Show Trials and Sympathy

Photo by cactusbones via Flickr.

Last week, a new documentary about Pussy Riot aired on HBO. Two anonymous Pussy Riot members attended the premiere in New York, bumping shoulders with Salman Rushdie and Patti Smith but skipping the “Riotinis” at the Russian-themed SoHo afterparty. One year after the trial, the world is still on a first name basis with Nadya Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina, and Katya Samutsevich, the “Pussy Riot girls,” the ones who got caught.

The Pussy Riot trial was only the first in a string of pseudo-legal proceedings meant to punish the opposition and teach the public a lesson, but it’s still the one that’s made the biggest splash abroad. The prosecutions of Aleksei Navalny, one of the Russian opposition’s strongest leaders, and of twenty-seven people arrested in connection with the political demonstrations on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square have been equally absurd, hollow, and unfair. But they haven’t become pop culture phenomena in the way the Pussy Riot trial did; they don’t have the same simple hook or punk rock appeal.

Any trial that exists only to justify punishment is a kind of “show trial,” a performance rather than a judgment. Such trials have a long history in Russia. In the 19th century, Russia’s greatest lexicographer recorded proverbs and sayings that included, “Where there’s a court, there is falsehood,” and “Go before God with the truth, but before the courts with money.” Show trials come in many flavors, though Stalin’s are the ones we remember best. The stakes in the recent trials have been far lower than those in Stalinist trials: fortunately, no one was ever at risk of being shot. Putin doesn’t have Stalin’s iron grip, and in all of the politically motivated trials of the last year there have been plenty of loud, dissenting voices, both inside and outside the courtroom. In fact, these modern show trials have more in common with the lesser-known trials of the Brezhnev era and late imperial Russia, periods that saw authoritarian governments losing control of their narrative, upstaged by another, more compelling show—the defense.

In a show trial without a forced confession, the prosecution often makes its case by distorting the defendant’s words or actions, stripping away context and ambiguity, replacing facts with empty rhetoric. During the Pussy Riot trial, the prosecution and its Orthodox allies cited (or misrepresented) select aspects of the church performance, while ignoring the event as a whole. They cited the Bible, although, as Alyokhina pointed out, when read in context the quotations contradicted their message. Media reports of the trial didn’t offer much context, either. There was outrage at the injustices committed against Pussy Riot, but little consideration for similar injustices committed against others in Russia, America, and elsewhere. What can we learn by looking at the Pussy Riot trial in the context of other show trials? What happens when we look at our response in the context of unjust punishment at home, as well as abroad?

Bailiffs and Jesters

The Pussy Riot affair spilled out of the cathedral, out of the courthouse, out of Russia. Like any good piece of postmodern performance art, it worked on many levels, and demanded audience participation. The women staged their performance in a cathedral built in the 19th century, blown up by Stalin in 1931, and replaced by a public swimming pool, a symbol of the Soviet abolishment of religion. In the 1990s the cathedral was rebuilt, a symbol of the resurrection of the Russian Orthodox Church. Today the gaudy building symbolizes the union of church, state, and big money: this is why Pussy Riot chose it. The performance took place on the first day of Maslenitsa, once a carnival period during which mockery of church authorities and other forms of indecent behavior were permitted. By covering their faces and wearing motley costumes, Pussy Riot evoked the skomorokhi, medieval jesters who sang, danced, and spoke truth to power. Skomorokhi were often accused of being irreverent or even diabolical, but they were tolerated for centuries.

The frequent laughter in the courtroom made the trial seem even more like a carnival, a farce. Elena Kostyuchenko, a Russian journalist, reported, “Pussy Riot lyrics are read to the court to general stifled laughter. The prosecutor puts a balaclava on his hand. The bailiffs scream with laughter and drag out a journalist who dares to smile.” The defendants laughed, their lawyers laughed, the journalists laughed. Even Alyokhina’s mother laughed. The judge was the only one who didn’t see the joke.

