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Pussy Riot in Post-Culture Context

19-09-2012, 14:00

 

 

The ado about Pussy Riot seems to be subsiding now that the story has led to a court verdict. Speaking in Finland, Russian diplomacy chief S. Lavrov warned the media against hysteria over the case and urged respect for the legitimate judicial decision, while in Russia the Orthodox Church called for clemency towards the offenders. The call was appropriately timed as the besieged church hierarchy refrained from influencing the situation ahead of the ruling. Believers across the country do worry that the soft sentence might leave churches vulnerable to another round of vandalism.

The controversy prompted by the hearings and the resulting sentence should not obscure the key fact – the Russian society had to face a serious maturity test, and since, in the words of D.P. Moynihan, “it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society”, the scope of the gauge was broader than politics. As of late, the trendy vocabulary centered around the concept of post-modern incorporated the term ”punk prayer”, a bizarre verbal compound which popped up amidst the current Russian debates. From a wider perspective, the phenomenon encountered is best described as post-culture. That should not be mixed with anti-culture, which is the reaction of the type "When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun" known to have surfaced in the nominally civilized world. The post-culture is the rebellion of a black hole, a revolt put up by sheer nothingness. There is a long way to go from shooting at icons or demolishing churches as “vestiges of the past” in the name of skewed ideals to installing one's inner hideousness in the middle of a shrine. The division of atheist labor in the communist epoch implied that commoners do the job of primitive destruction, while it was the mission of the Bolshevist intellectuals to invent rites intended to replace baptism, to compose coarse anti-religious rhymes, or to stage carnivals with characters dressed as priests, monks, and other “unenlightened” Christians. The policy thus combined distastefulness with a fairly systemic approach, the assumption being that crude propaganda appealed most to the populace.

The above should explain why Stalin's extensive and continuously updated library held no place for the unsophisticated Soviet atheistic literature. The communist leader with a seminary background used to call the domestic anti-religious pamphlets total pulp but - as historian B. Ilizarov discovered in a study of the notes Stalin scribbled in book margins - wrote a Voltaire-style comment “Served it right!” atop the page with Anatole France's invective that the Christianity's idea of redemption was a return to utmost barbarianism.

Nowadays, invading and desecrating a church in Russia is punishable, and we owe the order of things to the sufferings of the Soviet-era martyrs rather than to the human rights advocacy contributed by the Voice of America. This is something worth keeping in mind, considering that, occasionally, you would come across the “cultured” types in Russia who admit that vandalizing a church is unacceptable yet find nothing profoundly wrong with staging a punk prayer plus a masquerade in it.  

Modernity and even postmodernity are, each to its own extent, interwoven with the system of values built by humanity over ages and depend on them even for the forms of interpretation or protest. These days, the assertive post-culture, like a neutron bomb, erodes culture from within, erasing its purport and annihilating the atmosphere that sustains it. The black hole absorbs meaningful content, leaving nothing but hollow shells and reducing culture to a “precious graveyard” vividly portrayed by Dostoevsky's character. Maintained in an outwardly proper condition, the world's cultural necropolis would easily be taken over by a completely necrophilic culture, with the children of Cain spoon-feeding those of Abel (Russian poet A. Voznesensky).

In today's Russia, the post-culture still runs into a barrier of historical and genetic nature. “There is a disconnect in the country between the culture and the socioeconomic relations supposed to modernize it. The relations fail to get entrenched in the culture”, observed sociologist A. Davydov back in 1999. So far, the paradigm has carried enough inertia to hold on.

The Pussy Riot case served to sound out Russia's ability not to capitulate when confronted with the post-culture. Handing out the sentence was not the point, and the determination of the Russian society to withstand the pressure was the real issue.

It is clear regardless of the well-coordinated media campaign  that Pussy Riot backers are a minor fraction in Russia. Due to the reason, Innsbruck University professor of political science Gerhard Mangott suggests that the protest movement in Russia should resist the temptation to throw support behind the punk rock trio. First, he says that a rift may open within the opposition if protests in Russia take an anti-church turn. Secondly – and that is a more revealing part of Mangott's argument – the protest movement which rose in Russia's major cities appears to meet with an unreceptive audience in the provinces where the level of support for the church tends to be higher than in Moscow or St. Petersburg, and if harsh criticism is leveled at the church over the Pussy Riot case, the platform for the protesters' engagement with the conservative population of villages and small towns would shrink further. Suspicion creeps in that Mangott glosses over the principal circumstance – he is likely aware that an average European, with his or her practical and cultural instincts, frowns on the post-modernism and post-culture triumphant in the present-day Europe and would rather side with Russia's conservative majority. The picture drawn by the mainstream media, which shows the punkers as martyrs to the cause of progress, hardly reflects a typical European's inner perceptions.

The Austrian scholar echoes a cohort of Russia's commentators who hold that the Pussy Riot case will create a gap between the Orthodox church and educated young urbanites. Sociologist N. Zorkaya cast the view into a stronger statement, her version of the forecast being that the polarizing episode will alienate many of the thinking people from the church. I find it hard to believe that the educated and thinking people – religious or not – favor punk prayers, but even if it repels some of those perfunctorily involved with the church, so be it. After all, it makes no sense advising the blind to set the glasses straight. 

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