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Fool. Fool. Holy fool; How Pussy Riot is turning the government into a villain – and a crutch

File Photo of Pussy Riot Members in Courtroom Enclosure, With Man Showing Papers to One While Female Guard Looks On

(Moscow News – themoscownews.com – Anna Arutunyan – February 4, 2013)

Anna Arutunyan is the politics editor of The Moscow News

Just when I thought I was done, they pull me back in. Nearly one year since the girls staged the punk rock dance that got two of them sent to penal colonies, they are still one of the world’s top Russiathemed commodities, along with the KGB and the matryoshka. And I still can’t shake the feeling that there’s something that we’re not getting about this never-ending story.

Mike Lerner’s and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s documentary on Pussy Riot got an award at Sundance. Plus, there’s a book launch in New York of a Pussy Riot compilation by The Feminist Press. Maria Alyokhina is getting ready for a hearing to appeal for prison reprimands this week, and, through no fault of her own, it’s going to be a pretext for European journalists asking me about the case. Indeed, Putin’s Russia will have a hard time shaking the unfortunate association with “Pussy” ­ and it’s not just because, as Lerner told The Daily Beast of his movie, “It’s not only a film about Russia, it’s about all of us.”

For Lerner, “all of us” referred to the “allowable limits of free expression,” (which, at first glance, makes this story so palatable to Westerners who, unlike Russians, normally have to try really hard to find those limits). But every story in Russia’s protest movement is about that, and always has been. Pussy Riot, however, is also about something else ­ it’s about righteous passivity, about eliciting the kind of punishment from a tyranny that will put you down in history books. The punishment draws attention to the authoritarian order, but also ultimately makes authoritarianism more resilient.

To understand this paradox, look to the ancient tradition of the holy fool and the instruments that he wielded. Pussy Riot were only superficially tapping into this Orthodox custom when they decided to prance around in Christ the Savior Cathedral on the same day when, according to church tradition, holy fools were allowed inside.

Still, being a holy fool was never a one-time gig ­ when you don rags, live outdoors and deliberately expose the hypocrisies that make man a social animal, when your whole job description is being abhorrent to people who believe themselves to be sensible and welladjusted, you are setting yourself up for abuse. Russia’s most famous holy fool, Basil the Blessed, got canonized for deeds not least of which was approaching Ivan the Terrible with a piece of raw meat, saying, “Why abstain from meat when you murder men?” That Basil survived this encounter was an exception that proved the rule.

In most cases, the life of a holy fool was one of constant punishment, if not by the harsh climate, then by the people he successfully provoked to anger. In Russia, this is a theme that keeps recurring, and not just in a religious context. In his 2013 novel about a medieval Russian doctor who becomes a holy fool after failing to save the life of his wife and child (a novel that alludes in many places to Basil the Blessed), writer Yevgeny Vodolazkin gives an apt description of the dynamics between a holy fool and his tormentors that I couldn’t help but apply to today:

“A Russian is pious. He knows that a holy fool must suffer, and commits sin in order to provide the holy fool with that suffering. After all, someone has to take on the role of the villain.”

In the novel, the words come from Foma, another holy fool who seems to be poking fun at the very institution of holy fools, exposing a co-dependent paradox.

The genuine holy fool is part of a meaningful, and at times, deeply beautiful spiritual tradition. But when the instruments of the holy fool are deployed in the realm of a purportedly secular (although that is increasingly coming under doubt) civil society aiming to forge institutions, these tactics become a counterproductive crutch. I have already written that Pussy Riot owes the success of its stunt to the repressions that followed. When those repressions are directed against the opposition as a whole, even as they vindicate the necessity of the fight, they also become a measure of the opposition’s success.

This is pushing civil protest into a sort of sadomasochistic game ­ and it’s going to take both sides to finally realize that in Russia, it’s not a game worth playing.

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