Pussy Riot: Cypriot dimensions?

Initially published in The Cyprus Dossier (2012, August 28) and lost in the website’s renovation in early 2014.
Version with images here.

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Soon after the Pussy Riot case ruling came out on August 17th, images began to circulate online of the Liberty Monument of Cyprus with the Pussy Riot balaclavas covering the faces of the statues. I received messages about this from friends who know of my work on Cypriot commemoration, along with the suggestion that this is something I should write about. Although this intervention/make-over as well as the Pussy Riot case are certainly interesting, what I found most compelling was the fact that others thought this occasion to be significant and worthy of analysis in itself. This is something that monuments and their related rituals are usually great at: having the character of poignancy without being very articulate about it. Here is a reading into this one, for those inclined to find meaning in the exercise.

The Liberty Monument belongs to a category of monuments that carry a lot of uncertainty or indeterminacy, perhaps for reasons that involve its complex form and the fact that it was designed in 1959, not to represent a generic ideal, but something specific that would soon prove problematic when EOKA B and the Greek junta turned against Makarios. It could be said, rather fancifully, that this is a monument designed for enosis, built for independence, and named after Liberty. It was left incomplete in the midst of constitutional failure, targeted and damaged by those attacking the Archiepiscopal Palace during the coup d’état, promised to be unveiled ‘when freedom is restored’ in the aftermath of the events of 1974, and later legally ‘recognised’ as the monument of the EOKA struggle by the Parliament, to honour ex-fighters in response to and instead of meeting demands for their material compensation.[1]

There are those who have a stake in upholding a particular interpretation of what this monument may represent and who are ready to find offence at its use for things they see as incompatible with that interpretation.[2] Yet, considering the monument’s complexity, the numerous misunderstandings around it and the fact that it is actually unfinished, it is rather difficult to trace within its history a specific ideological viewpoint it may stand for, or any sort of meaningful consensus within the Cypriot population it may have been the product of. Nor does it appear to have been a regular ritual location since its installation. From the historian’s perspective this can only be seen as an object, a structure, the type of which modern regimes have been in the habit of producing–in Cyprus rather spasmodically–and a type of ideological apparatus that invariably accepts instrumentalisation (or accessorisation?) for different purposes at different times.

Speaking of uncanny use of cloth, a dominant take on the Liberty Monument was given in Michael Cacoyannis’s Attilas ’74 (1975; also listed as Attila 74: The Rape of Cyprus). The bronze figures were filmed wrapped in worn and torn flowing white fabric to illustrate Makarios’s words about the postponement of the unveiling. Cacoyannis’s portrayal obscured the fact that the monument had been (and still is) incomplete even though Makarios claimed it had been ready to be unveiled before the coup.[3] In the same film Cacoyannis took further [L]iberty in featuring the monument in a series of shots where stills of its half-veiled bronze figures rapidly alternate with live portraits of people, with emphasis on grieving mothers, producing a decisively sensational and oddly typological account of mass Greek Cypriot grief after the events of 1974.

Looked at closely some of Cacoyannis’s shots of the bronze figures seem to betray that the cameraman had been trying to capture the bullet holes on some of their foreheads. Perhaps the holes didn’t show well enough on film, or perhaps they complicated Cacoyanni’s narrative, and so they were never mentioned. But the fact that the monument was damaged during the coup has been increasingly emphasised in recent years. Reference to the damage is not part of any official account about the monument (not that there is such a thing, apart from what can be read on the plaques) but tour guides may, indeed, point the bullet holes out to tourists depending on whether they are inclined to leave the air-conditioned bus on a hot day. Notably, social anthropologist Yiannis Papadakis has made reference to the damage in his academic city tours, discussing how Cypriot nationalist ideologies become inscribed in city landscapes, and how monuments (the instruments of these ideologies) are not immune to the violence to which these ideologies give rise.[4]

There have been other uses for the monument. It has been referred to in a number of artworks,[5] and it has served as the backdrop for a fashion photo-shoot.[6] It has also been chosen by graffiti artists as a site for different messages (mostly tags, although there was also a “love lock” attachment) throughout the years, although never anything spectacular, which leads us to the latest intervention by Pussy Riot sympathisers. And so, for a while, let us go with the instinct that there is indeed something significant about this latest intervention. That it is somehow unique in allowing timely access to something.

