot trial, in August 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov was appointed chief of religious affairs.

[42] “V. Putin: Pussy Riot nagadili v khrame i poluchili po zaslugam,” RBK, October 7, 2012.

[43] “Edinaia Rossia nazvala pravoslavie nravstvennoi osnovoi modernizatsii,”, February 7, 2010,

[44] “Putin: Pussy Riot pravil’no posadili,”, October 7, 2012, The President also added that he personally did not expect that the case would end up in court, but that he was glad that the court “stuck them with a two-year bit” (zalepil im dvushechku). I thank Irina Levin, Katherine Metzo, Nica Davidov, and Anya Kozorez for helping me translate the almost untranslatable pseudo-prison slang expression zalepit’ dvushechku, so as to highlight Putin’s deliberately crude language as his peculiar way to perform sovereign masculinity.

[45] Here Pussy Riot refer to the public fascination—referred by some critical observers as a “mass hysteria”—with an Orthodox relic, a belt believed to be worn by the Virgin, which was brought to Moscow from a Greek monastery for the first time in late November 2011. The belt was displayed in the same Cathedral where Pussy Riot performed their song, with tens of thousands lining up outside to worship the belt.  These lines stretched for kilometers with many people waiting for over twenty-four hours in the freezing cold for their turn to venerate the relic. At some point the belt was flown over Moscow in a helicopter. The belt was brought to Moscow two weeks before the parliamentary elections, and many observers interpreted the showing of the belt as a government’s strategy to distract the public from the upcoming elections, as well as the proof of the close relations between Putin’s United Russia party and the Orthodox Church. A few days after the elections, considered rigged by the opposition, Russia experienced the biggest anti-government protests since the fall of the USSR.

[46] The lyrics of Pussy Riot’s songs are available at

[47] The full document with the text of the Final Indictment (Obvinitel’noe zakliuchenie) is available here:

[48] David M. Herszenhorn, “Anti-Putin Stunt Earns Punk Band Two Years in Jail,” The New York Times, August 27, 2012,; “Les punkettes anti-Poutine des Pussy Riot clament leur innocence,” Le Monde, July 30, 2012,

[49] Julia Joffe, “One Man’s Cyber Crusade Against Russian Corruption,” The New Yorker, April 4, 2011.

[50] Naval’nyi, A., “Pro Pussy Riot,” March 7, 2012,; “Pussy Riot,” August 17, 2012,

[51] Ekho Moskvy is a liberal radio station.

[52] Roman Super, “O tom kak sud ne osvobodil Mariiu Alekhinu,” Afisha, January 17, 2013,

[53] An appeal released by the anonymous members of Pussy Riot immediately following the arrest of the three members, entitled “Pussy Riot’s Cry for the Release of Captive Women,” especially provoked the ire of some feminists for using the rhetoric of women as “captives.” The appeal included the first widely circulated photographs of Maria and Nadezhda with their children.  “Krik Pussy Riot o spasenii plenennykh zhenshchin,” April 3, 2012,

[54] Elena Gapova, blog entry, March 6, 2012, See also Elena Gapova, “Delo ‘Pussy Riot’: Feministskii protest v kontekste klassovoi bor’by,” Neprikosnovennyi zapas 85, no. 5 (2012),

[55] This expression was first used by one of the civil plaintiffs (poterpevshaia), candle-keeper Liubov’ Sokologorskaia, during her statement in court. Elena Kostiuchenko, “V Khamovnicheskom sude zavershen pervyi den’ slushanii po delu Pussy Riot,” Novaya Gazeta, July 30, 2012,

[56] “Advokaty Pussy Riot pozhaluiutsia v Evropeiskii sud po pravam cheloveka,” August 7, 2012, This article also mentions that one of the Pussy Riot attorneys called the procedures of the trial “tortures” and threatened to complain to the European Court of Human Rights. 

[57] Hansen and Stepputat, Sovereign Bodies, p. 12.

[58] Elena Masiuk, “’Dvushechka.’ Zona ispravleniia dlia Pussy Riot,” Novaya Gazeta, January 22, 2013,

[59] Reader comments, ibid.

[60] Hansen and Stepputat, Sovereign Bodies, p. 13.

[61] Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence.” In Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephocott (Schoken Books, 2007), p. 281. I thank Jean Comaroff for bringing this point to my attention.

[62] Arthur Aristakesian, “Plot’ i krov’ Pussy Riot,”, November 5, 2012,

[63] Aristakesian argued that Navalnyi had “betrayed” Pussy Riot by his statements. Many disagreed, contending that Navalnyi did exactly the right thing: he condemned the women’s imprisonment as unconstitutional, while personally considering their performance immoral. Navalnyi respects the law, Aristakesian writes, but Putin casually sacrificed it. Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[66] Nancy Ries, Russian Talk. Culture and Conversation during Perestroika (Cornell, 1997), p. 29.

[67] Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert, Sacrifice. Its Nature and Functions, trans. W. D. Halls (Chicago, 1964), p. 97.