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The Pussy Riot Trial: Greek Tragedy meets Courtroom Drama

 

Free Pussy Riot

The Pussy Riot Balaclava, a charateristic stage prop. Yesterday, the defendents were unmasked.(Photo credit: gaelx)

Riyadh: Saturday 18th August, 2012

There was something of the epic in the proceedings; something dimly reminiscent of Greek Tragedy.

Yesterday, I flicked between news outlets, watching live feed of the trial of three young women, members of a punk band, provocatively entitled, Pussy Riot as they were committed to serve two years in a penal colony for performing a political stunt in an Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow. Watching the news networks’ coverage of the trial’s denouement, I was struck by how compelling a news story this was; how to a western twenty-four hour news network this was irresistible; the call of a Siren to a mariner. Yet I was also struck by how this was not merely news. It was drama; epic drama.

It had everything, a compelling mix of good versus evil, martyrdom, youth crushed by cynicism, the tragedy of idealism steam-rollered by State oppression, and the novelty value that this story concerned not angry young men, but attractive young women. Even their fate, a two-year stretch in a Penal Colony, had about it a whiff of the dramatic. Prison was too good for them; literally. This was not merely news. This was Papillon.

everything about this story, appeared made for TV. The protagonists were young, attractive (as televisual in their way as Steve McQueen), weak and vulnerable while there persecutors were strong, faceless and untouchable. Even the Moscow courtroom, reeked of atmosphere; the farce and seeming inevitability of Greek Tragedy.

As a westerner I have been raised on the staid sobriety of the British courtroom, where the defendant stands elevated and emerging from a wooden dock, as though making that Jack-in-the-box leap for freedom, or the American court rooms where the defendant is seated next to the protective bulk of Perry Mason or Tom Cruise, literally shielding the accused from the machinations of the State prosecutor.

In the Hollywood courtroom, the defendant stands a chance, even when all the evidence appears to show their guilt, we know that the brilliance of her tortured council will usually see that justice is done. What is more the judge in invariably a noble, compassionate and intelligent arbiter. “I’ll allow it,” he will say, to the intervention about to reveal the counterintuitive truth that saves the day, a quirky interest grabbing his face. Here, the judge was invisible, a Big-Brother disembodied voice of State oppression.

This Moscow courtroom had none of the solid wood panelling of the British and American court-house. There was no sense of the solidity and eternal nature of justice here. The assembled media were there not to see justice done, but to hold us in suspense in the knowledge that it almost certainly would not be. There was wood, but it looked cheep, old, utilitarian.

And the courtroom seemed to confirm the impending tragedy. The live feed showed, not a table or a dock, but a decrepit looking wooden and glass box, in which sat the three accused women, girls really, wearing their radicalism and youth about them, playing to the moment as only political prisoners can.

The box itself, looked as though one well-aimed kick would demolish its termite ridden edifice, an impression, apparently confirmed by the clear absence of faith, the State authorities had it as a security measure. Each of the defendants was faced by a bulky looking female prison officer, while bulkier looking male security officials stood facing out into the courtroom, perhaps stationed to prevent someone getting to the box and effect a last-minute escape.

Beyond them, not a neatly sitting audience or a jury, but a standing, swaying rabble, whose immediate function appeared unclear. Occasionally the camera men would dwell on this group revealing them to be a mix of reporters and campaigners, one wearing a t-shirt beseeching the court in English to “Free Pussy Riot.”

The news cameras were either not permitted to or decided not to film the judge who lengthily recited the verdict and the reasons for it. Perhaps his end of the courtroom was a sea of official calm. But as I could not see it, I was left with a chaotic impression; devoid of the dignity which provides much of the intellectual and dramatic heft of western courtrooms.

This chaos only served to add to the sense of impending doom with which the live feeds were laden. Occasionally, the monologue of the judges translator was interrupted by the studio, “You’re watching BBC/France 24/CNN, bringing you live pictures of the trial of the three women from the Russian Punk Band, Pussy Riot, accused of vandalism incited by religious hatred. We have heard that they have been found guilty, Studio Expert, what does this mean for Russian rule of law?”

