What makes a great chase scene? For his Aug. 24 release “Premium Rush,” about a bike messenger racing against time, the police and the obstacles New York City throws at cyclists, the director David Koepp studied films like “Ben-Hur” and “The French Connection,” with its classic footage of a car-driving Gene Hackman in pursuit of a bad guy on an elevated MTA train. The director of that 1971 film, William Friedkin, said his main aim during production was to make audiences forget about the jolting San Francisco ride Steve McQueen took in “Bullitt,” from 1968. Arguably, the breakneck New York chase of “The Seven-Ups,” a few years later, outdid them both. Mr. Friedkin, who considers Buster Keaton the master of such scenes, said there are key rules filmmakers should follow: the main character should be in real jeopardy; the chase must feel spontaneous, unplanned; and a dense setting is best “so that you are afraid innocent people can get hurt.” Here’s a look at scenes from those films:
For some reason, there is nothing funnier to me than Buster Keaton running at top speed. Part of that probably has something to do with the nature of “top speed” in the silent era: Action scenes were generally undercranked during shooting, so that projecting them “normally” (at what could still be a highly variable rate from theater to theater, or even from show to show) resulted in fast-motion hijinks. Still, there’s something special about Keaton in motion. You could make a case that it’s the incongruity between his storied “stone face” and his furiously pumping legs, but the notion that Keaton is somehow emotionally inexpressive has never made much sense to me, frankly—his refusal to mug doesn’t make him stoic or impassionate (though it does make him look well ahead of his time, in terms of performance style). Truly, I think it’s mostly just that he runs funny, in much the same way that, for example, Chaplin walks funny. I do believe I could identify his 100-yard dash 10 times out of 10 with his face obscured.
In any case, that surely explains why my favorite Keaton movie isn’tThe General or Sherlock, Jr. or Our Hospitality, but the generally somewhat lesser-regarded Seven Chances, which culminates in one of the most gloriously silly chase sequences ever filmed (only a portion of which I’ll be sharing with you here). You may recognize the film’s basic plot if you were unfortunate enough to see Hollywood’s misbegotten 1999 remake The Bachelor, starring Chris O’Donnell in the Keaton role and Renée Zellweger as The Girl Who Squints a Lot. On his 27th birthday, Buster learns that an eccentric relative has left him $7 million—about $85 million today, not that many of us would shrug at just seven—provided that he’s married by 7 p.m. on, yes, his 27th birthday. When his business partners place an ad in the paper to find him a wife, hundreds of women decked out in bridal gowns show up, just in time for Buster to get a “yes” from the girl-next-door he loves. Which leaves the multitude of the jilted none too happy.
Because I wanted to include at least some of the boulder sequence, you don’t get from this image the full effect of Keaton being pursued in the streets by a gigantic swarm of gals in wedding dresses. Only a relative handful is still after him by this point. But The Bachelor has even more women chasing O’Donnell, and it isn’t even remotely funny. Critics at the time suggested that changing mores were to blame—that we just can’t laugh anymore at the spectacle of angry vengeful brides, which is retrograde and demeaning. But I submit that you could put O’Donnell in front of a thousand pissed-off warthogs and it would still have none of Seven Chances’ antic exuberance, because that quality derives entirely from Keaton’s performance. Keaton’s a fine actor in repose, but he’s a genius in motion. Here, he’s alone on the screen, for the most part, and yet he still vividly conveys a sense of the horde on his heels via his desperate athleticism.
What most amazes me is the degree to which Keaton’s movements seem choreographed. It’s one thing for Chaplin to methodically construct the Tramp’s physical shtick: tip the bowler, flash a quick smile, kick the cane up in a tight circle, repeat the grin with a shrug, etc. If you’re Robert Downey, Jr., you have something pretty specific to duplicate. But it’s another thing to choreograph what’s essentially just a dead run across a field. And I’m not talking about the big stunts, as when Keaton more or less somersaults into the middle of the stream at full speed. I’m just talking about his basic running, which should in theory be artless but in fact demonstrates a clockwork precision that’s hilarious in itself. Just the ratio of frantic steps forward to anxious glances back seems ripe for some kind of detailed computer analysis, even if I doubt that Keaton mapped any of that stuff out in advance. His instinct for the mad dash was simply peerless.
Ironically, that very genius makes some of his gags here fall a little flat. The turtle clinging to his tie when he emerges from the stream is funny in theory, but Keaton, to make sure we can see the turtle, opts to shoot himself in close-up, “running” with and toward the camera, and the artificial flailing of his limbs is such a dramatic contrast to what his actual running looks like that it’s suddenly all you can notice. (Toward the end of the shot, he appears to be on the same PeopleMover that Spike Lee would later find a way to employ in movie after movie.) And it’s a bit disappointing when Keaton leaps into the tree and there’s an obvious cut before and after it falls, presumably so that either a stuntman or (more likely) a dummy could take his place. (I do wonder whether that cut was as obvious to audiences in 1925 as it is to us today. Did they not see it, the way most people don’t see reel-change cigarette burns until Tyler Durden points them out? Or did they see it and just accept it more readily, à la rear projection and so forth?)
Famously, the boulder sequence—which actually gets even crazier after this clip ends; I highly recommend the whole movie if you haven’t seen it—was added following previews, after folks roared unexpectedly at the early shot of Keaton dislodging a few smaller rocks onto his tail. In this case, there’s really no conceivable way it could have been carefully choreographed—they clearly just rolled a bunch of big fake rocks down the hill at him while he stumbled down. And yet it looks uncannily like what you’d expect to see if the boulders had been computer-animated by the same folks who created, say, the dinosaur stampede in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Keaton is always precisely where he needs to be for maximum visual dynamism and comic effect, and he’s forever moving at just the right speed (relative to the rocks, I mean—we can’t know for sure at what speed he was actually running or at what speed the film was originally projected). In one shot you see him make a very gradual lateral move from his left to his right, across flying debris, at a dead run downhill, which should really replace hurdles as an Olympic event.
That said, do we think Keaton himself did that insane triple somersault down the dune? I claimed above that I could recognize his run every time, and that does look like him running. At the same time, that stunt seriously looks as if it offered about a 20 percent chance of a broken neck. (Keaton had actually already broken his neck making Sherlock, Jr., though he wouldn’t learn it until years after the fact.) In any case, my best wishes to any young actor who decides to take on the title role in somebody’s production of Buster. Donald O’Connor—a mover if ever there was one—gave it a shot in 1957, and even he couldn’t pull it off. Some actions are inimitable.
“…hiking is one of those things where people either love it or they don’t get it at all. It looks like it’s glory or it’s just a strenuous walk.”
- John Donvan
On August 14, 2012, the Appalachian Trail turned 75. The more than 2,000 mile path winds through 14 states, from Georgia to Maine, and continues to capture the imagination of hikers from around the world. Along the trail, many hikers discover things they never set out to find.
JOHN DONVAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m John Donvan.
This week marks the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Appalachian Trail, a 2,000-mile path winding through 14 states from Georgia to Maine, a trail that continues to capture the imagination of millions of hikers every year. And each year, about 2,000 try to complete the entire route. People hit the trails for a lot or reasons: to escape the stress of everyday life, to reconnect with nature, sometimes just to think over an important life decision. For many, going out and taking that walk can really be a transformative experience. We want you to tell us what did you find on the trail, hiking anywhere? It doesn’t have to be the Appalachian Trail. What did you find out there hiking that you didn’t expect?
Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. Hikers, what did you find in the trail that you didn’t expect? Well, Peter Potterfield has hiked all across the globe. He has written more than a dozen books about outdoor adventure, the most recent of which is called “Classic Hikes of North America.” And Peter Potterfield joins us now from member station KUOW in Seattle. Welcome, Peter, to the program.
PETER POTTERFIELD: Hello, John. I’m happy to be here.
DONVAN: So what is it about the Appalachian Trail that makes it such a draw?
POTTERFIELD: It’s the iconic trail in America, I think, hands down. You’ve got to acknowledge that people who don’t know anything about hiking know about the Appalachian Trail. And ironically for me, it was the place where I first started hiking some 40 years ago.
DONVAN: How did that come about?
POTTERFIELD: Well, I went to school in Virginia and so the Appalachian Trail was close by. It certainly is the signature route in the East. And the more I stayed in that area, the more hiking I did on the Appalachian Trail. But for me, it merely whetted my appetite for more, and I soon headed for the Rockies and the Sierra and for points beyond. But the Appalachian Trail is quite an adventure even if you’re not one of the 2,000 thru-hikers, as they say, that you mentioned earlier.
DONVAN: I want to settle something. You say Appalachian and I say Appalachian, but the truth is I said Appalachian until this morning just like you did, and I was corrected by someone in our office. So does the world – is this tomato and tomato on pronouncing the name of this trail?
POTTERFIELD: John, I can only hope I haven’t committed some egregious error here that will impeach my credentials from here on out.
POTTERFIELD: To me, that’s the way we said it. When I went to school in Virginia right in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains, it was the way I said it. Maybe it is tomato or tomato.
DONVAN: When we talk about the trail being completed 75 years ago, what does that actually mean? What does it mean to make a trail?
POTTERFIELD: Well, you know, the Appalachian Trail, the AT – let’s call it that. That’s what everybody else does – is actually a conglomeration of existing trails. In fact, some of the trails up in my favorite section of the AT, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, are some of the oldest continuously maintained footpaths in the United States. And so what it means when McKay’s idea of this trail was completed in 1936, I believe, or ’37, it – all the connections had been made, and for the first time, you could walk from Springer Mountain, Georgia up to the 100-mile wilderness in Maine.
DONVAN: You know, hiking is one of those things where people either love it or they don’t get it at all. It looks like it’s glory or it’s just a strenuous walk. We’re asking our listeners to share with us, you know, why hiking has mattered to them and what did they discover out there, so I’m going to put that question to you. What do you find out there, you know, on the trail that really gets to you?
POTTERFIELD: John, I found a life. After a couple of years of hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I finally made it out to a place called Crestone in the Colorado Rockies. And high up on a hike, after a strenuous 4,000-foot elevation gain, I saw the most magnificent sunset of my life. It turned the western slope of the Sangre de Cristos a brilliant orange like I’ve never seen before. And I could only see that sight from where I was standing, which means you had to do the work to get the view. And it was an epiphany for me. I thought that, wow, if I can see this now, I’m going to see as much of this as I can.
And from that point on, I hit the trail. And my reward has been a life of interesting travel. It’s been the privilege to see some of the most beautiful sights in the world. And it’s given me a fresh perspective on life. When we all stay in town and we work everyday and we do what we have to do to live, Taking a walk, taking a five-day backpacking trip can change your perspective. And not only that, John, but it can also restore your health and it can keep you healthy all your life. There just simply isn’t any better exercise for your heart than walking uphill with a pack. So for me, it was a life-changing experience and one that I’m looking forward to another 20 or 30 years of doing.
DONVAN: Let’s bring in Michael from Columbia, South Carolina. Hi, Michael, you’re on TALK OF THE NATION.
MICHAEL: Hey, John. I love the topic. I appreciate you having me on.
MICHAEL: I love long-distance backpacking and I go in the winter a lot. The temperatures down in the teens and it’s cold, and I get back to the primitive me and I just love it. And I feel closer to God when I do that.
DONVAN: So is it – Michael, is it the primitive you that your finding out there? Is that what draws you out?
MICHAEL: Absolutely. And just like your guest just said, it’s a time to get away from all the cares of the world. I don’t go – I’m quoting someone here that – but I don’t go to the woods to rough it. I go to the woods and snooze it. I get it rough in the city.
DONVAN: Oh, interesting way to put it. How does that strike you, Peter? Do you – does that resonate with you, what Michael is talking about?
POTTERFIELD: It absolutely does. Michael has mentioned what backpacking is all about. And we’ve got to make a distinction here, John, between hiking and going on a multiple-day trip or doing what Michael does, which is doing the long-distance trail. What it does is it makes your life come down to eating, sleeping and hiking, and you just can’t get much more simple than that. And that restores the spirit, in my humble opinion.
DONVAN: It’s work, though – or is that the word for it? It is work? Michael…
DONVAN: Let me ask you, Michael. Is it – do you consider it work?
MICHAEL: I don’t consider it work. I consider it life. Its life at it’s most basic. How do I make my water fit to drink? How do I prepare my food? How do I care for my basic – my most basic human needs as a human being? It’s not work, its life.
DONVAN: All right. And what about you, Peter, is it – is work the word that applies?
POTTERFIELD: No, I don’t think so. I concur with Michael. I think that it does require some physical effort, but that’s not the same as work. It – it’ll keep you healthy. It’ll make you healthy, and it feels good when you do it. Put on a pack and walk up that mountain. It’s a great experience.
DONVAN: Michael, thanks for your call. Let’s go to Janet in Logan, Ohio. Hi, Janet. You’re on TALK OF THE NATION.
JANET: Hi. When my husband and I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, we set out a six-day trip and we got in way over our heads. We were over-packed. We couldn’t walk as far every day as we thought, and we really wanted to go home and we couldn’t. We had to stick it out. And so we learned that we could go far beyond what we ever thought, emotionally, we could survive. And we had survived a lot up to that point.
DONVAN: So it’s a good memory?
JANET: It’s a wonderful memory. And a hiker who passed us was, sort of, I don’t know, poking fun at us, and he left a message because it was a very rocky part of the trail. And on one of the notebook he wrote, I eat rocks for breakfast.
JANET: And so that has become our battle cry. Whenever we think we can’t face whatever it is, well, we know that we, too, eat rocks for breakfast.
DONVAN: Janet, did you go on to continue hiking? I don’t mean on that trip, but did you become a full-time hiker?
JANET: Well, I was a full-time hiker before then. And the other thing I found out when I was on the trail, I was over 30 years old and I was pregnant. And so I’ve only done short hikes since then, but I still do a lot of hiking, day trips.
DONVAN: Janet, thanks very much for your call. I want to take your experience joyfully to Peter Potterfield. What about people who do kind of get in over their heads? And did you ever do it? Did you ever get – did you ever overestimate your ability to complete or take on a hike?
POTTERFIELD: No, I don’t think I did because I sort of work up to it gradually. But it’s interesting hearing Janet’s story because it’s the learning curve that all of us who venture into the wild take on. We all start out going too heavy. And the more you do it, the less heavy one goes. And for me, I built up my skills sets slowly and gradually in the East, actually. And then by time I ventured to the Sierra, the Rockies, the Himalaya, I was well-prepared.
DONVAN: Let’s go to Ken in Kansas City, Missouri. Hi, Ken. You’re on TALK OF THE NATION.
KEN: Hey. I just – I was a survival hiker earlier in my life, and that got me…
DONVAN: Tell me – tell us – just tell us in a sentence what that is, Ken, for people who don’t know.