“Is this funny to you?” she shouted.

“No, it’s quite sad,” Alyokhina answered, struggling not to laugh.

The indictment was made on Forgiveness Sunday, an Orthodox holiday. As Tolokonnikova’s husband, Pyotr Verzilov, remarked, “The people in the Kremlin are obviously given to small acts of theatricality.”

Trials in Utopia

The role of the court=terror+socialization. (Lenin, 1918)

In a revolutionary society, everything and everyone is on trial. In the early stages of utopia, the whole world is subject to evaluation and renovation, elimination or glorification. Trials were important in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution; they were even more important in the years that followed.

When Russia adopted jury trials in 1864, they were an instant sensation. Turgenev and Dostoevsky, among others, followed the trials with avid interest, venturing out in the middle of the night in search of news. (This was the nineteenth-century equivalent of checking Twitter at 3 AM.) Many hoped that open trials would bring a new kind of justice to Russia. There was still little chance of acquittal, but at last, at least, the opposition could be heard. Brave defendants who spoke out became martyrs in the eyes of the public; defense lawyers received standing ovations. Rather than making legal arguments, defendants and their lawyers offered passionate indictments of the tsarist order, justifying themselves on moral, philosophical, and historical grounds. Their statements were recorded by journalists and printed in the newspapers, which had new freedom in what they could publish. Plekhanov, Lenin’s mentor, wrote that the trials were “the great historical drama which is called the trial of the government by the people.”

Soviet “agitation trials” (also called “show trials” and “educational trials”) of the 1920s were not judicial proceedings but plays, printed and distributed by the government and staged by workers’ clubs. They were intended to encourage enthusiastic participation in the Bolshevik cause. In Performing Justice: Agitation Trials in Early Soviet Russia, Elizabeth A. Wood explains that those put on “trial” included Lenin, the Red Army, “Citizen Kisilev who infected his wife with gonorrhea, resulting in her suicide,” smut fungus, prefabricated reinforced concrete, literary characters, and cows that wandered into other people’s fields. Crimes included resistance to three-field agriculture, soiling library books with lard, and not building fences to keep one’s pig at home. In the beginning, every defendant pled innocent; a guilty plea would have spoiled the drama.

Agitation trials weren’t about the law; they were about teaching revolutionary consciousness and instilling a sense of morality and social responsibility. Sometimes they were rituals of vindication, proving the righteousness of those persecuted by the tsarist regime, and of those who offered a fair trial at last (even if the trial was just a play). Sometimes they were rituals of correction, documenting social transgressions and eliciting the sincere repentance of the guilty party. The trials rallied audiences around common enemies, taught them how to distinguish a victim from a villain, urged them to empathize with the good and condemn the bad. During the Civil War, soldiers staged The Trial of Jewry in response to anti-Semitism in the army. Jews played anti-Semites, and Christians spoke in their defense; Jews were found to be innocent, and not deserving of pogroms. Empathy is defined as “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation”; it has much in common with good acting.

The Soviet trials blurred the line between life and theater to an extraordinary degree. Mock trials were often advertised in a way that gave the impression that they were real, and mock trials and real trials were put on in the same halls, telling the same stories. Actors were placed in the audience to hiss and boo during agitation trials; real-life show trials employed a similar tactic in order to persuade the public of a defendant’s guilt. By the 1930s, audiences had learned to take part in the show, joining eagerly in the condemnation of defendants. Agitation trials and “real” show trials alike gave a face to the enemy, showing the character, in the literary sense, of threats to the Soviet Union. As Wood writes, “Lenin and the top Bolshevik leadership recognized from the beginning of their rule that political propaganda had to be made concrete, enemies had to have known faces, and people had to be engaged at the level of their daily lives.” In the early 1920s, army instructions on agitation trials said that the aim was to “take possession of the mood of the audience,” thereby inculcating them with revolutionary ideas.