The consensus was simple to reach. The trial seemed to raise questions as to the impartiality of the Russian Judicial System which is frequently criticised for being too supportive of the ruling party. A list of previous examples, was given, including imprisoned Russian Oligarchs and assassinated campaigning journalists. Furthermore this trial appeared to pile on further evidence of descent within Russia at the nature of the State.

The BBC, to its credit, did point out that the court was being responsive not only to the ruling authorities but to the Orthodox Church and Russian population as a whole. The cities, we were informed, might be disturbed by this trial, but in the country, people were more conservative and saw this as an attack on the Orthodox Church rather than Vladimir Putin. 47% of Russians, we were told, believed that they should receive the maximum sentence available, fully seven years. This seemed a touch extreme for a public order offence, but then, perhaps that is why they were campaigning in the first place.

France 24, had found a different angle. They had found the husband of one of the accused, and followed him to the prison for the only visit he had been allowed since her arrest.

We were told that he, himself, was an ‘anti-Putin artist’ and watched him emerge from the prison and approach the camera to be interviewed. I could see immediately why France 24 wanted to interview him. He was the epitome of the 1960’s French intellectual student-cum-dissident. He was strikingly handsome, in an anemic way, clad in drainpipe jeans and the skinny in the way we have taken to calling ‘Heroin chic,’ but which is just as easily associated with a life spent drinking coffee and never quite eating. He had a scruffy jacket, a scarf and unkempt hair. No more than 25, he looked perhaps even younger. He looked like all young radicals look, be they anti-Vietnam campaigners or Parisian students. It is a look that never quite goes out of fashion, yet never quite escapes self parody. I could imagine him seducing an innocent with his name-dropping of Warhol and apparent passion for everything.

Then there were the girls themselves.

All this build up; this media storm was about them, and they must have been very proud of themselves, have felt, momentarily, very powerful, very clever. They had mobilised the opposition, human rights campaigners, various high-profile rock and pop stars and of course the world’s media. Not to mention the unparalleled exposure they have given to their band.

And they had done this without demonstrating any discernible talent at all. The grainy footage of their stunt showed a stunt so pathetic, as to have warranted a trial for crimes against good taste.

Yet, we should not hold this against them. The Eastern Europeans have a long and illustrious history of dissention lead by overrated and pretentious Bohemians. The great Vaclav Havel became the poster boy of descent through his membership of the band, The Plastic People of the Universe, as much as for his highly rated drama and poetry.

Now they were determined to give a good account of themselves, in the best traditions of tragic womanhood. This was their Cleopatra moment, as she holds the asp to her breast. This was their Mary; Queen of Scots, wearing a wig to prevent the executioner from lifting her head from the basket. This was their, Tess of the D’aubervilles; their Anna Karenina!

The vehicle for their protest, the band, Pussy Riot, wear brightly coloured Balaclava’s, I assume as a statement about the anonymity of  perceptions of women. Here, however, they were required to be unmasked, and responded by seeking to display confidence and empowerment over the assembled proceedings, staring down the prying cameras and affecting looks designed to convey inner strength or defiance.

Yet, try as they might, they could not hide what they sought to  deem irrelevant. They were telegenic; pretty girls, each contriving unintentionally to be effortlessly attractive, in the way that only the really young can.

One of them, taller than the rest, wore a blue t-shirt emblazoned with the Spanish Republican International Brigade motto, “!No Paseran!” They shall not pass! I found myself pondering whether the irony had ever struck her that the doomed Spanish Republicans had been supported by the same Soviet Union, who would foist the KGB upon the world, and by extension, Vladimir Putin.

But to look at her face, largely impassive and expressionless was to confirm that it had not. She wore the look of a person, wholly unimpressed by the proceedings, there because she was required to be but uninvolved, disinterested. She was letting her t-shirt do the talking. And, I decided, her thinking as well.