KEN: Well, that’s not – well, that was less than my point. It’s you walk out the door or you hit the trail with a knife and a string and the clothes on your back…
KEN: …and you come back two weeks later. But through that, you have to find local fruits and local indigenous fruits. And one of the neatest things I ever did to my life was pointing out to my kids, finding papaws on the trail because papaws have never been domesticated. The only way you can find them is if you go hiking deep in the woods. And the only people that ever get them are people like us, people like – that are hikers, and showing my kids papaws was just absolutely one of the most funnest things I’ve ever done in my life.
DONVAN: What is a papaw?
KEN: It’s a fruit indigenous to America. It grows generally deep in the forest. It’s never ever been domesticated. It’s kind of oval shaped. Right now, they’re big and they’re green. They’ll come on – in Kansas City, they’ll come on in September, and they have kind of a yogurt-y banana-y taste. I mean, there’s no – that’s what they’re close to, but they’re their own unique taste. You cannot find them in grocery stores.
DONVAN: I’m sorry. I’m from the Bronx, and you cannot find them in the Bronx. So probably half the audience is laughing because everybody knows what a papaw is except for myself.
DONVAN: But I wanted to ask for the other half. Ken, thanks very much for your call. We really appreciate it.
Let’s go to Jack in Columbia, South Carolina. Hi, Jack. You’re on TALK OF THE NATION.
JACK: Thanks for taking my call.
JACK: I’ve never backpacked on a trail, but I did a lot of plant collecting up in the Shenandoah National Park. And it was peaceful getting there and hiking, but it was also exciting on a number of occasions. I – one time, I flushed a quail or a pheasant or something that scared me to death. Another time, I came about nose to nose with a deer, and the deer really didn’t move, and that was pretty cool. I came on a loaded bear trap – a barrel trap, and I was about a quarter mile down a fire road and backed very carefully back up the road and didn’t frequent that part of the park again. But, you know, it’s peaceful, but exciting.
DONVAN: Yes. Sounds like these are good memories. Sounds – it sounds, Peter, a little bit like those things for Jack are what the sunset was for you, is that the unexpected and the thing you’re never going to see, unless you actually go to the spot, as you put it before.
POTTERFIELD: Yeah. So I would concur, John, there are just so many surprises that one’s going to encounter in any wilderness excursion, and a lot of them present a problem. A lot of them present something you’re not going to forget for the rest of your life. It’s always a rich trove that you find out there.
DONVAN: We have an email from Katherine in Charlotte, North Carolina, and she writes this: I went through some horrible things as an adolescent spanning through my college years. It wasn’t until I began hiking that I really felt like I could put tangible goals in front of me. A peak on the trail felt as glorious as when I finally landed my first real job. None of the changes in my life would’ve been possible without these goals and accomplishments. The hike, like life, is often not easy, but very much so worthwhile.
That rings, exactly, the bell, Peter, that you’ve been talking about, I think.
POTTERFIELD: Yes. It’s exactly right. I think that all people who hike have that feeling that the effort you put into it is paid back a hundredfold, and it makes your life a more rich experience.
DONVAN: So you have the book coming out, “Classic Hikes of North America.” So how do people use a book about hikes? If we flip it open, are we seeing maps and tips or photographs? How do you use a hiking book?
POTTERFIELD: In my books, John, I try to give everybody everything. I try to inspire them with beautiful images, with stories of my own hikes on those trails. I try to make it easy for them to go. My whole deal is to get people off the couch and into the wilderness, so I tell them where to go, how to go, where to start from, if you’ve got to fly. And I encourage people to do these hikes because I think that giving yourself the tantalizing appeal of an extraordinary hike is going to make it more fun to go hiking.
So I try to encourage people, go to the Grand Canyon. Take that cheap flight to Las Vegas, drive to the trailhead an experience you’ll never forget. The other side of that is if you can’t do that, if you can’t get out to one of these extraordinary hikes, do a hike in your local park. Just get out, and if possible, get out overnight, cycle through a sunrise and a sunset, remind yourself what the night sky looks like. A lot of people have forgotten.
DONVAN: We have another email from John, who writes: For hiking, you said, Peter, that it was simple: eat and hike. But he writes: The difficult part is that you have to observe constantly, which is something that you don’t have to do in town, where, he says, the police will watch out for things for you and your neighbors too.
Does he have a point there? Is there a watchfulness that’s necessary and an alertness when you’re hiking?
POTTERFIELD: Yes. I think he’s right. You have to be aware of your surroundings. You have to pay attention. But there are different kinds of hikes. There are tranquil forest strolls, where you can just kind of crank along in a Zen state of mind and enjoy the woods. There are trying sections of trail, long, steep uphill switchback where you’ve got to watch where you put your foot on every step. And you’ve got to be aware of your surroundings. Is there a bear behind that rock? Is that slope going to slide? What other threats do I face, because I’m out here a long way from help. So he’s right. You’ve got to pay attention, but not to the extent that it deprives you of the tranquility that a lot of us seek out there in the wilderness.
DONVAN: And I want to share with you finally, Peter, one last email from Tony in Silicon Valley, California. He says: My biggest surprise backpacking was a 12-mile hike into a wilderness. I was greeted by a series of natural hot springs and naked bodies. No, he says, I won’t tell you where it is.
DONVAN: We’re going to have to look for that in your next book. Peter Potterfield, thanks very much for joining us. You are the author of “Classic Hikes of North America” and the editor of greatoudoors.com. Peter joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Peter Potterfield, thanks very much for joining us.
POTTERFIELD: Thank you, John.
DONVAN: And tomorrow, a story of moving far from home and eventually becoming American. We will talk with the author of “American Gypsy.” This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I’m John Donvan in Washington.
Copyright © 2012 National Public Radio
Listen to the Broadcast: Great Hikes And The Surprises Along The Paths (August 15, 2012)
I spent May and June this year in Moscow—I arrived just as the protests were re-energized by Putin’s third inauguration. I spent many hours talking to folks in their twenties, and a picture of an ascendant new generation of people who are well-informed, well-read, and not indifferent to the direction of their country started to emerge. The intensity of Moscow still fresh in my mind, I spent the eight days of the Pussy Riot trial getting up at dawn in a different timezone to read live updates from the courtroom, realizing quickly that, just like the protests in Moscow earlier this summer, this was close to something that could be called history in the making. It felt important to pay attention—to the travesty of justice and to the steadfastness of the accused. Some of the defendants are the same age as the students of several courses on Russian culture that I will be teaching this year. It felt important to me as a teacher to make these texts available to my students—both as some of the most important cultural artifacts of today’s Russia, and as examples of civic engagement.
Beyond the translated page is the stern voice of Judge Marina Syrova, who reminds the audience not to applaud the defendants, for, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are not at the theater.” The press has often made use of formulas like “courtroom drama” and “show trial” to describe the ongoing proceedings against Pussy Riot, but it was not until August 8, 2012, the day that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevitch delivered their closing statements, that one began to sense that we were witnessing the penultimate act of a full-blown romantic tragedy. Pussy Riot is a performance art collective and their latest “action” is above all a brilliant performance. The women’s wide-ranging, erudite, impassioned speeches—with their urgent calls for truth, justice and freedom—evoke a recognizable tradition of idealistic, civic-minded dramatic heroes, who, through their defiant words and deeds, demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice everything in order to prove their inner freedom in the face of “so-called” necessity.
We translated Katya’s statement first (if no one had come forth to translate the other women’s statements, we would have tackled those as well) because we felt hers was the most to the point. That is, she explained extremely lucidly and even a bit coldly (in the best sense of the word) why Pussy Riot did what they did and the context in which they did it. This lucidity is all the more remarkable given the conditions of extreme duress in which she composed and delivered the speech.
