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uni'wissen 02-2013_ENG

Mary, Mother of God, drive Putin away!” The voices sound devout, almost like in Christian choral music. Then the bass kicks in, the women jump around, play air guitar, and bang their heads to the beat on the stage. On this day in February the stage is the alter of the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Moscow. The members of the Russian band Pussy Riot call upon their fellow citizens to join them in a “punk prayer” in the house of worship. The perfor- mance lasts just under a minute. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich pay dearly for it. Half a year later, in August 2012, a court in Moscow convicts the musicians and sentences them to two years in a penal colony – for “hooliganism, motivated by religious hatred.” The worldwide protest is not long in coming: The Russian government has shown methods worthy of a dictatorship, it is said, and has dealt a severe blow to the freedom of artistic expres- sion. German politicians accuse Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of imposing “draconian sentences” on the musicians. It is claimed that he has misused the judiciary to silence critics. The musicians indeed put in a daring perfor- mance, say the Freiburg Slavic studies scholars Prof. Dr. Elisabeth Cheauré and Dr. Regine No- hejl, but the conflict followed a typical pattern. East and West showed a lack of understanding for each other, and there was no willingness to consider the cultural context of the other side: “Imagine if something like this happened in St. Peter’s Basilica. I doubt the West would maintain such a liberal attitude toward artistic freedom if this were the case,” says Cheauré. In a project funded by the German Research Foundation, the two researchers traced the de- velopment of national identities in Russia – from the 18th century, when the country was still a classical empire in the pre-modern sense, to the series of revolutions in 1917, which attempted to usher in a new political order, and finally to the present, in which photos show a half-naked prime minister petting a tiger cub. Among other things, the Slavicists combed through literary works, magazines, political speeches and pro- grams, films and television series, travel litera- ture, and advertisements. The symbols that express the country’s political identity have changed in the course of the past 300 years, but one thing has remained the same: “Nation and gender are always intertwined,” explains Nohejl. “We are interested in how these representations develop and change. And how they breed misun- derstandings and barriers between Russia and the West.” Similar but Different Misunderstandings and barriers: These are evidently key terms in the relationship between Russia and Western European countries like Germany and France as well as the USA. The Western perception of Russia is a contradiction in itself, say the researchers. On the one hand, there is a sentimental longing – admiration for the great Slavic soul, the soft Mother Russia. On the other hand, Western newspapers character- ize Russia as a bear, as a predator that will de- vour the civilized world. How do these two images go together? “The game with gender metaphors begins as early as the 18th and 19th century,” says Nohejl. It runs parallel to two other developments during this time: Great Britain, France, and Germany colonize Asia and Africa – the ideal of the “noble savage,” a primitive man untainted by civilization, creeps into the theories of Enlightenment thinkers in Europe. A model of the sexes gaining currency at the same time in Western Europe magnifies the dif- ferences between men and women, with quali- ties like unpredictability, irrationality, and a lust for destruction being ascribed to the latter. Against this backdrop, Russia comes to be seen as “different and exotic, but at the same time not so different from the West,” says Cheauré. She sees the same principle at work in the market for mail-order brides today: German men dream of the beautiful Olga or Natalia – the woman who has a foreign appeal “but is yet tame enough that she does not pose a threat to German culture,” stresses Nohejl. “Imagine if something like this happened in St. Peter’s Basilica. I doubt the West would maintain such a liberal attitude toward artistic freedom if this were the case” 29