"Pussy Riot Is a Mask"

The Prison Letters of Nadya Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Zizek

by Hans Rollman

17 November 2014

The prison correspondence of Tolokonnikova and Zizek might not change the world, but it ought to be required reading for those with such aspirations.
 
cover art

Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj

Nadezhda Tolokonnikovam, Slavoj Zizek

(Verso)
US: Sep 2014

Even in an age of email there’s a certain intellectual excitement surrounding the exchange of letters between significant thinkers and public figures.

It’s a source of intellectual continuity with the premail era. Truly the original form of knowledge mobilization, such debates are indelibly the product of a literate age. And they encapsulate many of the seminal clashes of ideas in modern times.

Examples abound. In a closely followed series of letters between 1715-16, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Samuel Clarke debated Newtonian physics and natural theology. Forefathers of modern economics David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus engaged in a famous correspondence in the early 1800s, lasting well over a decade, arguing over the nature of prices, free trade, and other things of the sort economists argue about. In the ‘30s, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud debated why human beings engage in warfare (at the behest of the ill-fated League of Nations).

Even in this century, Noam Chomsky and Oe Kenzaburo engaged in a discussion about the state of the world in an era of George Bushes, in a public correspondence published in the Tokyo daily Asahi Shimbun, as well as the International Herald Tribune between June-July 2002.

These are merely a sprinkling of examples. Our public thinkers love to debate, and can often be coaxed into letting us watch. Or read. The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates – a defining moment in Abraham Lincoln’s political career, and America’s history – took place in front of live crowds but achieved their greatest significance thanks to the rapid dissemination of transcripts around the country.

So there you go: letters can change the world.

The correspondence of Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Zizek might not change the world, but it ought to be required reading for anyone with aspirations to do so.

Zizek is, of course, the Slovenian philosopher famously described by the Chronicle of Higher Education as ‘the Elvis of cultural theory’. Caricatured by others as a ‘celebrity philosopher’, he’s the Slovenian Marxist philosopher whose appearances sell out packed arenas in mere minutes.

Tolokonnikova is perhaps best known to western readers as part of the ground-breaking Russian punk-performance outfit, Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot has, however, revealed itself as much more than simply a punk band. While punk performance art was a defining characteristic of early Pussy Riot performances, the repressive and violent response of the Russian regime has turned this amorphous grouping of artists, musicians, performers and thinkers into an irrepressible force at the heart of the struggle for freedom, liberty and human rights in a country that has spiraled into overt and repressive dictatorship.

“Prison goes on forever…”

When Tolokonnikova and four comrades slipped into the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow – the country’s most important Orthodox church – in February of 2012 and performed a raucous ‘punk prayer’ in opposition to church collusion with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship, it’s doubtful they knew the sequence of events they would be setting in motion. The daring act of political protest, coupled with the state’s repressive response, vaulted the Pussy Riot protestors into the international spotlight as fearless defenders of justice and democracy in Russia. It also sent three of them to jail, sentenced to two years for ‘hooliganism’ (the Russian regime has refined repression in recent years: these days the women would probably have been charged with the much more straightforward crime of ‘blasphemy’, also now punishable by jail time).

The Tolokonnikova-Zizek correspondence had its unlikely genesis in an interview between Tolokonnikova and the Russian paper, New Times, while she was still in early provisional detention. Tolokonnikovam, like many of the Pussy Riot circle, is trained in philosophy, and she cited Zizek in that interview (while justifying the group’s church protest on philosophical grounds). Michel Eltchaninoff, deputy editor-in-chief of Philosophie Magazine, read the interview and realized that an encounter between Tolokonnikova and Zizek promised one of those monumental meetings of minds of which great things might come.

A monumental meeting, indeed: the one, a philosopher of direct action and rebellion; a theorist of freedom and resistance in the name of human dignity. The other: also a philosopher, but one who had enacted those philosophies in daring and courageous acts of outright resistance against a repressive regime, and who was now imprisoned, paying the price for her dedication to such ideals. What insights might these two minds reach if brought together?

Credit is due Eltchaninoff and the others who worked so hard to make the meeting happen. They had to work at it. Indeed, once Zizek was on board and preparations made to bring him to Russia to meet Tolokonnikovam in prison, the Russian government conveniently transferred Tolokonnikovam to an inaccessible prison camp in remote Mordovia. Yet efforts persevered: if Zizek was not to be permitted to meet Tolokonnikovam in person, a letter correspondence would have to suffice. To this, official acquiescence was eventually granted.

It would have been a lopsided exchange under any circumstances. Zizek produced his letters at perfect liberty; Tolokonnikovam’s correspondence however was monitored, and could be censored, by the prison authorities. Furthermore, she had to read, think, write and respond under excruciating conditions. The prison camp – little different from the gulags of which other famous Russians wrote during the Soviet era – did not relax their harsh and repressive treatment simply because she was engaging in a potentially earth-shaking correspondence. She mentions off-handedly in one letter that it was being written at the sewing machine where she performed some of her forced labour.