We also translated it because we thought Katya had been unnecessarily eclipsed, quite unintentionally, by the other women in coverage of the case. On the other hand, we had just translated and posted interviews with Masha and Nadya, and were planning to translate a short interview with Katya (published in the Russian weekly The New Times), but then the trial ended abruptly and it seemed more pressing to give Katya a voice in English.
The trial was a lousy, impudent farce, of course, but as people more or less deeply involved in this stuff on one level or another for the past decade, we have found it slightly bewildering (in a good way) that this case garners so much attention abroad. (This attention has also been borne out by the stellar numbers of people reading our recent Pussy Riot postings on our blog, especially Katya’s speech, in the days since the trial ended.) We understand why it’s so appealing and appalling, of course, but for us it has been just as important to be involved, for example, with the campaign to free the so-called Khimki hostages, a couple years ago, a case which was similar in some ways to the Pussy Riot case. More to the point, though, Pussy Riot’s actions and the state’s prosecution of them only really make sense within this context of hundreds of thousand of grassroots activists all over the country involved in what amounts to an increasingly reactionary regime’s “cold civil war” against them and Russian society as a whole.
I have been visiting Russia fairly regularly since August 1996, when I went to Moscow for a few weeks to see my mother, who had taken a job there not long before. That first trip was, I realize as I write this, 16 years ago this month. Since I am now 32, this means that I have been going to Russia for half of my life and that, though I have no blood ties to the place, I have become an adult with Russia on the brain. Yet I always retained a sense of detachment from the place. I loved Russian literature, I was fascinated by Soviet history, I had a number of Russian friends, I had spent years learning Russian, but I always felt a bit disembodied when on Russian soil, however kind individual people might be to me.
For a long time I thought this was because I was a foreigner, and a shy one at that. I would never feel at ease in Russia unless I moved there for good, unless my Russian became indistinguishable from a native speaker’s, unless my nature changed. And while all these factors did contribute to my unease, I think there was something else at play too. I think I was holding back from investing too much because the main sense I got, for years, from a wide range of people, was that it wasn’t worth it, since civil society did not exist, public spaces were not really public, and idealism was dead. The message I kept receiving was that it was best to keep to oneself and one’s own, to build an island and protect it.
Everything changed for me when I was in Moscow last fall. I happened to be in the city when Putin and Medvedev announced their trade-off plan for the presidency, when the parliamentary election violations were documented by individual citizens, and when collective frustration spilled out onto the streets and thousands and thousands of people—myself included—gathered at Bolotnaya Square.
I was also in Moscow when Pussy Riot formed, though I must admit that I was only vaguely aware of what they were up to when I returned to the US at the end of December. It was only this spring, when three of their members were arrested after their “punk prayer,” that I began to actively follow their actions via Twitter, Facebook, and various online news sources. I was impressed with everything I saw from Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Ekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina during the trial (not least Alyokhina’s repeated insistence, when asked whether she understood the charges against her, that she did not understand their ideological context). But it was their closing statements that really bowled me over. Instead of just stating the obvious, that the trial was absurd and that they were on the side of reason (however offensive their original “prayer” was to some), they delivered impassioned, philosophically rigorous, and coherent statements about the Russian media landscape, about the co-opting of the Christ the Savior Cathedral as a political stage, about the manipulation of the Christian value of humility, about the need for individuals to think of themselves as citizens, about the role of contemporary art, about the dangers of conformity. And all this was coming on top of all the questions they had already raised (globally) about feminism, punk rock, the limits of public space, the role of cultural forces in political change.
These statements are inspiring to me as a Russia-watcher; they prove that the last nine months of protesting have not been for naught. But I should also add that to me as a person, as a woman, as someone who believes in critical thought and the power of ideas, these statements are acts of heroism.
Courage is exhilarating, and contagious. Moscow, St. Petersburg seem transformed to me—the events of the past year have showed a civic society in the making, the emergence of an unexpectedly idealistic and admirable younger generation of artists and activists, an intelligentsia re-examining socialist legacies with fresh and open eyes. I am seized by a sudden and savage hope—for Russia, for Eastern Europe, for the future, for my own soul.
We collaborated on these translations—we put together a team of young writers, academics and translators almost instantly by texting each other to go on Facebook, checking which statements had not been translated through Twitter, correcting the transcript against video clips on YouTube. We self-organized into translators and editors, and produced clean copy within a matter of hours. It was a joy to do.
The Pussy Riot trial has been the talk of Russian and world news for months now. I follow the course of events with mixed feelings: the development of a spectacular, shamelessly oversimplified media sensation on the global scale, on the one hand, and on the other hand the massively frustrating and tragic absurdity of the public response and show-trial in Russia, make for a queasy combination of embarrassment and despair. So when I read the closing statements of the three defendants I felt sudden relief and admiration—these are well-articulated, candid, and honest expressions that cut through both the Western media’s flash-in-the-pan canonization and the official Russian media’s draconian persecution campaign. What is more, the girls are flipping the system: making use of their unnecessary and undue celebrity, they take aim at problems that plague far more than just the current Russian government and make a call to certain basic values that we should all heed.
Fr. Andrey Kurayev, professor at the Moscow Theological Academy, called Pussy Riot “three little pigs”; they have been transformed into martyrs, he went on, because Russian society has undue sympathy for “those who suffer.” To this we can only respond that in the last century, Russia lost millions of its citizens; there is a building called Lubyanka, in which numberless prisoners were tortured and shot, which still stands proudly and securely in the middle of Moscow, right next to the city’s best shopping centers. If we, Russians and non-Russians alike, have undue sympathy for the suffering, we also know how to overlook the wounds that fester; we have learned how to live with fear that makes us unable to speak out, that humiliates each and every one of us, that makes us carry the memory of terror in our very blood.
The members of Pussy Riot claim for themselves the right of holy fools (yurodivye) to speak the truth and, as a result, are on the verge of being swallowed by the machine of the State and the lofty indifference of the High Priests. They are not the first to be purged and eradicated. And yet they speak out at their trial with courage and wisdom to remind the world that we do not yet know all there is to know about the defeat of truth seekers, for “blessed are the ones who thirst for righteousness.”
Nikolai Berdyaev, the Russian philosopher, said that the Russian state tended to kill Russian culture and Russian life; its imperial might again and again eradicated voices of conscience. These voices, however, do not disappear. Russian history makes us remember that conscience is rarely welcomed and easily digestible; rather it is embarrassing and inconvenient, but it rings out clear as a bell.
—Elena Glazov-Corrigan and Maria Corrigan
From N+1 (August 13, 2012)
On August 8th, the three members of Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot delivered their closing statements at the Moscow Khamovniki District Court. Charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were first arrested on March 3, a day before the controversial re-election of Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, they had committed their crime on February 21, when five members of Pussy Riot staged a guerrilla performance on the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. For less than a minute, the women danced, singing “Our Lady, Chase Putin Out!” and crossing themselves until they were apprehended by security guards. If found guilty, they face three years in prison.
In a country that was willing to sic its secular court on a “religious” cause, Pussy Riot are true revolutionaries. Nonetheless, it was not until they delivered these closing statements that their supporters—and opponents—heard what these three brave women stand for. Although they are being crushed in the jaws of the system—and know it!—their courage and steadfast sincerity are sufficient cause for (impossible) hope. If not for the Russian state, then at least for the Russian people.
In the closing statement, the defendant is expected to repent, express regret for her deeds, or enumerate attenuating circumstances. In my case, as in the case of my colleagues in the group, this is completely unnecessary. Instead, I want to voice some thoughts about what has happened to us.
