13 August 2011

Pussy Riot: Translators’ Statements

These are statements from the translators of the Pussy Riot statements. Read the translations here.


I spent May and June this year in Moscow—I arrived just as the protests were re-energized by Putin’s third inauguration. I spent many hours talking to folks in their twenties, and a picture of an ascendant new generation of people who are well-informed, well-read, and not indifferent to the direction of their country started to emerge. The intensity of Moscow still fresh in my mind, I spent the eight days of the Pussy Riot trial getting up at dawn in a different timezone to read  live updates from the courtroom, realizing quickly that, just like the protests in Moscow earlier this summer, this was close to something that could be called history in the making. It felt important to pay attention—to the travesty of justice and to the steadfastness of the accused. Some of the defendants are the same age as the students of several courses on Russian culture that I will be teaching this year. It felt important to me as a teacher to make these texts available to my students—both as some of the most important cultural artifacts of today’s Russia, and as examples of civic engagement.

—Sasha Senderovich


Beyond the translated page is the stern voice of Judge Marina Syrova, who reminds the audience not to applaud the defendants, for, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are not at the theater.” The press has often made use of formulas like “courtroom drama” and “show trial” to describe the ongoing proceedings against Pussy Riot, but it was not until August 8, 2012, the day that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevitch delivered their closing statements, that one began to sense that we were witnessing the penultimate act of a full-blown romantic tragedy. Pussy Riot is a performance art collective and their latest “action” is above all a brilliant performance. The women’s wide-ranging, erudite, impassioned speeches—with their urgent calls for truth, justice and freedom—evoke a recognizable tradition of idealistic, civic-minded dramatic heroes, who, through their defiant words and deeds, demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice everything in order to prove their inner freedom in the face of “so-called” necessity.

—Maksim Hanukai


We translated Katya’s statement first (if no one had come forth to translate the other women’s statements, we would have tackled those as well) because we felt hers was the most to the point. That is, she explained extremely lucidly and even a bit coldly (in the best sense of the word) why Pussy Riot did what they did and the context in which they did it. This lucidity is all the more remarkable given the conditions of extreme duress in which she composed and delivered the speech.

We also translated it because we thought Katya had been unnecessarily eclipsed, quite unintentionally, by the other women in coverage of the case. On the other hand, we had just translated and posted interviews with Masha and Nadya, and were planning to translate a short interview with Katya (published in the Russian weekly The New Times), but then the trial ended abruptly and it seemed more pressing to give Katya a voice in English. 

The trial was a lousy, impudent farce, of course, but as people more or less deeply involved in this stuff on one level or another for the past decade, we have found it slightly bewildering (in a good way) that this case garners so much attention abroad. (This attention has also been borne out by the stellar numbers of people reading our recent Pussy Riot postings on our blog, especially Katya’s speech, in the days since the trial ended.) We understand why it’s so appealing and appalling, of course, but for us it has been just as important to be involved, for example, with the campaign to free the so-called Khimki hostages, a couple years ago, a case which was similar in some ways to the Pussy Riot case. More to the point, though, Pussy Riot’s actions and the state’s prosecution of them only really make sense within this context of hundreds of thousand of grassroots activists all over the country involved in what amounts to an increasingly reactionary regime’s “cold civil war” against them and Russian society as a whole.

—Chto Delat


I have been visiting Russia fairly regularly since August 1996, when I went to Moscow for a few weeks to see my mother, who had taken a job there not long before. That first trip was, I realize as I write this, 16 years ago this month. Since I am now 32, this means that I have been going to Russia for half of my life and that, though I have no blood ties to the place, I have become an adult with Russia on the brain. Yet I always retained a sense of detachment from the place. I loved Russian literature, I was fascinated by Soviet history, I had a number of Russian friends, I had spent years learning Russian, but I always felt a bit disembodied when on Russian soil, however kind individual people might be to me. 

For a long time I thought this was because I was a foreigner, and a shy one at that. I would never feel at ease in Russia unless I moved there for good, unless my Russian became indistinguishable from a native speaker’s, unless my nature changed. And while all these factors did contribute to my unease, I think there was something else at play too. I think I was holding back from investing too much because the main sense I got, for years, from a wide range of people, was that it wasn’t worth it, since civil society did not exist, public spaces were not really public, and idealism was dead. The message I kept receiving was that it was best to keep to oneself and one’s own, to build an island and protect it. 

