Pussy Riot: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj

 What is a modest Pussy Riot obscene provocation in a church compared to the accusation against Pussy Riot, this gigantic obscene provocation of the state apparatus which mocks any notion of decent law and order?

– Slavoj Zizek

Michael Levin tell us he came to Harvard School of Government recently (09/16/2014 posted) to observe two young women from Russian: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria (Mosha) Alyokhina of Pussy Riot fame. Reading his blog post (HuffPost College: post) one is struck both by the naiveté of his critique, and its liberal progressive tendencies. He castigates them for not being liberal progressive protesters and upholding the typical critiques of power and dominion as laid down by the Western agendas. Instead they speak of the prisoner’s rights, immigration restrictions, the “brain drain” on Russian by the current regime, and a return of Christianity from its Stalinist Capital heirs to the actual people of Russia. In a last gaff, Levin throws out a limpid lambast at the two young women:

If you’re going to stand for something in today’s world, you have to declare a major. It doesn’t work to hoist the banner for every cause, no matter how noble, because you end up dissipating the energy that brought you — and your followers — to the spotlight to begin with. The last time a protest movement sought to be all-encompassing, it was Occupy, and we all know how that turned out. (here)

That Levin’s luke-warm jive of Occupy and the wrongheaded equation of it with Pussy Riot becomes clear as one reads the letters between Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Zizek Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and SlavojIn it we become reacquainted with the act of political protest that landed them in the gulag system to begin with: Pussy Riot members in their red, blue, orange, yellow , and violet balaclavas entered the new Christian Cathedral in Moscow, took off their coats, revealing their brightly colored dresses and tights and proceeded to sing a “punk prayer” to the Queen Mother, Mary. The female maintenance staff started to panic and called security. One security guard hurried across, tackled a young woman holding a guitar and pulled her away. He returned to grab hold of a loudspeaker. Church employees attempted to intercept the other four. But they had already begun their twenty-verse “punk prayer,” whose refrain is “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Banish Putin.”1

After two years Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina were freed on December 23, 2013, when Putin released them two months early in order to open his Winter Olympics in Sochi. During her imprisonment she expressed her interest in meeting Slavoj Zizek after reading his book on “Violence”. As she describes her first year in the new gulag at Mordovia:

It has been a year since I arrived at Penal Colony No. 14 [PC-14] in the Mordovian village of Partsa. As the women convicts say, “Those who haven’t done time in Mordovia haven’t done time at all.”2

Reading of her trials and tribulations within the new Russia one discovers just how brutal it’s become. Or is it that the old system never went away? As we discover one of the warden’s affirms that he is still a “Stalinist”:

My first impression of Mordovia was the words uttered by the prison’s deputy warden, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, who actually runs PC-14. “You should know that when it comes to politics, I am a Stalinist.”3

What struck me is a comparison with the brutalization in the American Penal System, which shows some of the same classic earmarks of inmate brutality and survival mechanisms. As she discovers over time the prison is enforced not by the wardens, but through a brutal regime of inmate terror and fear. The inmates enforce their own brutalization on each other when quotas and other issues come about. If one tries to stand up against the system, or tries to inform those outside the system about the atrocities of its lawlessness the very inmates turn against one another to the point of murder, torcher, and animalistic behavior. As she states it:

Conditions at the prison really are organized in such a way that the inmates in charge of the work shifts and dorm units are the ones tasked by the wardens with crushing the will of inmates, terrorizing them, and turning them into speechless slaves.4

 She provides example after example of atrocities purported upon inmates by other inmates to keep them in line, or the punishment of units, or even the whole prison: forcing inmates to live in the open under freezing conditions, starving them, forcing them to work sixteen hour days, forcing them to remain at their sewing machines unable to pee, enforced hazing and beatings at the hands of inmates to scared not to comply with their own leaders, etc. She speaks of a gypsy woman killed in a beating in a rival unit:

It’s true: other prisoners are beaten up. For not being able to keep up. They hit them in the kidneys, in the face. Convicts themselves deliver these beatings and not a single one of them happens without the approval and knowledge of the wardens. A year ago, before I came here, a Gypsy woman was beaten to death in the third unit. (The third unit is the “pressure cooker”: prisoners whom the wardens want subjected to daily beatings are sent there.) She died in the infirmary at PC-14.5

 When Nadya tells her lawyer of the conditions and the problems he puts in a formal complaint which turns against her intentions when the wardens learn of it and impose even harsher conditions on her entire prison forcing convicts close to the wardens incited the unit to violence. The warden tells them: 