That Christ the Savior Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of the authorities was clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former [KGB] colleague Kirill Gundyayev took over as leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Savior Cathedral began to be openly used as a flashy backdrop for the politics of the security forces, which are the main source of political power in Russia.
Why did Putin feel the need to exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetic? After all, he could have employed his own, far more secular tools of power—for example, the state-controlled corporations, or his menacing police system, or his obedient judicial system. It may be that the harsh, failed policies of Putin’s government, the incident with the submarine Kursk, the bombings of civilians in broad daylight, and other unpleasant moments in his political career forced him to ponder the fact that it was high time to resign; that otherwise, the citizens of Russia would help him do this. Apparently, it was then that he felt the need for more persuasive, transcendent guarantees of his long tenure at the pinnacle of power. It was then that it became necessary to make use of the aesthetic of the Orthodox religion, which is historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself.
How did Putin succeed in this? After all, we still have a secular state, and any intersection of the religious and political spheres should be dealt with severely by our vigilant and critically minded society. Right? Here, apparently, the authorities took advantage of a certain deficit of the Orthodox aesthetic in Soviet times, when the Orthodox religion had an aura of lost history, of something that had been crushed and damaged by the Soviet totalitarian regime, and was thus an opposition culture. The authorities decided to appropriate this historical effect of loss and present a new political project to restore Russia’s lost spiritual values, a project that has little to do with a genuine concern for the preservation of Russian Orthodoxy’s history and culture.
It was also fairly logical that the Russian Orthodox Church, given its long mystical ties to power, emerged as the project’s principal exponent in the media. It was decided that, unlike in the Soviet era, when the church opposed, above all, the brutality of the authorities toward history itself, the Russian Orthodox Church should now confront all pernicious manifestations of contemporary mass culture with its concept of diversity and tolerance.
Implementing this thoroughly interesting political project has required considerable quantities of professional lighting and video equipment, air time on national television for hours-long live broadcasts, and numerous background shoots for morally and ethically edifying news stories, where the Patriarch’s well-constructed speeches would in fact be presented, thus helping the faithful make the correct political choice during a difficult time for Putin preceding the election. Moreover, the filming must be continuous; the necessary images must be burned into the memory and constantly updated; they must create the impression of something natural, constant, and compulsory.
Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” violated the integrity of the media image that the authorities had spent such a long time generating and maintaining, and revealed its falsity. In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture, thus suggesting that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch, and Putin, but that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia.
Perhaps the unpleasant, far-reaching effect of our media intrusion into the cathedral was a surprise to the authorities themselves. At first, they tried to present our performance as a prank pulled by heartless, militant atheists. This was a serious blunder on their part, because by then we were already known as an anti-Putin feminist punk band that carried out its media assaults on the country’s major political symbols.
In the end, considering all the irreversible political and symbolic losses caused by our innocent creativity, the authorities decided to protect the public from us and our nonconformist thinking. Thus ended our complicated punk adventure in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
I now have mixed feelings about this trial. On the one hand, we expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial. Once again, the world sees Russia differently than the way Putin tries to present it at his daily international meetings. Clearly, none of the steps Putin promised to take toward instituting the rule of law has been taken. And his statement that this court will be objective and hand down a fair verdict is yet another deception of the entire country and the international community. That is all. Thank you.
Translated by Chto Delat News
This trial is highly typical and speaks volumes. The current government will have occasion to feel shame and embarrassment because of it for a long time to come. At each stage it has embodied a travesty of justice. As it turned out, our performance, at first a small and somewhat absurd act, snowballed into an enormous catastrophe. This would obviously not happen in a healthy society. Russia, as a state, has long resembled an organism sick to the core. And the sickness explodes out into the open when you rub up against its inflamed abscesses. At first and for a long time this sickness gets hushed up in public, but eventually it always finds resolution through dialogue. And look—this is the kind of dialogue that our government is capable of. This trial is not only a malignant and grotesque mask, it is the “face” of the government’s dialogue with the people of our country. To prompt discussion about a problem on the societal level, you often need the right conditions—an impetus.
And it is interesting that our situation was depersonalized from the start. This is because when we talk about Putin, we have in mind first and foremost not Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin but Putin the system that he himself created—the power vertical, where all control is carried out effectively by one person. And that power vertical is uninterested, completely uninterested, in the opinion of the masses. And what worries me most of all is that the opinion of the younger generations is not taken into consideration. We believe that the ineffectiveness of this administration is evident in practically everything.
And right here, in this closing statement, I would like to describe my firsthand experience of running afoul of this system. Our schooling, which is where the personality begins to form in a social context, effectively ignores any particularities of the individual. There is no “individual approach,” no study of culture, of philosophy, of basic knowledge about civic society. Officially, these subjects do exist, but they are still taught according to the Soviet model. And as a result, we see the marginalization of contemporary art in the public consciousness, a lack of motivation for philosophical thought, and gender stereotyping. The concept of the human being as a citizen gets swept away into a distant corner.
Today’s educational institutions teach people, from childhood, to live as automatons. Not to pose the crucial questions consistent with their age. They inculcate cruelty and intolerance of nonconformity. Beginning in childhood, we forget our freedom.
I have personal experience with psychiatric clinics for minors. And I can say with conviction that any teenager who shows any signs of active nonconformity can end up in such a place. A certain percentage of the kids there are from orphanages.
In our country, it’s considered entirely normal to commit a child who has tried to escape from an orphanage to a psychiatric clinic. And they treat them using extremely powerful sedatives like Aminazin, which was also used to subdue Soviet dissidents in the ’70s.
This is especially traumatizing given the overall punitive tendency and the absence of any real psychological assistance. All interactions are based on the exploitation of the children’s feelings of fear and forced submission. And as a result, their own cruelty increases many times over. Many children there are illiterate, but no one makes any effort to battle this—to the contrary, every last drop of motivation for personal development is discouraged. The individual closes off entirely and loses faith in the world.
I would like to note that this method of personal development clearly impedes the awakening of both inner and religious freedoms, unfortunately, on a mass scale. The consequence of the process I have just described is ontological humility, existential humility, socialization. To me, this transition, or rupture, is noteworthy in that, if approached from the point of view of Christian culture, we see that meanings and symbols are being replaced by those that are diametrically opposed to them. Thus one of the most important Christian concepts, Humility, is now commonly understood not as a path towards the perception, fortification, and ultimate liberation of Man, but on the contrary as an instrument for his enslavement. To quote [Russian philosopher] Nikolai Berdyaev, one could say that “the ontology of humility is the ontology of the slaves of God, and not the sons of God.” When I was involved with organizing the ecological movement, I became fundamentally convinced of the priority of inner freedom as the foundation for taking action. As well as the importance, the direct importance, of taking action as such.
To this day I find it astonishing that, in our country, we need the support of several thousands of individuals in order to put an end to the despotism of one or a handful of bureaucrats. I would like to note that our trial stands as a very eloquent confirmation of the fact that we need the support of thousands of indgividuals from all over the world in order to prove the obvious: that the three of us are not guilty. We are not guilty; the whole world says so. The whole world says it at concerts, the whole world says it on the internet, the whole world says it in the press. They say it in Parliament. The Prime Minister of England greets our President not with words about the Olympics, but with the question, “Why are three innocent women sitting in prison?” It’s shameful.
