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Pussy Riot as Modern Day Skomorokhi

This is a guest post by Sean Guillory that originally appeared on Sean’s Russia Blog.

The trial and conviction of Pussy Riot has sparked a number of historical analogies. Never wanting for hyperbole, the Washington Post, among others in the West and Russia, argued that the trial echoed “Stalinism” (an analogy nicely rebutted by Mark Adomanis). The Pussy Riot case has also been likened to the 1964 trial of the Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky, not to mention harking back to the trials of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel in 1965. But historical analogies did not end with the Soviet period. Another common refrain was that the accusations and trial of Pussy Riot reflected medieval Russia. This comparison wasn’t hard given that Artem Ranchenkov, one of the case investigators, cited Orthodox canonical rules of proper church dress from the 4th century Council of Laodicea and the 7th century Quinisext Council. Nor was it difficult to call the affair “medieval” since the trial proceedings were often more like an ecclesiastical than a civilian court. The coup de grace for which was when Yelena Pavlova, a lawyer representing nine of Pussy Riot’s “victims,” called feminism a “mortal sin.”

Another common historical analogy making the rounds were excerpts from Article 231 of the Imperial Russian Criminal Code of 1845, which stated that “improper loud cries, laughter, or any other noise or unseemly conduct that causes temptation, averts attention of worshipers from their duty to God” carried a fine of 50 kopeks to a ruble or detention from three to seven days. If the disturbance occurred during church service, the sentence was prison for a period of three weeks to three months. The irony here was that under the “well-ordered police state” of Nicholas I, Pussy Riot’s sentence would have been far lighter. Yet, others listed other possible laws applicable to Pussy Riot from the 1845 code. One blog post listed 24 satutes, Articles 182-205, concerning blasphemy, sacrilege, and other violations of faith. The sentences varied from corporal punishment, forced labor in factories and mines, jail time and exile to Siberia. The only problem is that blasphemy and sacrilege are not in the Russian Criminal Code of 2012. That is unless it’s disguised as “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

But the historical semblances didn’t stop with references to bygone eras or now defunct imperial codes. Some of the more interesting ones were those that placed Pussy Riot within a broader historical tradition of Russian minstrelsy, where hooliganism, art, and protest collided into a staple of Russian medieval culture.