“You’ve been punished by having tea and food, bathroom breaks, and smoking banned for a week. And now you’re always going to be punished unless you start treating the newcomers , especially Tolokonnikova, differently. Treat them like the old-timers used to treat you back in the day . Did they beat you up? Of course they did. Did they rip your mouths? They did. Fuck them up. You won’t be punished for it.”6

In the end she declared a hunger strike, saying:

I declare a hunger strike and refuse to be involved in the slave labor at the prison until the administration complies with the law and treats women convicts not like cattle banished from the legal realm for the needs of the garment industry, but like human beings.7

 Zizek in response to this courageous young woman will answer the call and begin a series of personal letters (that on both sides is carried on through translation and a restrictive lens of the overseers themselves – as the wardens read all letters, emails, etc. and impose their martial regulatory gaze upon them).

Zizek in his opening letter will greet Nadya, saying:

Against all postmodern cynics, you demonstrate that ethical-political engagement is needed more than ever. So please ignore enemies and false friends who pity you as punk provocateurs who deserve mere clemency. You are not helpless victims calling for sympathy and mercy, you are fighters calling for solidarity in struggle.8

Of course Zizek is showing forth his version of this old form stating in his Sublime Object of Ideology that cynicism is the answer of the ruling culture to the cynical subversion of its ideological universality, while keeping the mask of it in place and allowing the imposition of its heritage to remain in place even as it castigates it on the surface. As he says:

This cynicism is not a direct position of immorality, it is more like morality itself put in the service of immorality — the model of cynical wisdom is to conceive probity, integrity, as a supreme form of dishonesty, and morals as a supreme form of profligacy, the truth as the most effective form of a lie. This cynicism is therefore a kind of perverted ‘negation of the negation’ of the official ideology: confronted with illegal enrichment, with robbery, the cynical reaction consists in saying that legal enrichment is a lot more effective and, moreover, protected by the law.9

One sees this in outgoing President Medvedev’s statement to the press:

“I wouldn’t have sent them to jail if I had been the judge. I simply don’t think that’s right because these girls had already served a prison sentence. And actually that should have been enough. The fact that one has been released is fortunate … but it’s not up to me, rather to the courts and their lawyers. They have the right to appeal, and I think they should and let the courts consider the case on it own merits.”10

On the surface he makes a moral plea, but underneath this stance of protest on the part of a system representative we see the cynical face of the new Russia imposing its harsh realities while at the same time telling us it is not right or moral, etc.

But Zizek will not stop there in his next letter he’ll tackle the liberal progressive critics for their attack on Pussy Riot for turning against Global Capitalism. He will then make his pointed attack plain, saying: “What makes Pussy Riot so disturbing for the liberal gaze is the way you reveal a hidden continuity between Stalinism and contemporary global capitalism.”

Zizek will take up the whole imposition of austerity across the Continent with its tendency to both destroy and dismantle the old social security systems and safety valves of the democratic processes, while allowing the elite and their banks to gain utter power over the populace through a sophistry of arguments that are at once moral seeming and in actuality Stalinist measures of total authoritarianism. He will go on saying that Pussy Riot symbolizes the truth, the spirit of our age in the Hegelian sense, embodying the critique that not only do the experts have no clue, but the ruling elite themselves are powerless to solve the world situation.

In her response to Zizek’s first letter she will reiterate her Nietzschean and youthful stance, saying, “we’re the children of Dionysus, floating by in a barrel, accepting nobody’s authority . We’re on the side of those who don’t offer final answers or transcendent truths. Our mission, rather, is the asking of questions (KL 407)”. Influenced by Heraclitus and Berdyaev Nadya will offer a vision of hope from the world of fire and transformation against aspects of Zizek’s more dialectical materialism. Berdyaev’s almost gnostic sense of a rebellion against the powers of the world in high places sings out of her letter. Of course Nikolai Berdyaev, a Russian Orthodox propounded his own Christian oriented vision of earthly revolt. In the letter she will quote him: “Christianity itself is to me the embodiment of the revolt against the world and its laws and fashions.” (KL 417)

Against the notion of experts having the answers to the dilemmas of the world  she says: “Cultural competence and sensitivity to the Zeitgeist don’t come with a college diploma or live in an administrator’s briefcase. You need to know which way to point the map” (KL 441). Against experts she offers 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. (KL 446)” Yet, she herself admits that she has no answers. The dilemmas between the experts and the innocents remains, and the only thing she hopes for is an almost salvatory vision of “Herod’s daughter” who may come, one bearing hope and truth, etc., saying those “who live their lives entirely within the gift economy, will always receive a miracle at the exact moment they need it” (KL 453).

