Beating the Bounds: Pussy Riot and Orthodox Pirate Practice

by , under Arts, Politics

Been meaning to write something on Pussy Riot for a while now. I’ve been reflecting on how their protest resonates with the ancient practice of ‘beating the bounds.’

Traditionally, each year, members of a parish would march around the parish boundary, often singing hymns and songs. The ritual served two purposes. Firstly, it passed on from generation to generation the sense of place – the extent of the lands that were held by the people of that parish. Secondly, it was an annual clearance of any fences that landlords may have erected to block access to common land. The people of the parish would walk and smash down these fences, thus restoring access to the places that had been ‘blocked’ and taken into private ownership. This is something I explore in some depth in Mutiny!.

As The Guardian reported at the time, Pussy Riot are part of a wider movement of punk bands who have emerged from repressive states in different parts of the world, from Burma to Russia to Indonesia. In their music and their aesthetic, what these bands – as all punk bands have done – are doing is a version of ‘beating the bounds.’ Not so much staking out the extent of their musical space, punk music is a way of clearing the ground, of smashing down things that have been put in the way of people being able to pick up instruments and play what they like. Punk is a backlash, a razing to the ground of commercial, manufactured music.

What’s interesting about Pussy Riot’s protest is that it took place in one Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral. There are a number of dimensions to this. Most obviously, they were directing part of their protest at Kirill 1 of Moscow, a Russian Orthodox bishop who hailed the Putin era as a ‘miracle of God.‘ With the controversy surrounding his re-election as president, Pussy Riot were pointing out the fact that there has been little miraculous in his work, and quite a lot that is darker than that.

But secondly, the fact that they protested at an altar in the cathedral is very important. This is the place in the church where only the ordained priests may go. It is the holy place. It is, in other words, a bounded, enclosed space. By ‘rioting’ there, Pussy Riot have taken ‘beating the bounds’ right to the heart of the parish – to the enclosed space that no one dared mention: the church itself.

This is the glaring omission from every parochial ritual of ‘beating the bounds’ – the most enclosed space in the parish was not the fields taken out of common ownership, but the parish church itself, which excluded and controlled, and built enormous boundaries in every community.

So the Pussy Riot case takes us right to the heart of religion and politics – and further into the enclosures of belief and the closing down of the ‘self.’ Again, this is something I explore in some depth towards the end of Mutiny! – how we need to continue to ‘beat the bounds’ not just in terms of the physical commons, but in terms of the enclosing structures of religion too.

It was a very brave act, for which they are likely to pay dearly – especially as their trial has been so unjustly run, with enormous bias towards the prosecution. I’m not sure how much Madonna will add to their cause, but do lobby for their release – because you are lobbying for the right to express yourself freely, whichever nation you are from.


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  1. Jeff Gill

    Are you aware of anyone in the UK who is making music now who is trying to do some unblocking? The only music artist I can think of is Plan B. Maybe he could perform Ill Manors in St Paul’s?

  2. KB

    To be honest, I’m not. But that’s not to say that there aren’t people doing things. I do think we’re due for another ‘punk’ era in a way – we need a bit of a clear out of some of the commercial dead wood that’s grown around the whole X-Factor thing.

  3. Shane Nelson

    Hey Kester,

    Big fan of Signs of Emergence and Other…and have a question about using your “Other” book title for a school theme / yearbook at our school in Prince George, BC, Canada. Can’t find a way to contact you via email…so hope it is OK to use the comment section this time round. Would love to chat with you sometime…

    Thanks,

    Shane Nelson
    High School Vice Principal, Cedars Christian School