But I find it even more astonishing that people don’t believe that they can have any influence on the regime. During the pickets and demonstrations [of the winter and spring], back when I was collecting signatures and organizing petitions, many people would ask me—and ask me with sincere bewilderment—why in the world they should care about, what business could they possibly have, with that little patch of forest in the Krasnodar region–even though it is perhaps unique in Russia, perhaps primeval? Why should they care if the wife of our Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wants to build an official residence there and destroy the only juniper preserve in Russia? These people . . . this is yet another confirmation that people in our country have lost the sense that this country belongs to us, its citizens. They no longer have a sense of themselves as citizens. They have a sense of themselves simply as the automated masses. They don’t feel that the forest belongs to them, even the forest located right next to their houses. I doubt they even feel a sense of ownership over their own houses. Because if someone were to drive up to their porch with a bulldozer and tell them that they need to evacuate, that, “Excuse us, we’re going raze your house to make room for a bureaucrat’s residence,” these people would obediently collect their belongings, collect their bags, and go out on the street. And then stay there precisely until the regime tells them what they should do next. They are completely shapeless, it is very sad. Having spent almost half a year in jail, I have come to understand that prison is just Russia in miniature.
One could also begin with the system of governance. This is that very same power vertical, in which every decision takes place solely through the direct intervention of the man in charge. There is absolutely no horizontal delegation of duties, which would make everyone’s lives noticeably easier. And there is a lack of individual initiative. Denunciation thrives along with mutual suspicion. In jail, as in our country as a whole, everything is designed to strip man of his individuality, to identify him only with his function, whether that function is that of a worker or a prisoner. The strict framework of the daily schedule in prison (you get used to it quickly) resembles the framework of daily life that everyone is born into.
In this framework, people begin to place high value on meaningless trifles. In prison these trifles are things like a tablecloth or plastic dishes that can only be procured with the personal permission of the head warden. Outside prison, accordingly, you have social status, which people also value a great deal. This has always been surprising to me. Another element [of this process] is becoming aware of this government functioning as a performance, a play. That in reality turns into chaos. The surface-level organization of the regime reveals the disorganization and inefficiency of most of its activities. And it’s obvious that this doesn’t lead to any real governance. On the contrary, people start to feel an ever-stronger sense of being lost—including in time and space. In jail and all over the country, people don’t know where to turn with this or that question. That’s why they turn to the boss of the jail. And outside the prison, correspondingly, they go to Putin, the top boss.
Expressing in a text a collective image of the system that . . . well, in general, I could say that we aren’t against . . . that we are against the Putin-engendered chaos, which can only superficially be called a government. Expressing a collective image of the system, in which, in our opinion, practically all the institutions are undergoing a kind of mutation, while still appearing nominally intact. And in which the civil society so dear to us is being destroyed. We are not making direct quotations in our texts; we only take the form of a direct quotation as an artistic formula. The only thing that’s the same is our motivation. Our motivation is the same motiviation that goes with the use of a direct quotation. This motivation is best expressed in the Gospels: “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” [Matthew 7:8] I—all of us—sincerely believe that for us the door will be opened. But alas, for now the only thing that has happened is that we’ve been locked up in prison. It is very strange that in their reaction to our actions, the authorities completely disregard the historical experience of dissent. “[H]ow unfortunate is the country where simple honesty is understood, in the best case, as heroism. And in the worst case as a mental disorder,” the dissident [Vladimir] Bukovsky wrote in the 1970s. And even though it hasn’t been very long, now people are acting as if there was never any Great Terror nor any attempts to resist it. I believe that we are being accused by people without memory. Many of them have said, “He is possessed by a demon and insane. Why do you listen to Him?” These words belong to the Jews who accused Jesus Christ of blasphemy. They said, “We are . . . stoning you . . . for blasphemy.” [John 10:33] Interestingly enough, it is precisely this verse that the Russian Orthodox Church uses to express its opinion about blasphemy. This view is certified on paper, it’s attached to our criminal file. Expressing this opinion, the Russian Orthodox Church refers to the Gospels as static religious truth. The Gospels are no longer understood as revelation, which they have been from the very beginning, but rather as a monolithic chunk that can be disassembled into quotations to be shoved in wherever necessary—in any of its documents, for any of their purposes. The Russian Orthodox Church did not even bother to look up the context in which “blasphemy” is mentioned here—that in this case, the word applies to Jesus Christ himself. I think that religious truth should not be static, that it is essential to understand the instances and paths of spiritual development, the trials of a human being, his duplicity, his splintering. That for one’s self to form it is essential to experience these things. That you have to experience all these things in order to develop as a person. That religious truth is a process and not a finished product that can be shoved wherever and whenever. And all of these things I’ve been talking about, all of these processes—they acquire meaning in art and in philosophy. Including contemporary art. An artistic situation can and, in my opinion, must contain its own internal conflict. And what really irritates me is how the prosecution uses the words “so-called” in reference to contemporary art.
I would like to point out that very similar methods were used during the trial of the poet [Joseph] Brodsky. His poems were defined as “so-called” poems; the witnesses for the prosecution hadn’t actually read them—just as a number of the witnesses in our case didn’t see the performance itself and only watched the clip online. Our apologies, it seems, are also being defined by the collective prosecuting body as “so-called” apologies. Even though this is offensive. And I am overwhelmed with moral injury and psychological trauma. Because our apologies were sincere. I am sorry that so many words have been uttered and you all still haven’t understood this. Or it is calculated deviousness when you talk about our apologies as insincere. I don’t know what you still need to hear from us. But for me this trial is a “so-called” trial. And I am not afraid of you. I am not afraid of falsehood and fictitiousness, of sloppily disguised deception, in the verdict of the so-called court.
Because all you can deprive me of is “so-called” freedom. This is the only kind that exists in Russia. But nobody can take away my inner freedom. It lives in the word, it will go on living thanks to openness [glasnost], when this will be read and heard by thousands of people. This freedom goes on living with every person who is not indifferent, who hears us in this country. With everyone who found shards of the trial in themselves, like in previous times they found them in Franz Kafka and Guy Debord. I believe that I have honesty and openness, I thirst for the truth; and these things will make all of us just a little bit more free. We will see this yet.
—Translated by Marijeta Bozovic, Maksim Hanukai, and Sasha Senderovich
By and large, the three members of Pussy Riot are not the ones on trial here. If we were, this event would hardly be so significant. This is a trial of the entire political system of the Russian Federation, which, to its great misfortune, enjoys quoting its own cruelty toward the individual, its indifference toward human honor and dignity, repeating all of the worst moments of Russian history. To my deep regret, this poor excuse for a judicial process approaches Stalin’s “troikas.” We too have only an interrogator, a judge, and a prosecutor. Furthermore, this repressive act is executed based on political orders from above that completely dictate the words, deeds, and decisions of these three judicial figures.
What was behind our performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the subsequent trial? Nothing other than the autocratic political system. Pussy Riot’s performances can either be called dissident art or political action that engages art forms. Either way, our performances are a kind of civic activity amidst the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties. The young people who have been flayed by the systematic eradication of freedoms perpetrated through the aughts have now risen against the state. We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [the holy foolishness] of punk.
Passion, total honesty, and naïveté are superior to the hypocrisy, mendacity, and false modesty that are used to disguise crime. The so-called leading figures of our state stand in the Cathedral with righteous faces on, but, in their cunning, their sin is greater than our own.
We put on political punk performances in response to a government that is rife with rigidity, reticence, and caste-like hierarchal structures. It is so clearly invested in serving only narrow corporate interests, it makes us sick just to breathe the Russian air. We categorically oppose the following, which forces us to act and live politically:
—the use of coercive and forceful methods for regulating social processes; a situation when the most important political institutions are the disciplinary structures of the state: the security agencies (the army, police, and secret services), and their corresponding means of ensuring political “stability” (prisons, pre-emptive detention, all the mechanisms of strict control over the citizenry);
—imposed civic passivity among the majority of the population,
—the complete dominance of the executive branch over the legislative and judicial.