Fittingly, the book which resulted from this correspondence, Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj, opens with an extensive essay by Tolokonnikovam (separate from the correspondence) written on the occasion of a hunger strike, in which she describes the conditions of torture under which the prisoners – many of them political prisoners and others who fell afoul of Russia’s arbitrary ruling regime of oligarchs and autocrats – suffer. The prisons are essentially sweat shops, producing cheap products under conditions decried by journalists and human rights organizations. Her opening essay offers a moving and visceral description of what some journalists have described as “torture camps”.

Prison, Politics and Punk Philosophy

The correspondence itself opens with a polite, tenuous uncertainty, but quickly gathers momentum. Tolokonnikovam’s Pussy Riot are often described as a ‘punk’ group, although in reality they encompass much more. But quibbles aside: where does punk fit into philosophy?

“There are architects of Apollonian equilibrium in this world, and there are (punk) singers of flux and transformation. One is not better than the other… We count ourselves among those rebels who court storms, who hold that the only truth lies in perpetual seeking,” writes Tolokonnikovam.

The dialogue encompasses the broadest range of ideas, gripping onto whatever holds, from classical philosophy to Soviet children’s literature; from Plato to Heraclitus to Lenin to Laurie Anderson. It’s ideas that count, and the paradox of today’s world is that ideas have become more free than ever – liberated from the confines of universities and other monasteries of knowledge.

Yet the use of these ideas, to use them as Pussy Riot do, risks loss of freedom at the hands of established regimes that are readier than ever to pounce on their unauthorized application. Under such conditions, is there a dialogue to be found between punk and philosophy? Does an act of deliberate, cacophonous sound-reverb blasphemy in an ancient cathedral operate on the same level as post-modern philosophy?

“Cultural competence and sensitivity to the zeitgeist don’t come with a college diploma or live in an administrator’s briefcase,” writes Tolokonnikovam. “You need to know which way to point the map. ‘Humor, buffoonery, and irreverence’ might turn out to be modes of seeking truth. Truth is multifaceted, its seekers many and varied. ‘Different but equal,’ as another good antifascist slogan had it.”

Zizek may be the big-name draw for many readers to this collection, but it is Tolokonnikovam who shines, offering the most interesting and challenging observations. She brooks no paternalism or condescension from the big-name Zizek, who seems predisposed to slip into that mode early on. His early letters insistently and voyeuristically demand she describe to him the daily routines of her prison life, and the ways she copes with them. She ignores this, testily reminding him this is an exchange of ideas and to please stay on topic: “Don’t waste your time worrying about giving in to theoretical fabrications while I supposedly suffer ‘empirical deprivations’”.

Zizek offers an expansive apology: “Let me begin by confessing that I felt deeply ashamed…” he writes, offering “my sincere apologies for this proof of how deeply entrenched male chauvinism can be…”. Nonplussed, she takes him to task again in her next letter – not only was he chauvinist, but his attitude was also colonialist. “…I’m inclined to think you and I and our whole conversation are susceptible to a more justified – and so heavier – charge: that of a colonial perspective.”

What they’re doing, she explains, is falling guilty of universalism: discussing the woes of the world (which is to say, the ravages of capitalism) in broad and theoretical terms that fail to acknowledge the tremendous distinctions which exist from region to region, people to people, culture to culture. They discuss the nature of capitalism, yet its operation is infinitely varied. Western governments negotiate ‘special economic zones’ through trade agreements – areas where labour rights do not apply – yet these same zones exist in Russian jails, where those like her are consigned to forced labour in prison sweatshops not as a form of precarious labour, but because they committed blasphemy against the dictator of Russia in a punk song. Understanding these variations is critical to understanding how they fit into capitalism’s broader system of hierarchy, standardization and control. 

The lure of universalizing and deterritorializing theory, she writes, is strong. Yet Putin’s lockdown ‘saves’ her from succumbing, by granting her the experience of “living in a country that over and over again confronts me with palpable evil, staggering in its enduring, deep-rooted corporeality.”

The exchange, while all too brief, is captivating and thought-provoking.

Whither Resistance?

Imprisoned she may be, but Tolokonnikova is not shackled by conventional ‘progressive’ thinking: her tone is playful, provocative, and pointed. “I am myself so tired of the purist pseudo-Marxist critique of advertising as part of commodity fetishism that I am almost tempted to propose the following guideline: a critical social theorist who is not able to enjoy advertisements should not be taken seriously…”

She has little patience for paternalistic relativism, a tool of capitalist exploitation expressed in the attitude that we should respect the different ways of others when this creates spaces of oppression. The question this poses, she writes, is “what are the acceptable limits of tolerance? When does it cease to be tolerance and become instead collaborationism, conformism, even criminal complicity?”