The other two were more interesting, if less striking, and quickly captured the interest of the camera. Next to ‘No Paseran’ was the shortest of the three. She wore a loose-fitting quilted shirt of pale blue tartan, and had by far the most interesting face of the three. She had the high cheek bones of the Slav, and a strong jaw that made me recall sepia pictures of Russian Serfs from the early years of the Soviet Union. To me, her’s was the face of  Collectivisation! If this girl was attractive it was because of her youth. Perhaps because I now associated her with rural suffering in the cold, featureless steppe, I thought I sensed in her a tragedy. She would feel things far more deeply than the other two. Would not have long to wait before her youth faded into a hard, cold winter of lonely womanhood.

I found myself drawn to her unrealised tragedy, as a father might, seeing his own daughter in her place. Yet, this was dispelled. She had about her also a sort of feral defiance. She was not about to let the world see her soul. Inside her was already dead. She was, merely the sum of her political acts. She was a martyr and a hater.

The third defendant, had longer hair, thicker. She wore and had clearly decided to engage with the accusing world of power around her.  

For she stared back into the camera, a mocking, look, intended to convey amusement at the attention and proceedings but not quite carrying it off. Perhaps she was not a good enough actress or perhaps the effort to appear amused during so long a committal, proved too great. Either way, I suspect that she was aiming for a different look to that which she presented. She was surely aiming at dignity and righteousness; telling the world, ‘I look at your petty shows of power and laugh because I know that in the end I will be proved right.’ But that is a hard message to convey in a look. Instead, her mocking smile and defiant stair came across as sarcastic, indolent, possessed of the defiance of the teenager; not the sincerity or integrity of the martyr.

It sounds terrible to say, but the latter is a look she will have no trouble achieving in a decade or so. For now, whatever her radical pretensions, she is too young, too inexperienced, to be truly contemptuous of the world of men, but she will develop it, as all the best women do.

And it is in the post. At one point, the camera focussed on her natty blue sparkly nails, which to a trained nail biter, such as myself, revealed what her expression sought not to reveal, nerves. As the camera panned up over her shallow bosom, she appeared to catch and hold the camera, her head tilted to the side with coquettish self-possession. ‘Yeah, you’re all alike.’ At that moment, her face smiled less defiantly and more honestly, revealing multiple creases across her forehead. A true martyr, is supposed to die  and in doing so become ageless. Yet I suspect that the first thing which will die in their two-year confinement will be their youth.

And, yet, I was left inspired. It was not so much their protest, which was childishly executed, poorly thought out and crass. Nor was it the undeniable success they have had in publicising their cause. It was more that I saw clearly, something in their actions, of the youth I’d have liked to have been. I too had the arrogance and self-possession to think I could, or perhaps should, make a difference. But unlike these girls, I never truly attempted to.

Perhaps, this is because I came of age in 1990’s Britain, when the promise that our dreams of a better way appeared likely to be fulfilled by a resurgent Labour Party. Or perhaps, I looked at the Mersey Dockers Strike, and heard only the tired defeated rhetoric which lost the battle in the previous decade.

Or perhaps, it is simply that these girls have gone to gaol because they lack in Russia, something I have always had in Britain. Then again, perhaps they are just braver than I was.

Either way, whether it is the death of a generation on the Beaches of Normandy or the suicide of the Star-Crossed Lovers in Romeo & Juliette, youthful sacrifice always has a pathos and beauty that is lacking from older generations.

Yet, I am slightly haunted by these girls; for their tragedy might only be about to unfold. Richard Burton once said that the only characters worth playing were those of defeated men because only defeated men are interesting. And of course, we all look at Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, Vronski and see the tragedy of self realisation. It is in defeat that men become beautiful, human, accessible.

The only time I ever felt a flicker of emotion for Dmitri Medvedev was in watching his endorsement of Putin; his face looked ready to explode.

But women are different. They are beautiful not in defeat but in victory, which is why, I suppose, men put them on pedestals and adorn them with jewels. The irony of Cleopatra, as she seeks to redeem Anthony, after his death, is that she redeems herself, by showing us that she is not the wicked seducer and corrupter of great men, but a woman who’s tragedy was love.

In their defeat, these three women might pave the way for future politicians to sweep aside the stifling political environment of Russia, but it will be others who take credit. Pussy Riot will be a footnote in the narrative of victors, and there is nothing beautiful about a footnote.

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