This latest intervention presents an interesting set of conflations. On the first level it puts the Pussy Riot balaclavas on the figures of EOKA fighters as well as of the people freed by EOKA. The latter can be seen in exodus from the cell in the centre of the monument, being led towards the south by a man in traditional dress followed by a teenage boy, and to the north by a man in a suit in conversation with a priest. This relationship between the priest and the suited man becomes significant in what follows. The intervention may thus appear to suggest, intentionally or not, that EOKA and Pussy Riot fight for the same things, presumably the freedom of their people. That they are both commanded by Lady Liberty. This may be the reason that the figure of Liberty was spared a balaclava, though she might also have proven difficult to climb up to. Either way, the meaning of the intervention might, in this sense, appear quite straight-forward: a parallelism between two struggles with a note that they may not, in fact, be very dissimilar. Both EOKA and Pussy Riot employ discourses around freedom and both have shocked international opinion with their use of desperate means.

But the intervention also has another potentially significant dimension to do with the relation between Russian capital and the Cypriot economy.[7] Might another interpretation be that the balaclava-clad statues are projected as protesting the affiliation of the RoC with the Russian state and Russian capital? Might this intervention be trying to articulate a warning that the two states are moving in a similar direction (presumably towards what is seen as repression, censorship, or an insidious fusion of religion with political interest, smothering attempts for change)?

This isn’t the only monument that has been dressed with Pussy Riot balaclavas, although most other cases turned up in Russia or Bulgaria. Is this a message from Russian expatriates that they too are part of the fight? Or is it a call for resistance, hinting that the same fight is to be fought in Cyprus as well? What is especially interesting is that in the midst of the Russian search for the remaining band members, the EOKA and the (Greek) Cypriot people of the Liberty Monument are recruited to wear the colourful masks alongside with Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin and his wife Natalya Goncharova, Russian scientist and writer Mikhail Lomonosov, Kazakh poet, composer and philosopher Abay Qunanbayuli, WWII heroes at an underground station in Moscow, the unnamed figures of the Monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia, and those of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship memorial in Varna.[8] Certainly, the EOKA fighters and the Greek Cypriot people are in good company.

An attempt to read into the above selection of monuments and personalities might have been interesting but it would also be absurd, and this account is speculative enough as it is. It could be said, however, that the Liberty Monument may seem intuitively appropriate within this set because of its socialist realist aesthetic (note the realistic representation of the working class), a sculptural style that dominated the Soviet Union and mostly ‘went out’, so to speak, with its fall, but in Cyprus still seems to be doing quite well.

Despite all that, here is what I find most interesting about this intervention: The Pussy Riot campaign is one that wouldn’t be possible without a networked global community with online social media playing a crucial role. Having said this, let us make a difficult distinction between (1) the action of Pussy Riot, a group positioned in continuity with western movements of feminist activism / performance-art, and (2) the international response and support the group has inspired amidst all the controversy. That is not to say that this type of activism is an exclusively western phenomenon,[9] but it is clear from the choice of an English name and from the reference to the Riot Grrrl movement that western precedent has been formative. It is also clear that even though the group’s actions seem to be focused on bringing about change from the inside, the international displays of solidarity have to do with the fact that they are tapping into an existing international network of activists, while at the same time raising important questions on performance and civil disobedience, feminist political action, and the relationship between Church and State. If one thing is clearly legible from the intervention on the Liberty Monument, it is that it must have been intended as an ephemeral gesture of solidarity, meant to be photographed and circulated electronically to an international audience. And so the dressing of the Liberty Monument in Pussy Riot balaclavas can be read as having another, especially ironic aspect: a monument best described as commemorating the Greek Cypriot anti-colonial struggle is brought to feature in a western-minded global campaign which attacks the Russian state (some have argued that this is done hypocritically and self-righteously)[10] regarding its standards of free speech and brand of secularism.

