Date of Degree
MA (Master of Arts)
In February 2012, less than two weeks before presidential elections in Russia, a two-minute video of young women in brightly colored masks and short dresses was uploaded to YouTube. The video featured four members of the Pussy Riot punk feminist band performing a wild dance in front of the altar of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Lip-syncing to a song, which they called a punk prayer, they beseeched the Virgin Mary to "drive" Vladimir Putin, then the prime minister and a presidential candidate, "away." The performance was followed by the quick arrest of three of the band members and a trial in a criminal court that sentenced them to two years in a penal colony on charges of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" and transformed the case into a symbol of the infringement of freedom of expression in Putin's Russia.
This research explores the legal and discursive strategies for marginalizing political dissent and discusses the implications of the case for shrinking the arena of legitimate public debate in contemporary Russia. As revealed by a critical discourse analysis of a report by psychological and linguistic experts that formed the basis of the prosecutor's case, it employed a range of discursive devices that normalized conformity and depoliticized the band's critique. Whereas those discursive devices portrayed Pussy Riot's religiously contextualized speech as socially unacceptable, the analysis of the court's decision revealed the mechanism that made it illegal. An analysis of the rationale used by the court to justify the criminal conviction of Pussy Riot showed clear prosecutorial bias. The post-case amendments that were introduced into Russia's Criminal Code and Code of Administrative Violations toughened up the punitive measures in articles associated with insulting religious feelings of citizens and contributed to further authorizing limitations on political speech on religious and moral grounds.
As demonstrated by an analysis of the media coverage of the Pussy Riot affair, the Russian press did little to delegitimize this power abuse. The state-run newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta took a clear stance in support of the prosecution. The mainstream newspaper, Izvestia, although not demonstrating a consistent prosecutorial bias, did not provide any sensible alternatives to the government's framing of the affair. Neither did the liberal-oppositional outlet Gazeta.ru. It failed to provide a comprehensive, substantial, and contextualized coverage of Pussy Riot's activism and portrayed them not as agents of change, but as victims of the vigilant, all-powerful state. By doing so, it did not take advantage of the public resonance of the case to elevate a discussion about the feasibility of dissent in an increasingly authoritarian context and thus potentially contributed to undermining the value of political protest.
The treatment of the Pussy Riot affair by the Russian state contributed to further infringements of freedom of expression, strengthened the interpenetration of church and state and illuminated the legal system's role as a tool for conserving the status quo of power relations in contemporary Russia.
In February 2012, a two-minute video of young women in brightly colored masks and short dresses was uploaded to YouTube. The video featured members of the Pussy Riot feminist band performing a wild dance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Lip-syncing to a song, which they called a punk prayer, they beseeched the Virgin Mary to “drive” Vladimir Putin, then the prime minister and a presidential candidate, “away.” The performance was followed by a criminal trial of three of the band members. They were found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in a penal colony. Many people around the world considered this decision to symbolize the infringement of freedom of expression in Russia.
This study examines the language used by the prosecution, prosecution’s experts, court, and Russian press in discussing the case. It also analyzes the reasons the court provided to justify its questionable ruling. The study shows that the prosecution ignored the political issues that were raised in the “prayer” and that could have explained Pussy Riot’s rampageous manner. The performance was portrayed as a meaningless prank that seriously violated social norms and offended Orthodox believers. An analysis of legal documents shows that the court failed to consider an arguably more appropriate interpretation of the performance not as a crime, but as an administrative offence. Finally, the Russian press tended to ignore the political message that the band tried to convey, which contributed to the Russian state’s efforts to limit political criticism.
publicabstract, Blasphemy, Freedom of expression, Political speech, Pussy Riot, Russia
vii, 115 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 101-115).
Copyright 2015 Volha Kananovich