World Cup 2018: The Moral Clarity of Pussy Riot’s Protest

Sport

On Sunday, in the fifty-second minute of the final game of the World Cup, four women dressed in Russian-police uniforms charged the field, briefly disrupting the match. They were members of the Russian protest-art group Pussy Riot.

Pussy Riot is often misidentified as a punk group, which is, in fact, only one of its many guises. The group, which was founded in 2011, is an open-membership collective that stages actions, documents them on video, and provides textual statements intended as clear and accessible explanations of their intentions and demands. The group’s best-known action was what it called a “punk prayer,” in which a group of women attempted to sing a political prayer of their own making inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, in Moscow, in the leadup to Russia’s 2012 Presidential election. The performance was meant to protest the country’s symbiosis of church and state. As a result, two of the group’s founding members served twenty-two months in prison.

Pussy Riot released a statement, on Twitter, that claimed responsibility for the World Cup action. It also cited the Russian poet, artist, and performer Dmitri Aleksandrovich Prigov. Tomorrow will mark eleven years since his death. One of Prigov’s iconic creations, present in his poetry and performances, was the image of an ideal policeman, a just and ultimate authority that Pussy Riot’s statement dubbed the Heavenly Policeman. In contrast to the Heavenly Policeman, the statement suggested, stands the earthly policeman. “The Heavenly Policeman will protect a baby in her sleep, while the earthly policeman persecutes political prisoners and jails people for sharing and liking posts on social media.” (I am providing my own translation from the Russian original.)

The message is not intended to be subtle. In Putin’s Russia, dozens of people are behind bars for political crimes—which do in fact include social-media behavior such as “liking” and “sharing.” Unlike the 2014 Olympics, in Sochi, where Pussy Riot also protested, the World Cup has occasioned little criticism or reflection by Western politicians or media. It has proceeded undisturbed, as though a Heavenly Policeman were guarding its dreamlike state. For Russians, whose cities have filled with crowds of foreign soccer fans over the past few weeks, it has also provided a vision of a different life, one of a country integrated into a big and friendly world. “The World Cup has reminded us of the possibility of a Heavenly Policeman in a wonderful Russia of the future,” the Pussy Riot statement said. “But the earthly policeman, who intervenes in the game every day and knows no rules, is destroying our world.”

The four women, by taking the field, demonstrated exactly how that happens: the beautiful world of sport has its bubble punctured by people running and flailing haphazardly, intent on destruction. The group’s statement concluded with a list of demands:

1. Free all political prisoners.

2. Stop jailing people for social-media “likes.”

3. Stop illegal arrests at protests.

4. Allow political competition.

5. Stop fabricating criminal cases and putting people in jail for no reason.

6. Turn the earthly policeman into a Heavenly Policeman.

And so Pussy Riot became the only people to make a meaningful statement about Russian politics during the World Cup—and it came on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s triumphant meeting with Donald Trump. They also created, on one of the biggest stages in the world, an image of unjust and arbitrary authority, the sort with which a hundred and forty-five million Russians live day to day.