П is for Pussy Riot: thinking ahead to the next Russian Olympic Games

Pussy Riot’s commitment to social justice in the motherland is more than admirable. It perhaps merits a spot in Russia’s artistic canon.

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia closed today, and if you set aside the homophobia and generally strong-armed approach to governance by the host, one Vladimir Putin, these games were remarkable in just about every way.

The images of the opening ceremonies have lingered with me for the past couple of weeks. If you watched, you know that the creative team built their narrative around the highwater marks in the nation’s glorious history, honoring their accomplishments in the arts, literature, science and technology. Given Russia’s considerable heritage, the little girl’s interaction with Cyrillic alphabet primer, associating a historical moment with each letter, couldn’t help being an impressive reminder to the world of the nation’s rich cultural legacy.

Letter Association
А ABC
Б Baikal
В Sikorsky’s helicopter
Г Gagarin, Gzhel
Д Dostoyevsky
Е Catherine II
Ё Hedgehog in the Fog
Ж Zhukovsky
З Corn mowing machine
И Empire
Й Tchaikovsky
К Kandinsky
Л Lunokhod
М Malevich
Н Nabokov
О Space Station
П Periodic table
Р Russian ballet
С Sputnik
Т Tolstoy, Television
У Ushanka
Ф Fisht (Pun: Fisht)
Х Khokhloma
Ц Tsiolkovsky
Ч Chekhov
Ш Chagall
Щ Shchusev
Ъ Pushkin
Ы We
Ь Lyubov’, Love
Э Eisenstein
Ю Parachute
Я Russia

A worthy alphabet for any nation, isn’t it?

Someday Russia will host another Olympics. It’s hard to say when, but for the sake of speculation let’s imagine that it might be the 2036 Summer Games in Moscow. At that point, the creatives putting together the opening ceremonies are going to be intensely conscious of the artistic and ideological achievement of Sochi’s kick-off, and by way of homage perhaps someone will suggest revisiting the alphabet trope.

If so, I hope they’ll take a hard look at the letter П. It’s hard to argue the merit of the Periodic Table, of course, but these games also focused the world’s attention on one of Russia’s contemporary artistic/political/cultural products: Pussy Riot.

Most Americans think of this collective as being a three-woman punk band that got arrested and imprisoned for pissing off Putin with a performance in a church. While there were in fact three women who pissed off Putin with a performance in a church, this is barely the tip of the Pussy Riot iceberg. You can read the general overview here, and pay close attention to their ideological manifesto.

The musical performance group was organized, in part, due to anger over what they perceived as government policies that discriminate against women, citing legislation that “placed restrictions on legal abortions”.[25] According to Tolokonnikova, Pussy Riot is “part of the global anti-capitalist movement, which consists of anarchists, Trotskyists, feminists and autonomists.”[30] They use Situationist-style guerrilla performances.[31] Tolokonnikova stated:

Pussy Riot’s performances can either be called dissident art or political action that engages art forms. Either way, our performances are a kind of civic activity amidst the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties.[32]

In an email interview with The St. Petersburg Times, they explained their political positions further. They said that their members’ opinions ranged from anarchist to liberal left, but that they were united by feminism, anti-authoritarianism and opposition to Putin, whom they regard as continuing the “aggressive imperial politics” of the Soviet Union. Their concerns include education, health care, and the centralization of power. They support regional autonomy and grass roots organization. They regard unsanctioned rallies as a core principle, saying that the authorities do not see the rallies that they themselves have sanctioned as a threat, and will simply ignore them. For this reason, all of Pussy Riot’s performances are illegal, and use co-opted public space.[28] In an interview by the BBC, made during rehearsal the day before the performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, band members argued that only vivid, illegal actions can bring media attention.[33]

Pussy Riot members have been outspoken in their support of LGBT rights, and in an early interview they confirmed that the group includes at least one member of a sexual minority.[34] Both Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich participated in the banned 2011 Gay Pride rally in Moscow, and were briefly detained after the rally was broken up by police.[35] Pussy Riot’s LGBT rights advocacy is seen in a negative light by conservative Russians; according to a Levada poll published in 2010, 74% of Russians view homosexuality as a “moral perversion” or “mental illness”.[36]

I was also struck by what the group had to say in the wake of the recent US appearances by Nadia and Masha, the two members of the collective who most aggrieved Mr. Putin’s delicate sensibilities in that church performance. These two are no longer part of Pussy Riot (or weren’t – now they’re perhaps back on board – more below), and a statement in The Guardian drew a bold line under the group’s core values.

The apotheosis of this misunderstanding was the announcement by Amnesty International of Masha and Nadia’s appearance in Barclays Center in New York as the first legal performance of Pussy Riot.

Moreover, instead of the names Nadia and Masha, the poster of the event showed a man in a balaclava with an electric guitar, under the name Pussy Riot, while the organisers smartly called for people to buy expensive tickets.

All this is an extreme contradiction of the very principles of the Pussy Riot collective: we are an all-female separatist collective – no man can represent us either on a poster or in reality. We are anti-capitalist – we charge no fees for people to view our artwork, all our videos are distributed freely on the web, the spectators at our performances are spontaneous passersby, and we never sell tickets to our “shows”.