Moreover, we are deeply frustrated by the scandalous dearth of political culture, which comes as the result of fear and that is kept down through the conscious efforts of the government and its servants (Patriarch Kirill: “Orthodox Christians do not attend rallies”); the scandalous weakness of the horizontal ties within society.
We do not like that the state so easily manipulates public opinion by means of its strict control over the majority of medial outlets (a particularly vivid example of this manipulation is the unprecedentedly insolent and distorted campaign against Pussy Riot appearing in practically every Russian media outlet).
Despite the fact that we find ourselves in an essentially authoritarian situation, living under authoritarian rule, I see this system crumbling in the face of three members of Pussy Riot. What the system anticipated did not occur; Russia does not condemn us, and with each passing day, more and more people believe in us and that we should be free, and not behind bars.
I see this in the people I meet. I meet people who work for the system, in its institutions, I see people who are incarcerated. Every day, I meet our supporters who wish us luck and, above all, freedom. They say what we did was justified. More and more people tell us that although they had doubts about whether we had the right to do what we did, with each passing day, more and more people tell us that time has shown that our political gesture was correct—that we opened the wounds of this political system, and struck directly at the hornet’s nest, so they came after us, but we. . . .
These people try to relieve our suffering as much they can, and we are very grateful to them. We are also grateful to everyone who speaks out in support of us on the outside. There are many supporters, and I know it. I know that a great number of Orthodox Christians speak out on our behalf, the ones who gather near the court in particular. They pray for us; they pray for the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot. We’ve seen the little booklets the Orthodox pass out containing prayers for the imprisoned. This fact alone demonstrates that there is no single, unified group of Orthodox believers, as the prosecutor would like to prove. This unified group does not exist. Today, more and more believers have come to the defense of Pussy Riot. They don’t think that what we did warrants a five-month term in a pretrial detention center, let alone three years in prison, as the prosecutor has called for.
Every day, more people understand that if the system is attacking three young women who performed in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior for thirty seconds with such vehemence, it only means that this system fears the truth, sincerity, and straightforwardness we represent. We have never used cunning during these proceedings. Meanwhile, our opponents are too often cunning, and people sense this. Indeed, the truth has an ontological, existential superiority over deception, and this is described in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.
The paths of truth always triumph over the paths of cunning, guile, and deception. Every day, truth grows more victorious, despite the fact that we remain behind bars and will probably be here for a long time.
Yesterday, Madonna performed in Moscow with “Pussy Riot” written on her back. More and more people see that we are held here illegally, on false pretences. This amazes me. I am amazed that truth really does triumph over deception. Despite the fact that we are physically here, we are freer than everyone sitting across from us on the side of the prosecution. We can say anything we want and we say everything we want. The prosecution can only say what they are permitted to by political censorship. They can’t say “punk prayer,” “Our Lady, Chase Putin Out,” they can’t utter a single line of our punk prayer that deals with the political system.
Perhaps they think that it would be good to put us in prison because we speak out against Putin and his regime. They don’t say so, because they aren’t allowed to. Their mouths are sewn shut. Unfortunately, they are only here as dummies. But I hope they realize this and ultimately pursue the path of freedom, truth, and sincerity, because this path is superior to the path of complete stagnation, false modesty, and hypocrisy. Stagnation and the search for truth are always opposites, and in this case, in the course of this trial, we see on the one side people who attempt to know the truth, and on the other side people who are trying to fetter them.
A human being is a creature that is always in error, never perfect. She quests for wisdom, but cannot possess it; this is why philosophy was born. This is why the philosopher is the one who loves wisdom and yearns for it, but does not possess it. This is what ultimately calls a human being to action, to think and live in a certain way. It was our search for truth that led us to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. I think that Christianity, as I understood it while studying the Old and especially the New Testament, supports the search for truth and a constant overcoming of oneself, the overcoming of what you were earlier. It was not in vain that when Christ was among the prostitutes, he said that those who falter should be helped; “I forgive them,” He said. I do not see this in our trial, which takes place under the banner of Christianity. Instead, it seems to me that the prosecution is trampling on religion.
The lawyers for the [official] “injured parties” are abandoning them—that is how I interpret it. Two days ago, [one of the “injured party”‘s lawyers] Alexei Taratukhin made a speech in which he insisted that it should be clear that under no circumstances should anyone assume that the lawyer agrees with the parties he represents. In other words, the lawyer finds himself in an ethically uncomfortable position and does not want to stand for the people who seek to imprison Pussy Riot. I don’t know why they want to put us in prison. Maybe they have the right to, but I want to emphasize that their lawyer seems to be ashamed. Perhaps he was affected by people shouting “Executioners! Shame on you!” I want to point out that truth and goodness always triumph over deception and malice. It also seems to me that prosecution attorneys are being influenced by some higher power, because time after time, they slip up and call us “the injured party.” Almost all of the lawyers have accidentally said this, and even prosecution attorney Larisa Pavlova, who is very negatively disposed toward us, nonetheless appears to be moved by some higher power when she refers to us as “the injured party.” She does not say this about those she represents, but about us.
I don’t want to label anyone. It seems to me that there are no winners, losers, victims, or defendants here. We all simply need to reach each other, connect, and establish a dialogue in order to seek out the truth together. Together, we can seek wisdom and be philosophers, instead of stigmatizing people and labeling them. That is the last thing a person should do. Christ condemned it. With this trial, the system is abusing us. Who would have thought that man and the state he rules could, again and again, perpetrate absolutely unmotivated evil? Who could have imagined that history, especially Stalin’s still-recent Great Terror, could fail to teach us anything? The medieval Inquisition methods that reign in the law enforcement and judicial systems of our country, the Russian Federation, are enough to make you weep. But from the moment of our arrest, we have stopped weeping. We have lost our ability to cry. We had desperately shouted at our punk concerts. With all our might, we decried the lawlessness of the authorities, the governing bodies. But now, our voices have been taken away. They were taken from us on March 3, 2012, when we were arrested. The following day, our voices and our votes were stolen from the millions at the so-called elections.
During the entire trial, people have refused to hear us. Hearing us would mean being receptive to what we say, being thoughtful, striving toward wisdom, being philosophers. I believe that every person should strive for this, and not only those who have studied in some philosophy department. A formal education means nothing, although prosecution attorney Pavlova constantly attempts to reproach us for our lack of education. We believe the most important thing is to strive, to strive towards knowledge and understanding. This is what a person can achieve independently, outside the walls of an educational institution. Regalia and scholarly degrees mean nothing. A person can possess a great deal of knowledge, but not be a human being. Pythagoras said extensive knowledge does not breed wisdom. Unfortunately, we are here to affirm that. We are here only as decorations, inanimate elements, mere bodies that have been delivered into the courtroom. When our motions, after many days of requests, negotiations and struggles are not given any consideration, they are always denied. Unfortunately for us and for our country, the court hears a prosecutor who constantly distorts our words and statements with impunity, neutering them. The foundational adversarial principle of the legal system is openly and demonstratively violated.
