Forgiveness as a Sovereign Exception: Pussy Riot, Winter Olympics, and the New Russian Biopolitics

Anya Bernstein

“2013 has been a challenging year,” said president Vladimir Putin in his New Year’s address to Russian citizens. “In the coming year, we have a lot of work to do for the prosperity and security of our citizens,” he continued, mentioning the recent suicide bombings in the southern city of Volgograd and flooding in the Far East. “We also have to ensure that the Olympic Games are held at the highest possible level.” The Winter Olympics, which are to be held in the subtropical city of Sochi in less than a month, are supposed to be a chance to showcase Russia’s economic growth, modernization, and openness to the world. The multi-year preparations for the Games, a ritual spectacle that puts individual bodies on display, subjecting them to intense scrutiny while metonymizing them as the collective body of the nation, have been nothing short of breathtaking. They have included the complete rebuilding of the subtropical city of Sochi, with massive relocations, the widespread use of  migrant labor, and 14,000 runners passing the Olympic flame, starting at the Kremlin, spacewalking at the International Space Station, scuba diving with the torch in the deep waters of the semi-frozen Lake Baikal, zip-lining across Siberia, and boarding a nuclear-powered icebreaker on the North Pole. Yet it is a rather different traffic in bodies that put Russia into the international spotlight in the years preceding the Olympics.

In the summer of 2012, two members of the Pussy Riot collective received two-year prison sentences for performing a protest song in a Moscow cathedral. With limited access to the outside world while doing their time in prison, the Pussy Riot women missed a few momentous developments in Russia’s long 2013. On the eve of the last New Year celebrations, a new law banned foreign adoptions of Russian orphans among vague fears that, with these children, some kind of vital essence was being siphoned away from Russia by hostile forces. Soon after, a law banning “gay propaganda” was passed with overwhelming support, as public display of homosexuality was deemed detrimental to children and, more generally, to the health of the Russian body politic. Moscow’s government cracked down on illegal migrants, conducting street sweeps and forcefully placing them in makeshift detention camps. While denying citizenship to certain populations, the Russian state eagerly invited others—more desirable international subjects such as Gérard Depardieu and Edward Snowden—under its auspices. Finally, a new law punishing blasphemy with up to three years of imprisonment under the guise of protecting the “feelings of religious believers” was passed.[1] A new post-post-Soviet strain of biopolitics aimed at strengthening the collective body of the nation seemed to have dawned.

An alternative form of corporeal politics also came of age in 2013: from Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s hunger strike in prison to the artist Petr Pavlensky nailing his scrotum to the cobblestones of the Red Square in a kind of somber self-sacrifice, these acts suggested the ways in which the body could also be used as a site of resistance. Finally, at the very end of the year, quite unexpectedly, a number of political prisoners, including Pussy Riot members Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, were released two months prior to the end of their sentence under an amnesty related to the celebration of twenty years of the Russian constitution. What was this unilateral release of prisoners meant to signify? Was it, in fact, unilateral, or was there a sacrificial logic hidden in this peculiar non-exchange?

In early 2013, I wrote an essay for Critical Inquiry that argued that the trial and punishment of Pussy Riot ended up acquiring a distinct sacrificial character, where the women’s bodies became a means of communicative practice, such as sacrifice, hierarchical discipline, and legal warning.[2] I suggested that two distinct sacrificial processes were, in fact, at play: the sacrifice of Pussy Riot to various audiences and the sacrifice of the law itself, artfully maneuvered in the sovereign’s enactment of the state of exception. Observers also stressed ascetic denial and martyrdom, emphasizing Christian-like self-sacrifice, while others emphasized the ways in which Pussy Riot became an inadvertent medium for ritual action and communication between multiple actors. Pussy Riot’s bodies, almost inevitably, became appropriated and saturated with signification as they became objects of violence and, at the same time, sites of its vital resistance.

By unexpectedly granting amnesty to certain prisoners to show Russia’s benevolent face in advance of the Winter Olympics, Putin once again engaged in an arbitrary and selective application of law. As Carl Schmitt and Jacques Derrida showed long ago, forgiveness—as well as any amnesty, pardon, or grace—functions exactly as a sovereign exception. Forgiveness presupposes sovereign power, a superior position from which to forgive; it is indeed an “affirmation of sovereignty.”[3] Pussy Riot were released under new amnesty laws that apply to the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women, and mothers of small children who have committed minor crimes, including hooliganism, and whose sentence is less than five years. Altogether this was less than 2% of the population of Russian prisons.

It was not the fist time, however, that Nadezhda’s and Maria’s motherhood was invoked in public discourse. During the trial and subsequent parole hearings, many liberals who argued that Pussy Riot should be released did so not because they appreciated their performance (most claimed to find it morally abhorrent) or agreed with their views (which were too far to the left for most), but because they felt it was wrong to keep mothers of small children in prison. Most of Pussy Riot’s liberal supporters did not recognize their performance as political speech at all. Now, after the amnesty and the initial jubilation, the women were subjected to the same or even greater enforcement of gender than ever before. Strikingly, a poignant controversy erupted in the Russian blogosphere when it became known that Nadezhda and Maria did not immediately fly to Moscow to be with their children. Instead, they chose to meet in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk to discuss their plans to form an NGO intended to help political prisoners. The blogosphere exploded in laments and moral outcry, calling the women “soulless robots” and effectively withdrawing moral support for them. Only occasionally someone would question this approach, mentioning that if such a question had been asked about another famous (male) political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, released around the same time, it would have been seen as utterly absurd.

While liberals decried the fact that Maria and Nadezhda did not justify their expectations, the leftists had their own share of disappointments. They disapproved of the women’s admiration of Khodorkovsky, who, although he may not have deserved his 10-year sentence, remains for many a “slimy” oligarch, too close to power. The leftists declared that Pussy Riot made a joke of those who had made icons out of them, mentioning that during their first press conference at the liberal TV Station Dozhd’, Nadezhda looked not like a punk feminist, but as glamorous as an American top model.[4] Indeed, days after her release, Nadezhda surprised quite a few of her fans by participating in a fashion photo shoot, advertising hip clothes by Evil Twin, American Apparel, and Glamorous, distributed by the company Trends Brands (who, as she later claimed, helped provide her with clothes while she was in prison, which she distributed to other inmates).[5]  In the meantime, the majority of the population remains slightly disappointed with Putin’s leniency, as they believe the women fully deserved to complete their full sentences, and then some. The time in prison and the amnesty, it appears, did nothing to change Pussy Riot’s essential illegibility across the entire Russian political spectrum. The sacrificial processes continue, but the victim, while remaining the medium, has not yet been destroyed.


[1] This past summer the opposition members synechdochally dubbed the Duma—the lower house of the parliament where all of these laws were passed with overwhelming support—the “mad printer,” evoking a hypothetical printer gone wild, spewing out laws without human supervision.

[2] Anya Bernstein, “An Inadvertent Sacrifice: Body Politics and Sovereign Power in the Pussy Riot Affair,” Critical Inquiry 40:220-241.

[3] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, pp. 58-59.

[4] Dmitrii Zhvaniia. “Pussy Riot opozorili levakov.” [Pussy Riot Disgraced the Lefties], December 28, 2013.  http://www.sensusnovus.ru/opinion/2013/12/28/17688.html

Anya Bernstein

Anthropology, Harvard University

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