Our performances are always illegal, staged only in unpredictable locations and public places not designed for traditional entertainment. The distribution of our clips is always through free and unrestricted media channels.

We are anonymous because we act against any personality cult, against hierarchies implied by appearance, age and other visible social attributes. We cover our heads because we oppose the very idea of using female faces as a trademark for promoting any sort of goods or services.

As political platforms go, there is much here to admire (regardless of who is and is not a member at any given moment). This is especially true since they live in Vladimir Putin’s iron shadow. You may have noticed that the NBC crew, when they talked about Putin, kept using the word “autocrat.” If this word isn’t familiar to you, it’s the polite dinner party term for “dictator.” While he might not compare to some previous Russian “autocrats,” like the genocidal Stalin, it’s more than fair to note that the former KGB man seems right at home in the nation’s long lineage of, ummm, strong-willed leaders.

As you may have noted, Pussy Riot (including, it looks like, the Masha and Nadia?) ran afoul of some of Putin’s thugs a few days ago in Sochi.

Video posted on YouTube appeared to show members of a Cossack militia and other security officials moving in as the group put on brightly colored ski masks and pulled out a guitar and microphone.

In the video, militia members yank off the masks and throw some group members to the ground. One militia member appears to use pepper spray against a group member, and another whips several of them.

Here’s that video. [trigger alert]

“Putin will teach you how to love the motherland.” Indeed.

From the perspective of artistic virtuosity, nobody is arguing (or ever will) that Pussy Riot is on the same footing with Chekhov or Tchaikovsky or Chagall or the Bolshoi. But enduring art can be about more than performative grace or, in the case of a writer or painter, an inspired technical gift with the medium. Art calls attention to the human condition. It shines a light in a society’s dark places. It speaks truth to authority and makes the ensconced elite, at a minimum, a bit uneasy.

Art can manifest beauty, or it can expose unspeakable ugliness, and both paths are equally valid.

Russia’s cultural history is packed with controversy and Mr. Putin is apparently immune to the irony. With all the turmoil leading up to the games surrounding his brutal anti-gay policies, for instance, one might pause a moment to reflect on Ц, which stands for Tchaikovsky.

The Cyrillic Н is for Nabokov, whose Lolita generated more than a smattering of scandal, didn’t it? Д is for Dostoevsky, who was exiled by by the Tsar. М is for Malevich, banned by Stalin. Т is for Tolstoy, who publicly criticized Nicholas II over the Boxer Rebellion. Ъ is for Pushkin, who allegedly fought more than two dozen duels.

And Е is for Catherine the Great. Nope. No Mr. Ed jokes here.

Pussy Riot gives voice to a vital critique of what we might see as the last gasp of the Soviet empire – will former KGB officer Putin be the last Russian leader to emerge from the machinery of the Cold War? Perhaps, and hopefully.

It would be foolish in so many ways for me to wax romantic about the need for this culture, about which I really know very little, to embrace democracy, blah blah blah. However, it’s more than fair to review Pussy Riot’s list of grievances and hope that the swelling tide of social progressivism one sees throughout the rest of the developed world will soon gain greater traction in Russia. There aren’t enough Cossacks to bullwhip everyone, and as the nation evolves, perhaps we’ll see greater tolerance for the free expression of controversial views. Maybe we’ll see increased tolerance for the LGBT community. Equal rights for women would be wonderful. More equitable distribution of the economy’s substantial wealth? That would be nice, as well.

It’s probably important for me pause for a second to acknowledge that on some of these issues Americans shouldn’t preach. Granted. While I have hopes and dreams for a better world, I’m absolutely not pontificating from a perch of presumed US exceptionalism. I look forward to the day when my own nation is batting 1.000 on Pussy Riot’s scorecard, too.

So, back to Moscow’s 2036 Summer Games. There’s every reason to hope that Putin will be gone by then, and with any luck those in power will have a look at that video above and consider the possibility that the Pussy Riot collective has, by virtue of its commitment to greater social justice in a motherland it loves enough to endure prison and public whipping, earned a place in the Russian artistic and cultural canon.

П is for Pussy Riot.

See everybody in Rio…

2 comments on “П is for Pussy Riot: thinking ahead to the next Russian Olympic Games

  1. Aside from the Sochi olympics and Russia’s heritage I have a lot of respect for Pussy Riot and their politics. Their colourful balcalava masks will more than likely remain a symbol of free speech and democratic rights at least in Russia if not the world. And they are PERSISTENT. I admire their fearlessness. Unfortunately in the Youtube video you have it seems there is too much fear for anyone else to support Pussy Riot’s political statements or even to intervene. As for the Cossacks if I remember correctly they fought for democratic rights and freedom from imperialism. What a comedown for them to be beating up *women* who are making peaceful political statements.

  2. the real question is who will follow putin. typically after a regime change there’s a little toing and froing. good president (washington, adams) bad president (jefferson, monroe) good president before it sort of settles out. russia’s going through that, and remember putin’s not nearly as bad as where they ended up last time (stalin.) my guess is the next guy in line will move moscow closer to europe (and in fact that will become the great schism going forward–europe vs. america, not communism vs. capitalism.)

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