Everything changed for me when I was in Moscow last fall. I happened to be in the city when Putin and Medvedev announced their trade-off plan for the presidency, when the parliamentary election violations were documented by individual citizens, and when collective frustration spilled out onto the streets and thousands and thousands of people—myself included—gathered at Bolotnaya Square. 

I was also in Moscow when Pussy Riot formed, though I must admit that I was only vaguely aware of what they were up to when I returned to the US at the end of December. It was only this spring, when three of their members were arrested after their “punk prayer,” that I began to actively follow their actions via Twitter, Facebook, and various online news sources. I was impressed with everything I saw from Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Ekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina during the trial (not least Alyokhina’s repeated insistence, when asked whether she understood the charges against her, that she did not understand their ideological context). But it was their closing statements that really bowled me over. Instead of just stating the obvious, that the trial was absurd and that they were on the side of reason (however offensive their original “prayer” was to some), they delivered impassioned, philosophically rigorous, and coherent statements about the Russian media landscape, about the co-opting of the Christ the Savior Cathedral as a political stage, about the manipulation of the Christian value of humility, about the need for individuals to think of themselves as citizens, about the role of contemporary art, about the dangers of conformity. And all this was coming on top of all the questions they had already raised (globally) about feminism, punk rock, the limits of public space, the role of cultural forces in political change. 

These statements are inspiring to me as a Russia-watcher; they prove that the last nine months of protesting have not been for naught. But I should also add that to me as a person, as a woman, as someone who believes in critical thought and the power of ideas, these statements are acts of heroism.

—Katharine Holt


Courage is exhilarating, and contagious. Moscow, St. Petersburg seem transformed to me—the events of the past year have showed a civic society in the making, the emergence of an unexpectedly idealistic and admirable younger generation of artists and activists, an intelligentsia re-examining socialist legacies with fresh and open eyes. I am seized by a sudden and savage hope—for Russia, for Eastern Europe, for the future, for my own soul.

We collaborated on these translations—we put together a team of young writers, academics and translators almost instantly by texting each other to go on Facebook, checking which statements had not been translated through Twitter, correcting the transcript against video clips on YouTube. We self-organized into translators and editors, and produced clean copy within a matter of hours. It was a joy to do.

—Marijeta Bozovic


The Pussy Riot trial has been the talk of Russian and world news for months now. I follow the course of events with mixed feelings: the development of a spectacular, shamelessly oversimplified media sensation on the global scale, on the one hand, and on the other hand the massively frustrating and tragic absurdity of the public response and show-trial in Russia, make for a queasy combination of embarrassment and despair. So when I read the closing statements of the three defendants I felt sudden relief and admiration—these are well-articulated, candid, and honest expressions that cut through both the Western media’s flash-in-the-pan canonization and the official Russian media’s draconian persecution campaign. What is more, the girls are flipping the system: making use of their unnecessary and undue celebrity, they take aim at problems that plague far more than just the current Russian government and make a call to certain basic values that we should all heed. 

—Ainsley Morse


Fr. Andrey Kurayev, professor at the Moscow Theological Academy, called Pussy Riot “three little pigs”; they have been transformed into martyrs, he went on, because Russian society has undue sympathy for “those who suffer.” To this we can only respond that in the last century, Russia lost millions of its citizens; there is a building called Lubyanka, in which numberless prisoners were tortured and shot, which still stands proudly and securely in the middle of Moscow, right next to the city’s best shopping centers. If we, Russians and non-Russians alike, have undue sympathy for the suffering, we also know how to overlook the wounds that fester; we have learned how to live with fear that makes us unable to speak out, that humiliates each and every one of us, that makes us carry the memory of terror in our very blood.

The members of Pussy Riot claim for themselves the right of holy fools (yurodivye) to speak the truth and, as a result, are on the verge of being swallowed by the machine of the State and the lofty indifference of the High Priests. They are not the first to be purged and eradicated. And yet they speak out at their trial with courage and wisdom to remind the world that we do not yet know all there is to know about the defeat of truth seekers, for “blessed are the ones who thirst for righteousness.”

Nikolai Berdyaev, the Russian philosopher, said that the Russian state tended to kill Russian culture and Russian life; its imperial might again and again eradicated voices of conscience. These voices, however, do not disappear. Russian history makes us remember that conscience is rarely welcomed and easily digestible; rather it is embarrassing and inconvenient, but it rings out clear as a bell.

—Elena Glazov-Corrigan and Maria Corrigan

Image: Image courtesy of pitchfork.com.

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