In response to this letter Zizek will remember Trotsky’s dream of Lenin in which Lenin does not know that he is dead. For Zizek it has a two-fold meaning: on the one hand it aligns with the notion that we must slough off the old utopianism, let it die a final death; and, on the other, that what must remain alive in Leninism is not the utopian dream, but its Idea, what “Alain Badiou calls the “eternal Idea” of universal emancipation, the immortal striving for justice that no insult or catastrophe will manage to kill— Lenin lives wherever there are people who still fight for the same Idea.” (KL 478-480)

Zizek will argue that in our time it is the experts who have become the utopianists, who would keep things in stasis, bring the world under one rule, one law, one movement of power and logic: “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…” (KL 488) Zizek in a critique of her Nietzschean opposition of Dionysus/Apollo or Flux/Order invocation will remind her that it does not go enough, that what is needed is “not just to shake people out of their complacent inertia, but to change the very coordinates of social reality such that, when things return to normal, there will be a new, more satisfying “Apollonian equilibrium.” (KL 508)”

He will launch into his latest critique of “late capitalism”, using Brian Massumi’s idea of affective capitalism saying:

It’s no longer disciplinary institutional power that defines everything, it’s capitalism’s power to produce variety— because markets get saturated. Produce variety and you produce a niche market. The oddest of affective tendencies are okay— as long as they pay. Capitalism starts intensifying or diversifying affect, but only in order to extract surplus-value . It hijacks affect in order to intensify profit potential. It literally valorizes affect. The capitalist logic of surplus-value production starts to take over the relational field that is also the domain of political ecology, the ethical field of resistance to identity and predictable paths. 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.(KL 513)

Affective Economy as the mode of generating emotional investment in variety is at the heart of this new economy. The notion here is that one cannot subvert what has already internalized its own subversion as a permanent revolt, instead “late capitalism” defines itself now in normal terms of a carnivalized economy, “with its constant reversals, crises, and reinventions, such that it is now the critique of capitalism, from a “stable” ethical position, which increasingly appears as the exception” (KL 531).

Yet, Nadya in her response will agree that maybe their right, but that they forget the other side of the equation, the losers, the outcast and third-world slaves of this new economy:

…the logic of totalizing normality still has to continue its work in those places whose industrial bases are used to shore up everything dynamic, adaptable, and incipient in late capitalism. And here, in this other world hidden from view, the governing logic is one of absolutely rigid standards, of stability reinforced with steel. Erratic behavior is not tolerated from workers here; homogeneity and stagnation rule. No wonder authoritarian China has emerged as a world economic leader.(KL 565-569)

 She will take exception to Zizek’s “distrust of thinking that is posited within the frameworks of binary oppositions, and even insist on the use of such binaries as a heuristic— one that is situational and, when it must be, even burlesque” (KL 573). What is interesting next is that she will point out Zizek’s own male chauvinism, saying in response to his sympathy at her plight while he is in a privileged position of male power outside the situation: 

“Don’t waste your time worrying about giving in to theoretical fabrications while I supposedly suffer ‘empirical deprivations.’ ” (KL 594)

Zizek will apologize for this flaw in his character: “my sincere apologies for this proof of how deeply entrenched male chauvinism can be, especially when it is masked as sympathy for the other’s suffering, and let me go on with our dialogue” (KL 559).

In this letter he will contrast the two visions of Hardt/Negri – with their reliance on a Deleuzian/Guattari rhizomatic vision of “cognitive capitalism” as totally deterriolized and opening up a creativity that cannot be contained or mastered; against, Franco Berardi’s vision of doom and impotence, in which the only way out is to abandon the machine, the world of capitalism through small aggressive communities withdrawing from its system of economics. Zizek will comment:

Berardi, only withdrawal, passivity, and the abandonment of illusions can open up a new way: “Only self-reliant communities leaving the field of social competition can open a way to a new hope.” I, of course, do not follow him here, but I do share his skepticism about chaotic resistance. I am more and more convinced that what really matters is what happens the day after: can we convince the tired and manipulated crowds that we are not only ready to undermine the existing order, to engage in provocative acts of resistance, but are also able to offer the prospect of a new order? (KL 649-653)

In her next letter Nadya will respond to Zizek’s male chauvinist apology, and its inherent inability to address the differences in regional exceptions to the capitalist agenda with a question: “what are the acceptable limits of tolerance? When does it cease to be tolerance and become instead collaborationism, conformism, even criminal complicity?” (KL 702) Here she questions the U.S.A.’s complicity in dealing with Russian and China and overlooking its internal atrocities against its citizens or former satellites.  Against the notion of global capitalism in Left critiques she offers instead that they “set aside their colonial Eurocentrism and consider global capitalism in its entirety, encompassing all regional variants” (KL 720).