One coincidence makes this monument especially suited to such an intervention. This is something the instigators might have been unaware of: the Liberty monument is no stranger to what Pussy Riot is prosecuted for protesting. That is, a problematic conflation of the discourses of Church and State.[11] Even though it was intended to mark the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus, the Liberty Monument was commissioned by Makarios before he assumed office as President. This conflation is contained in the fact that the monument’s commission was decided upon by members of the Greek Cypriot politically-minded intelligentsia on the one hand as well as members of the ecclesiastical establishment.[12] But it is also legible in the monument’s content: The relationship between political and religious authority as foundational to the Republic of Cyprus could be read in the way that the priest and the man in the suit (a member of the educated middle classes with the air of a politician) are engaged in conversation as they lead the people out of a dark cell.[13] This relationship between priest and suited man is not coincidental. It did not appear in the initial plaster model for the monument and must have been added during the work’s later development by the sculptor,[14] perhaps through a process of consultation with the monument’s commissioners. Already this contains debates that were crucial to Makarios’s administration and to the involvement of the Church of Cyprus in political affairs at that time, and to this day.

The way in which the above sets up a model of Cypriot patriarchy must not escape us. The women of Cyprus as portrayed in the Liberty monument have rather limited roles. There is, of course, the grieving mother weakly exiting the cell supported by a boy, there is the young female worker with her hair demurely covered, standing still with palms open and her face tilted upwards presumably in prayer, and there is another young female upholding the combined ideals of orthodox Christianity and ancient Hellenic heritage by way of a classically-styled hair-do and matching drapery flowing from her shoulder while she is crossing herself in the orthodox way. Two more women are waiting inconspicuously within the cell. The fact that the monument’s most prominent figure is Lady Liberty offers no feminist recompense.

In a study of allegorical personification Marina Warner (2001) writes: “Liberty is not represented as a woman, from the colossus in New York to the ubiquitous Marianne, figure of the French Republic, because women were or are free. (…) Often the recognition of a difference between the symbolic order, inhabited by ideal, allegorical figures, and the actual order, of judges, statesmen, soldiers, philosophers, inventors, depends on the unlikelihood of women practicing the concepts they represent”.[15] It is not unreasonable therefore to wonder: Could it be that under these circumstances the brightly coloured balaclavas might have something to offer?

Let us wonder in conclusion, what would happen should a type of prayer-performance / feminist activist gesture be held in a Cypriot church? Would the Church of Cyprus prove more amenable? More tolerant? More graceful? Would the instigators be uncompromisingly treated as outsiders of the Christian community?[16] Would they be prosecuted? What if such a thing took place in a mosque or a different kind of religious establishment? Is there Republic of Cyprus legislation on hooliganism, on “the incitement of religious hatred,” or other similarly vague notions that might be interpreted arbitrarily and abused? Is there any sort of Cypriot precedent to such cases? What would constitute meaningful civil disobedience or activism, feminist or otherwise, in Cyprus at this time? To what extend would such a thing be socially or otherwise tolerated? [Edit: Perhaps some of these questions will not remain speculative for long. Since this was written a “group of anonymous artists (and not only that)” have claimed the balaclava intervention on the Liberty Monument, along with promises of further activist gestures dealing with issues closer to home.[17]

With this last point it is clear that our musings have gone far enough. Whatever the actual motivations and the intended interpretation of this intervention, it probably hinged on little more than an instinct for symbolic opportunity that monuments so easily and often superficially inspire. That is not to say that this intervention can be seen as illegitimate or offensive. If anything has been proven here, it’s that it is a rich one.


[1] See Loizidou, C. “On the Liberty Monument of Nicosia” in Re-envisioning Cyprus. Eds. Stylianou-Lambert T., Phillippou N., Loizos P. University of Nicosia Press, 2010. For the legal recognition of the monument, aside from the commemorative plaque, see Parliament of the Republic of Cyprus Law 48/87. Recognition of the Liberating Struggle of the Cypriot People 1955-1959.

[2] For other responses see comments sections at Cyprus support for Pussy Riot. (2012, August 21). Cyprus Mail. Retrieved from http://www.cyprus-mail.com/cyprus/cyprus-support-pussy-riot/20120821 as well as Antonis (2012, August 20). Pussy Riot Cy. Επιάμεν πάτον, αλλά είσιεν τρύπαν. Retrieved from http://patosmetrypav.blogspot.gr/2012/08/pussy-riot-cy.html?spref=fb&fb_source=message

[3] It was intended to have names of EOKA fighters engraved in the back, hence the stairs on its sides, while an early plaster model of it included figures of Makarios and Grivas. It is unclear when the plan for the latter two figures was abandoned, but the fact that the names of the EOKA fighters were never carved belies the fact that the complicated fate of the Liberty Monument was connected to the fact that EOKA had given rise to EOKA B.

