J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Act & Punishment: The Pussy Riot Trials—A Cautionary Story

We just assume it was based on a pretext—because it was—but the actual substance of the Russian government’s case against the Punk rock activists Pussy Riot were the “hurt feelings” of the Russian Orthodox faithful. That means the forty-one percent of current American college students who believe the 1st Amendment is dangerous, because it might lead to injured sensibilities, have no grounds to object to the persecution of the feminist activists. That might be even more terrifying than what happened in Russia. It is worth examining just what went down, since we too just might be perched atop a slippery slope. Russian artist, gallerist, and filmmaker Yevgeni Mitta examines the Pussy Riot case from legal and artistic perspectives in Act & Punishment: The Pussy Riot Trials (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

Mitta makes it clear from the start, Pussy Riot was operating within the context of a Russian tradition of protest as avant-garde art. He certainly had the contacts for such analysis, having already documented the work of Oleg Kulik, who duly appears in A&P. Ironically, the Pussy Riot members considered the attempted performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior a failure because it was stopped before they could get across a coherent message. Of course, that did not stop the Putin state from arresting them and holding what amounted to a show trial.

Initially, the defendants did not even know what they were charged with. As a result, the proceedings took on a decidedly Kafkaesque atmosphere. Mitta incorporates extensive excerpts from the trial’s video pool that ought to embarrass the Russian government, because it clearly proves the unconcealed bias of the trial. Eventually, they are downright shocked to finally hear they are charged with offending and generally violating the safe space of the Russian Orthodox Church, because that really wasn’t their intent and they really did have a chance to do so anyway.

Frankly, A&P is far more interesting when it focuses on the legal aspects of the cases (as dubious as they are), rather than the artistic background. However, the latter provides a context for what they did and establishes their intent was undeniably to protest the Putin regime and its Orthodox enablers, rather than denigrate white-haired worshippers.

Ironically, the heavy-handed pro/persecution of Pussy Riot brought world-wide attention to the Orthodox Church’s collusion with the Putin regime. As a result, the Patriarch probably ranks down with the phony Tibetan Lamas forcibly installed by China as the world’s least popular religious leaders. A&P will lower that estimation even further.


This film will make you mad, but it should also make you worried. We are headed in the same direction—and it has little to do with the Trump dog & pony show. Whenever the most fundamental rights of a free polity are sacrificed to the sensitivities of protected groups, it inevitably leads to tyranny. Mitta shows us the results, in clear and dramatic terms. Recommended for all concerned citizens who value free speech and expression, Act & Punishment: The Pussy Riot Trials releases today on VOD.

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