Tolokonnikova may be the surprise star in this exchange, but Zizek doesn’t disappoint, either. He is, for once, the more predictable, but the exchange is a fitting test of his ideals. He’s not long out of the gate before he’s batting the idea of universal emancipation. “Lenin lives wherever there are people who still fight for the same Idea,” he proclaims. Oh Zizek, ever the utopian.

“Is our position utopian?” he asks. “I am more and more convinced that today’s real utopians are those pragmatic-rational experts who seem to believe that the present state of things can go on indefinitely, that we are not approaching the moment of an apocalyptic choice.”

They dwell for some time on the world’s captivity in the talons of ‘experts’. If punk’s DIY attitude is good at anything, it is rejecting experts. Zizek agrees with her. “Experts are by definition the servants of those in power: they don’t really THINK, they just apply their knowledge to problems defined by the powerful,” he writes.

Zizek has a tendency to use big words, but he makes good arguments despite this. They grapple with how to resist the ravages of the capitalist system. Part of the problem, says Zizek, is that even anti-capitalist resistance has become an integral part of the capitalist system. Capitalism thrives on it. “It hijacks affect in order to intensify profit potential. It literally valorizes affect.” Don’t forget to buy your nephew that “Occupy Wall Street!” t-shirt before the police storm the barricades!

And the Internet has only obfuscated this. How many activists pay their rent and buy their sushi with the ad revenue from all the “think progressive!” anti-capitalist websites? “It’s very troubling and confusing, because it seems to me that there’s been a certain kind of convergence between the dynamic of capitalist power and the dynamic of resistance,” he confesses. Well then, this is the problem. In fancy-speak: “the Order has already internalized its own permanent subversion.”

What surprises, too, is that Tolokonnikova – despite her provocative punk presence; despite her years of torture in a Russian prison camp – is the optimist; the idealist; the one full of hope and faith in humanity. We live in a world divided between experts and innocents, she writes. And her faith lies in the innocents.

“Those who keep a childlike faith in the triumph of truths over lies, and in mutual aid, who live their lives entirely within the gift economy, will always receive a miracle at the exact moment they need it.”

It is a paean to the punks, to the thinkers and dreamers and movers and shakers in whose hands lie the possibility of re-shaping this world.

“…these are the people I love,” writes Tolokonnikova, “ – the Dionysians, the unmediated ones, those drawn to what’s different and new, seeking movement and inspiration over dogmas and immutable statutes. The innocents, in other words, the speakers of truth.”

“Two years for Pussy Riot – the price we owe fate for the gift of perfect pitch that enables us to sound out an A, even while our old traditions teach us to listen for G-flat.”

The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj (a deceptive title, for it was only Tolokonnikova who was imprisoned) are a fast read, yet their impact lingers. They’re accessible for everyone, although everyone will certainly draw different meanings.

Conclusions and Beginnings

Our protagonists do not, of course, reach any conclusions. If anything, the truest benefit of such an exchange is to provoke within us the flowering of new thoughts and ideas that allow the reader, in their own way, to become a part of this exchange. Back to universals. Or as Zizek concludes: “…it is absolutely crucial to insist on the universality of our struggle. The moment we forget that Pussy Riot and WikiLeaks are moments of the same global struggle, everything is lost…”

Always back to the struggle. And to the centrality of our own role in that struggle. In democracy, he writes, “every ordinary citizen is effectively a king…”. The problem we face is that constitutional democracies, such as those we live in, have reduced our sovereign individuality to the role of a rubber-stamping monarch “whose function is to sign measures proposed by the executive administration.”

The problem is: how to re-take our power? This is the true ‘crisis of democracy’. The crisis is not a matter of people losing faith in their own democratic power, but, “…on the contrary, [the crisis is] when they stop trusting the elites, those who are supposed to know for them and provide the guidelines, when they realize… the decision really is now theirs.”

On this Tolokonnikova agrees, in a final letter written shortly after her own release from prison. And what role for Pussy Riot in this?

Pussy Riot is a mask: a simplifying, modernizing mask. Prison, confinement, these are also masks, different masks, ones that help people of our generation to shake off cynicism and irony. When you put on a mask, you leave your own time, you abandon the world in which any sincerity will be mocked, you move into the world of cartoon heroes where Sailor Moon and Spiderman, those consummate modern role models, can be found… The masks that members of Pussy Riot wear hold, if any, a therapeutic function: yes, we belong to a generation raised on irony, but we also put on masks to reduce that impotent irony. We go out in the streets and speak plainly, without varnish, about the things that matter most.

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