While early Soviet agitation trials often ended in acquittals, by the 1930s every defendant was found guilty, regardless of whether the trial was real or imaginary. Defense attorneys no longer attempted to defend their clients, but only asked for mercy. A “show trial” came to mean not an educational play, but a public ritual of condemnation and confession, filmed under bright lights and edited for mass consumption. With Stalin in the producer’s chair, there was little room for impassioned statements by defendants, as in the pre-revolutionary trials. Now the focus was on guilt, and on unmasking enemies in unexpected places. As the historian William Chase puts it, the goal was to construct “a serious and credible threat so as to fan and direct society’s fears,” and divert blame for the very real failures and crimes of the government itself. Because personality, intentions, and motives were more important than evidence, biography and narrative played a central role. Defendants were required to give long accounts of their life stories, explaining how and why they had come to betray the Soviet cause. They charted their own character development and explained their motivations. The climax was the betrayal; the resolution was the confession, the plea for forgiveness. The trials were written like melodramas. When the curtain fell, defendants were led offstage and shot.

Still, even Stalin’s trials didn’t always go smoothly. Some defendants refused to play along, speaking out instead. Even those who confessed weren’t always convincing: if nothing else, it was too obvious that they had been tortured. As Eugene Lyons, an American journalist and once-ardent Communist who lived in Russia in the 1930s, wrote of the defendants in the Shakhty trial, “On the whole they made a sorry picture. Only by a violent stretch of the imagination could one cast these groveling men in heroic roles, either as martyrs or as great conspirators.” The evidence was so unconvincing as to be absurd. And even in a carefully scripted trial, it was sometimes hard to keep up the dramatic momentum. Lyons observed, “Some days, indeed, the Soviet press did not find it easy to maintain the atmosphere of epic villainy unmasked and its reports sagged to anticlimax.”

But these problems were resolved in the editing room; total state control of the media meant that no embarrassing outtakes would reach the public. Even foreign journalists were vigilant in their self-censorship. Lyons filed a string of mendacious reports on the trials, both because he still believed in the revolution and because he knew that he would lose his post if he told the truth. It was only much later, after he had renounced Communism, that he published an honest account.

Witches in Context

The Pussy Riot defendants never disputed their participation in the cathedral performance. The key issues in the trial were therefore affect, motive, and remorse. Were Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich motivated by religious hatred, as the prosecution asserted? Were they really, truly sorry? As in Soviet show trials, as in the proceedings against Navalny and the Bolotnaya group, neither fact nor law took center stage. What was most important was character, sincerity, emotion.

The word blasphemy appeared throughout the Pussy Riot trial, though blasphemy was not then illegal in Russia. (Russia’s parliament recently passed a law against “offending religious feeling.”) Rather than simply arguing that you can’t be prosecuted for blasphemy in a secular state, the Pussy Riot defendants used the accusation to elaborate their portrayal of themselves as martyrs. Never one to shy away from a Christ comparison, Tolokonnikova said in a letter from prison, “Jesus Christ was accused of blasphemy. If Article 213 [on hooliganism] had existed two thousand years ago, Christ would have been charged under it.” In her closing statement, she said,

We reached our hands out to the people who, for some reason, consider us their enemies, and they spat into our open hands. “You are not sincere,” they told us. We spoke sincerely, as we always do. We were unbelievably childlike, naïve in our truth.

Yet causing offense, and thereby attracting the attention of the mass media, seems to have been a primary goal of the performance. The “blasphemy” is part of the message, fitting perfectly with the idea that the Church has been corrupted by politics.

The defendants were accused not only of blasphemy, but of witchcraft; not only of insincerity, but of demonic possession.

One witness testified, “Those who are possessed can exhibit different behaviors. They can scream, beat their heads against the floor, jump up and down…”

“Do they dance?” the defense asked.

“Well, no,” the witness replied.

“Stop questioning him about those who are possessed,” the judge interrupted. “[He] is not a medical professional and is not qualified to make a diagnosis.”