[4] Papadakis’ City Tour presentation was first given within the bounds of the Liminal Zones seminar (Stratis & Melitopoulos, 2007) and a version of it was given subsequently in affiliation with the “One Island, Many Histories: Rethinking the Politics of the Past in Cyprus” conference (PRIO, 2008) although there is no relevant documentation. This discussion refers to the latter version.

[5] See for example the photographic work titled “Where” by Stelios Kallinikou, featured in the Terra Mediterranea – In Crisis exhibition, Nicosia Municipal Arts Center, 2012.

[6] I believe this was of fashion designs by Kyriaki Costa, in the mid 00s, but I have yet to confirm this. [Edit, Sept 2014: since then, see “Black” Collection (2013) by Constantinos (fashion designer) at <href=”#%21black-collection/c4ku”>http://www.conbyconstantinos.com/#!black-collection/c4ku or https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.443341362454505.1073741830.305369949584981&type=3 ]

[7] For a UK newspapers’s take on the Russian expatriate community in Cyprus see Luke Harding. (2012, January 26). Russian expat invasion of Cyprus also has sinister overtones. the Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/26/cyprus-russian-invasion

[8] For images see Pushkin for Pussy Riot? Moscow monuments masked (PHOTOS). (2012, August 17).RT. Retrieved from http://rt.com/art-and-culture/news/moscow-monument-pussy-riot-929/ ; Gaydazhieva, S.. (2012, August 17). Doomsday for Pussy Riot, supporters ‘decorate’ monuments in support. NewEurope Online. Retrieved from http://www.neurope.eu/article/doomsday-pussy-riot-supporters-decorate-monuments-support ; and 1 More Bulgarian Monument Wakes Up to Pussy Riot Makeover.” (2012, August 22). Novinite.com. Retrieved from http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=142522.

[9] One is reminded of the Soviet precedent of rock groups going against communism ,with the example of the Slovenian Laibach in and the Czech The Plastic People of the Universe. Thanks to A.V. for this reference.

[10] Numerous articles have surfaced accusing western indignation against Russia in response to the Pussy Riot case as hypocritical pointing at similar abuses of human rights in the US and other countries, see for example Raval, I. (2012, August 19). Pussy Riot and Assange Issues Reveal US Hypocrisy. Technician Online. Retrieved August from http://www.technicianonline.com/viewpoint/pussy-riot-and-assange-issues-reveal-us-hypocrisy-1.2750332.

[11] For a translation and a discussion of the problems of translation, of the Pussy Riot Punk Prayer see Rumens, C. (2012, August 20). Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer is pure protest poetry. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/20/pussy-riot-punk-prayer-lyrics.

[12] The selection committee for the monument’s commission was set up for Makarios by Patroclos Stavrou in 1959, included Konstantinos Spyridakis, P. M. Michaelidis, Antonios Georgiadis, Father Superior Kykkou Chrysostomos, Nikos Dimiotis, Tilemachos Kanthos, Adamantios Diamantis, Porfyrios Dikeos, and Anthimos Bishop of Kition (one of the members of the ecclesiastical coup against Makarios in 1972). Nicos Kranidiotis was also closely involved in the development of the work, along with the sculptor’s spiritual father, a Grigorios Kikkotis.

[13] The hand of the man in the suit rests on the shoulder of the priest, his other hand gestures in what may be interpreted as explanation or openness. The priest responds with a hand on his chest, an indication of agreement or understanding.

[14] Little information is available on the sculptor, Ioannis G. Notaras (1907 – 2001). He was based in Athens and appears to have specialised in memorial work. He worked for the Church of Cyprus on more than one occasion.

[15] Warner, M. (2001). Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form. University of California Press, p. 22.

[16] Andreas Vrahimis makes a good point in a tweet about an important tradition of subversive behaviour within Christianity. See Vrahimis, Andreas (@a_brhm) “what about saloi/yurodivy, and so on? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foolishness_for_Christ …) #insultingthedivine” 9 August 2012, 15:01. Tweet.

[17] See Νέα δράση για τις Pussy Riot, έξω από τη Ρωσική Πρεσβεία. (2012, August 24). Παραθυρο. Retrieved from http://www.parathyro.com/?p=14400

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