Countering this attack on universalism Zizek will say yes, yes, by all means we must fight in the diversity, yet we must not forget the Hegelian notion of totality which does not mean some false notion of organic whole, but is instead to realize it as a “critical notion— to “locate a phenomenon in its totality” does not mean to see the hidden harmony of the Whole, but to include in a system all its distortions (“ symptoms,” antagonisms, inconsistencies) as its integral parts. In other words, the Hegelian totality is by definition “self-contradictory,” antagonistic, inconsistent: the “Whole” which is the “True” (Hegel: “das Ganze is das Wahre”) is the Whole plus its symptoms, the unintended consequences which betray its untruth. (KL 753-757)” His point being that in dialectical materialism as he sees it “the Whole is never truly whole: every notion of the Whole leaves something out, and the dialectical effort is precisely the effort to include this excess, to account for it” (KL 759).

 Against the backdrop of global capitalism each country reacts in its own way, but the “general tendency of contemporary capitalism is towards further expansion of the reign of the market, combined with progressive enclosures of public space, sweeping cuts in public services, and a rising authoritarianism in the functioning of political power” (KL 781-783). The truth is that democracy in our time is failing everywhere not do to the economic system, but rather due to a failure to any longer believe in the elite experts and their monetary sponsors to actually fix things. Instead we are slowly waking up to the truth that without true leadership people follow not their desires but rather their animalistic habits. He will respond with his notions that instead we need a figure, a Master to call us out of our habits, engendering in us true desires for an emancipatory world. Yet, the temptation here is between the excess of the Master that leads to the false totalitarian world, or the one that inspires in people to take on the responsibility of living in a non-totalitarian world of conflict and negotiation.

Speaking of Nelson Mandela and his legacy as an example, he says:

We can also safely surmise that, on account of his undoubted moral and political greatness, he was at the end of his life aware of how his very political triumph and elevation into a universal hero was itself the mask of a bitter defeat. His universal glory is but a sign that he didn’t really disturb the global order of power— which certainly cannot be said of Pussy Riot. (KL 898-901).

In her next letter she admits she has finally been freed. She and her partners have also founded Zona Prava a new organization to promote and help prison inmates and to retrain the overseers (the wardens). She sees it as a commitment to those who have suffered in silence for too long, especially taking on the task of helping both her former inmates and all women in prison. She mentions the different uprisings in Russia (May 6th) and other issues and concerns surrounding the imprisonment of radicals, journalists, and all who speak the truth. Reading her one realizes that prison gave her a new opportunity and task, rather than closing off her mind it opened her eyes to a need, a new way to help locally her own people both politically and spiritually. One is reminded of activist Angela Davis in the States and her years of working for African-American rights in prisons and the issues surrounding this new form of apartheid within America, etc.  

In his final letter to Nadya on her freedom he will bring everything back to his point about the true idea of the universal: “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, we have sold our soul to the devil” (KL 1074).

Reading the short book was well worth the effort. Not much new in Zizek’s repeat of central ideas he’s gone over in his recent Less Than Nothing and Absolute Recoil. What was more important was the meeting of two minds sharing their diverse feminine and masculine struggles in dialogue. This sense that we must begin talking again to each other rather than critiquing is important. Without a sense of dialogue, of communication the world loses value. In this sense the Kantian tradition of critique is dead on arrival. What is needed now is people conversing and struggling together in concert across the planet. Politics must be taken back into the streets, into the local spaces of one’s life and realized in personal ways and tasks (as in Nadya’s creation of a intervention into prison systems, etc.). For Zizek the struggle of the commons against the empire of global capitalism starts and ends with the human face of its actors who need the right push to awaken out of their capitalist sleep.

1. Zizek, Slavoj; Tolokonnikova, Nadezhda (2014-09-30). Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj (Kindle Locations 50-54). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
2. ibid. (KL 173)
3. ibid. (KL 179)
4. ibid. (KL 198)
5. ibid. (KL 234)
6. ibid. (KL 294)
7. ibid. (KL 305)
8. ibid. (KL 325)
9. The Sublime Object of Ideology (London; New York: Verso, 1989), pp. 28-30.
10. (in Russian). Gazeta.ru. 2 November 2012. Archived from the original on 2 July 2013. Retrieved 2 July 2013
11. ibid. (KL 350)