Another witness testified, “This was not a performance. It was a witches’ ritual…I do not accept their apology. It is insincere and intended for the court. A sincere apology would mean admitting responsibility for the schism, donning fetters, and joining a convent.”

With its emphasis on blasphemy and “unclean spirits,” the Pussy Riot trial recalled an earlier show trial: that of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, writers prosecuted in 1966 for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” voiced by their fictional characters. Sinyavsky and Daniel were called shapeshifters and vampires, accused of defaming Russia’s people, literature, history, and ideals—in short, of committing cultural blasphemy. Breaking with the tradition of previous decades, Sinyavsky and Daniel refused to recant. Their trial was a cultural milestone, an emblem of the growing animosity between the stagnant Brezhnev regime and the restive cultural elite. The defendants’ wives made secret transcripts of the trial and smuggled them abroad, where they were published. The authorities were deluged with messages of support and protest from within Russia and from the West; the trial was widely discussed in the international press, and there were demonstrations in Moscow’s Pushkin Square.

The Real Martyrs

Trials teach us who to fear and who to pity. By putting Pussy Riot on trial, Putin taught his supporters, the “simple people,” that the “creative class,” the urban, well-educated, artistically inclined elite that comprises much of the political opposition, was just a bunch of Foucault-quoting radical feminist witches. He taught his enemies that he had no compunctions about locking up nonviolent protesters, even in the face of international outcry. He taught the world to feel sorry for Russian protesters and prisoners—at least, for the pretty, famous, cool ones.

The Pussy Riot affair became the biggest event in Russia in 2012, at least as far as the international media was concerned. Pussy Riot members presented themselves (at least, during the trial) as a feminist punk band, giving Westerners an easy, prefab narrative of dissident artists oppressed by an authoritarian state. The fact that Pussy Riot only performed in the context of political actions and had a minimal focus on music was widely overlooked. Their outspoken feminist stances made them popular among many; that they were anarchists was largely ignored. “Free Pussy Riot” T-shirts and other paraphernalia were sold around the world. By fall 2012, the value of the Pussy Riot “brand” was estimated at $1 million. Alicia Silverstone wrote to Putin, asking him to provide the prisoners with vegan meals.

“Pussy Riot is in the Gulag. It’s crazy! It’s a labor camp!” some guy said to me at a bar in Brooklyn a few months ago. To hear him talk, you’d think he’d never imagined prison, pre–Pussy Riot. “Labor camp” sounds so authoritarian, so retrograde and scary (and it is), but in truth almost all prisons are “labor camps.” In most countries of the world, forced labor is a central feature of imprisonment, and sometimes its very purpose.

Pussy Riot’s Western supporters protested the injustices visited on the women: a long stay in pre-trial detention; a sentence grossly disproportionate to the crime; separation from young children; cruel limits on sleep, food, and drink; menial labor; a lack of reading material. Few paused to consider that the same conditions prevail in their own countries—and that for many prisoners, conditions are far worse. In the United States, the country with the world’s highest prison population rate (followed closely by Russia), prisoners work for between 93 cents and $5 a day, if they’re paid at all. About 20 percent of people incarcerated in the US are in pre-trial detention. Anonymous, unfamous women prisoners in America, among other places, are regularly subjected to inhuman treatment. Consider this excerpt from “Women and Prison: A Site for Resistance”:

In the Collier County Jail in Florida, Joan S. repeatedly sought medical attention because she was near her due date and leaking amniotic fluid; this went on for almost two weeks. By the time she got an ultrasound, the doctor informed her that all of her amniotic fluid was gone and her fetus’s skull had collapsed. Jail officials then delayed taking her to the hospital, putting her at risk for septic shock.

But the Gulag is an image firmly imprinted on our American brains. It’s easy to imagine—exciting, even, especially since it’s so far away. The details aren’t important.