On July 30th, the first day of the trial, we presented our reaction to the prosecutors’ indictments. At that time, the court categorically refused us the right to speak, and our written texts were read aloud by our defense lawyer, Violetta Volkova. For us, this was the first opportunity we had to express ourselves after five months of incarceration. Until then we had been incarcerated, confined; we can’t do anything from there, we can’t write appeals, we can’t film what is happening around us, we have no Internet, our lawyer can’t even bring us papers because even that is forbidden. On July 30th, we spoke openly for the first time; we called for making contact and facilitating dialogue, not for battle and confrontation. We reached our hands out to the people who, for some reason, consider us their enemies, and they spat into our open hands. “You are not sincere,” they said to us. Too bad. Do not judge us according to your behavior. We spoke sincerely, as we always do—we said what we thought. We were unbelievably childlike, naïve in our truth, but nonetheless we are not sorry for our words, and this includes our words on that day. And having been maligned, we do not want to malign others in response. We are in desperate circumstances, but we do not despair. We are persecuted, but we have not been abandoned. It is easy to degrade and destroy people who are open, but “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
Listen to our words and not to what [pro-Putin television journalist] Arkady Mamontov says about us. Do not distort and falsify what we say. Allow us to enter into a dialogue, into contact with this country, which is also ours and not only the land of Putin and the Patriarch. Just like Solzhenitsyn, I believe that in the end the word will break cement. Solzhenitsyn wrote: “Thus, the word is more essential than cement. Thus, the word is not a small nothing. In this manner, noble people begin to grow, and their word will break cement.” [Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle]
Katya, Masha and I may be in prison, but I do not consider us defeated. Just as the dissidents were not defeated; although they disappeared into mental institutions and prisons, they pronounced their verdict upon the regime. The art of creating the image of an epoch does not know winners or losers. It was the same with the OBERIU poets, who remained artists until the end, inexplicable and incomprehensible. Purged in 1937, Alexander Vvedensky wrote, “The incomprehensible pleases us, the inexplicable is our friend.” According to the official death certificate, Aleksandr Vvedensky died on December 20th, 1941. No one knows the cause of death. It could have been dysentery on the train on the way to the camps; it could have been the bullet of a guard. It occurred somewhere on the railroad between Voronezh and Kazan.
Pussy Riot are Vvedensky’s students and heirs. His principle of the bad rhyme is dear to us. He wrote, “Occasionally, I think of two different rhymes, a good one and a bad one, and I always choose the bad one because it is always the right one.”
“The inexplicable is our friend”: the highbrow and refined works of the OBERIU poets and their search for thought on the edge of meaning were finally embodied when they paid with their lives, which were taken by the senseless and inexplicable Great Terror. Paying with their lives, these poets unintentionally proved that they were right to consider irrationality and senselessness the nerves of their era. Thus, the artistic became an historical fact. The price of participation in the creation of history is immeasurably great for the individual. But the essence of human existence lies precisely in this participation. To be a beggar, and yet to enrich others. To have nothing, but to possess all. One considers the OBERIU dissidents dead, but they are alive. They are punished, but they do not die.
Do you remember why young Dostoyevsky was sentenced to death? His entire guilt lay in the fact that he was fascinated by socialist theories, and during meetings of freethinkers and friends—which met on Fridays in the apartment of [Mikhail] Petrashevsky—he discussed the writings of Fourier and George Sand. On one of the last Fridays, he read Belinsky’s letter to Gogol aloud, a letter that was filled, according to the court that tried Dostoevsky (listen!) “with impudent statements against the Orthodox Church and the State government.” After all the preparations for execution and “ten agonizing, infinitely terrifying minutes awaiting death” (Dostoyevsky), it was announced that the sentence was changed to four years of hard labor in Siberia followed by military service.
Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth with his philosophical discussions and refusing to accept the Athenian gods. He had a living connection with the divine voice, and he was not, as he insisted many times, by any account an enemy of the gods. But what did that matter when Socrates irritated the influential citizens of his city with his critical, dialectical thought, free of prejudice? Socrates was sentenced to death and, having refused to escape Athens (as his students proposed), he courageously emptied a cup of hemlock and died. Have you forgotten under what circumstances Stephen, the disciple of the Apostles, concluded his earthly life? “Then they secretly induced men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.’ And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came up to him and dragged him away and brought him before the Council. They put forward false witnesses who said, ‘This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law.” [Acts 6:11-13] He was found guilty and stoned to death. I also hope that you all remember well how the Jews answered Christ: “It is not for good works that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy.” [John 10:33] And finally we would do well to keep in mind the following characterization of Christ: “He is demon-possessed and raving mad.” [John 10:20]
If the authorities, tsars, presidents, prime ministers, the people, and judges understood what “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” meant [Matthew 9:13], they would not put the innocent on trial.
Our authorities, however, still rush with condemnations, and never reprieves. To this point, I would like to thank Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev for providing us with the following excellent aphorism. He summarized his presidential term with the statement: “Liberty is better than non-liberty.” Thus in line with Medvedev’s apt words, Putin’s third term can well be characterized by the aphorism “Prison is better than stoning.” I ask that you consider carefully the following from Montaigne’sEssays, which were written in the 16th century, preaching tolerance and the skeptical rejection of any unilateral system or doctrine: “It is putting a very high value on one’s conjectures, to have a man roasted alive because of them.”
Is it worth it to pass judgment on living people and put them in prison based on conjectures not substantiated by the prosecution? Since we truly have never harbored any religious hatred or animosity, our accusers have to rely on false witnesses. One of them, Matilda Ivashchenko, became ashamed of herself and did not appear in court. Then there were the false testimonies of Mr. Troitsky and Mr. Ponkin, as well as Mrs. Abramenkova. There is no other proof of our hatred and animosity except for the so-called “expert evaluation,” which the court, if it is honest and fair, must consider unacceptable as factual proof, as it is not a rigorous and objective text but a dirty and false little paper reminiscent of the Inquisition. There is no other evidence that can confirm the existence of a motive. The prosecutors have refused to voice excerpts from Pussy Riot interviews, since these excepts would only further prove the absence of any motive. Why wasn’t the following text by us—which, incidentally, appeared in the affidavit—presented by the prosecution? “We respect religion in general and the Orthodox faith in particular. This is why we are especially infuriated when Christian philosophy, which is full of light, is used in such a dirty fashion. It makes us sick to see such beautiful ideas forced to their knees.” This quote appeared in an interview that The Russian Reporter conducted with Pussy Riot the day after our performance. We still feel sick, and it causes us real pain to look at all this. Finally, the lack of any hatred or animosity toward religion and the religious is affirmed by all character witnesses called in to testify by our lawyers. Apart from all these character references, I ask you to consider the results of the psychological and psychiatric evaluations in jail number 6, ordered by the prison authorities. The report revealed the following: the values that I embrace are justice, mutual respect, humaneness, equality, and freedom.
This was written by a court expert, a person who does not know me personally, though it is possible that Ranchenko, the interrogator, desired a different conclusion. But it seems that there are more people in our world who love and value truth than those who don’t. The Bible is correct in this. In conclusion I would like to read the words of a Pussy Riot song, that, strange as they may be, proved prophetic. We foresaw that “the Head of the KGB and the Chief Saint of the land place the protesters under guard and take them to prison.” This was about us.
Neither myself, nor Alyokhina, nor Samutsevich were found to have powerful and stable affects or other psychological values that could be interpreted as hatred toward anything or anyone.
“Open all the doors, tear off your epaulets
Come, taste freedom with us.” [Pussy Riot]
That is all.
—Translated by Maria Corrigan and Elena Glazov-Corrigan.
—Translations edited by Liora Halperin, Katharine Holt, Vera Koshkina, Ainsley Morse, Rebecca Pyatkevich, Sasha Senderovich, and Bela Shayevich.
From N+1 (August 13, 2012)