A moveable riot: The saga of Pussy Riot has one source

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 – November 26, 2012 – Anna Arutunyan is the politics editor of The Moscow News)

I’m going to tell you a story about three pretty girls who defied the patriarchy ­ no, wait, scratch that. This is a story of deceit, betrayal and revolution. No, scratch that, too. Here’s a tale of greed, vengeance and high-stakes PR. Or not! Because, however much we try to make it into one, the fact that two young, pretty women are in jail over singing a song in a church is not a movie by the Wachowskis or a novel by John Fowles.

The Pussy Riot saga, that gift that keeps on giving, has unraveled into counter-allegations of publicity-mongering and betrayal, proving that in Russia, the wrath of the sovereign can be as pricey as his favor.

Last week, following a prolonged controversy over registering the Pussy Riot brand, the group’s firebrand lawyers, Mark Feigin, Violetta Volkova, and Nikolai Polozov, announced they were no longer representing its imprisoned members. Their official reason was that it was in the girls’ best interests to be represented by someone else.

Given that Yekaterina Samutsevich’s earlier decision to switch lawyers helped her get out of jail last month, I don’t necessarily doubt that explanation. Still, this is not the full picture. So what really happened?

Ask a man on the street about Pussy Riot, and he will be convinced that someone powerful was behind the stunt, using the girls in some high-stakes political game. I never bought into these conspiracy theories, but I suspected that something simpler was going on. Someone was getting rich. Or trying to.

When I asked Samutsevich last month about reported attempts to register the Pussy Riot brand, she brushed my question off, saying she didn’t know anything about it. Besides, the very nature of her art was non-commercial ­ registering a brand wouldn’t make sense.

I didn’t press further into this or her real reasons for switching lawyers. With her friends in jail, she would be reluctant to undermine their credibility by suggesting a schism. And rightly so.

But now that jailed Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova have distanced themselves from the lawyers, Samutsevich has spoken out. In an interview to Lenta.ru, she alleged that Feigin had her sign blank pages, which were then used in an attempt to register the Pussy Riot brand. She accused Volkova of withholding her passport. And she bluntly called the lawyers out on fame-mongering.

That’s when the story unraveled. In a flurry of tweets, the lawyers countered with accusations that Samutsevich was lying and complying with the Kremlin as part of her deal for freedom. Detailed reports appeared on Lenta.ru about Feigin’s political career, his stint in Serbia in the 1990s, and Volkova’s involvement in a high-profile trial over Kremlin-connected raiding. Sources close to the case started talking of Feigin’s fabulous wealth.

Meanwhile, in a separate development, publishers in Moscow released a book titled “Pussy Riot: What was it?” with Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich listed as authors. The women had no part in this: the editors compiled the book from interviews with them from various sources, including The New Times, where a reporter is now threatening to sue the book’s publisher.

All this lends itself to the notion that the entire stunt ­ not just the incident in Christ the Savior Cathedral, but the subsequent jailing ­ was staged as an elaborate PR performance, with a number of beneficiaries cashing in. But is that reality, or itself another layer?

Indeed, the aesthetic elegance of the Pussy Riot story may explain the unrelenting appeal of the feminist punk group in the West. Life becomes art: the dramatic narrative of three young, pretty punk activists fighting The Man simply must end in The Man putting them in jail ­ otherwise your movie isn’t going to fly at the box office. But to appeal to the critics, your movie also needs biting commentary on the commercialization of society, and the row over the brand provides all that.

But what’s disconcerting is that this isn’t a movie. It’s a political fight with real people winding up in jail. And Orthodox Russians I’ve spoken to are appalled not just at Pussy Riot for staging a “disgusting” stunt in a church, they’re equally appalled at the government for giving the band members publicity by jailing them.

I don’t want to blame Pussy Riot for deliberately trying to cash in on anything. Samutsevich, I believe, is sincerely bewildered by what she’s gotten herself into. But inadvertently, every player in this postmodernist drama, where every layer reveals an underlying one, is getting rich via some form of capital, where even a jail term has an exchange rate. The ultimate source of that capital sits in the Kremlin.