In March, I saw a performance about Pussy Riot by a Russian “documentary theater” company. We watched the familiar clips of the performance, the trial, the reaction. Slowly, deliberately, a journalist recounted her conversation with Tolokonnikova in prison. She did her best to work us into a frenzy of sympathy. “What were you doing before I called you, Nadya?” Nadya had been slaving, ruining her poor hands. She had to sew on an old, defective machine that might prick her and infect her with HIV, since, we were told, HIV-positive inmates weren’t even separated from other prisoners. Masha hardly ever got to shampoo her hair. We were shown pictures of the battered, menacing faces of two of Nadya’s fellow prisoners. (In November, Alyokhina asked for solitary confinement due to “strained relations” with other prisoners. Given that she has said things about her cellmates like “despite my encouraging quotes from Foucault, Nina doesn’t believe in change,” it’s easy to guess why she might have been unpopular.)

In fact, by Russian standards, the Pussy Riot women seem to have been treated relatively well in prison. Their lawyer said that torture doesn’t happen anymore in Russia, but that’s not true. Torture happens all the time—just not to international celebrities. For many Russian prisoners, a prison term isn’t just degrading and traumatic, it’s a death sentence. Russian prisoners die of tuberculosis, AIDS, all manner of illnesses and violence. The Pussy Riot women have access to money to pay for extra clothes, food, and medicine. Perhaps most importantly, they have the comfort of knowing that the world is watching. Most prisoners do not.

In 2009, an AIDS activist and outreach worker named Kostya Proletarsky died in St. Petersburg. He had struggled with addiction for a long time, and served several years in a prison just south of the Arctic Circle. Here is an excerpt from an interview he gave shortly before his death due to long-term lack of medical care:

After you arrive in the colony, they break you down psychologically, morally. It was a room half the size of my ward—very small. They packed twenty people in there and poured thirty liters of bleach with ammonia and hot water onto the ward. I looked down and I could see the fumes coming up from the wooden floor. You couldn’t see further than half a meter – the bleach was in the air. And people started suffocating right away. Some fainted and fell down. Panicking, they knocked the door out, together with a piece of the wall. The gas is so strong that you come close to fainting. It burns your eyes, you can’t breathe, foam comes out of your stomach. It’s like everything is being dissolved, like being eaten…

Sympathy isn’t a zero-sum game. But remembering Kostya Proletarsky, I can’t get quite so exercised about Masha not being able to wash her hair.

Pussy Riot has provoked a wide range of reactions worldwide: admiration and loathing, and also pity for the suffering they’ve endured at the hands of the authorities. But is pity the right emotion in such a situation? The women themselves don’t seem to want it. In an interview from prison, Tolokonnikova said,

At age fourteen I decided that I would not regret my life, I would spend it. From that moment I never experienced fear as such, and when I was sent to prison, I wasn’t afraid, regardless of the fact that it was unexpected . . . I trust God, I trust fate, and I believe that it will take me on the right path.

The founder of Amnesty International once said, in private, “it matters more to harness the enthusiasm of the helpers than to bring people out of prison. With regard to the latter, as a friend pointed out to me, the real martyrs prefer to suffer, and, as I would add, the real saints are no worse off in prison than elsewhere on this earth, for they cannot be prevented by stone or bars from spiritual conversation.” Should we save our pity for those who end up in prison unintentionally, for those who never even get a trial, for all the victims whose faces and names we never know?

As the historian Mark Galeotti argued recently, the Putin administration creates a spectacle of government that takes the place of public participation in politics. This is why Putin makes such a show of disciplining his underlings and prosecuting his enemies, and why he does things like fly with cranes and fight with bears. Spectacles capture our mood and divert our attention. Sometimes we expend so much energy on personal sympathy that little is left to analyze the fundamental problems that have led to the latest outrage. Systemic problems are hard to understand and almost impossible to solve—but does that mean we should give up? The human rights movement took off when people lost hope in utopia and resigned themselves to a defensive stance, focusing on individuals. But by substituting sympathy for criticism, we risk becoming audience members instead of actors—or playwrights.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author