Russia’s New Dissidents


In a risky action, activists with Greenpeace attempted to drop a banner off of an arctic oilrig when Russian Special Forces raided their boat, guns drawn. Today, thirty Greenpeace activists sit in Russian jails, faced with the charge that they posed a significant threat to the oilrig. The military-style reaction to a peaceful protest has rocked the international environmental movement, and petitions garnered thousands of signatures overnight. In the midst of this spectacle, two native Russian activists—members of the popular art punk collective Pussy Riot—continue their weeklong hunger strike in a penal colony with little fanfare in the US. Ironically, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina have been involved in protest movements for a long time, and Alekhina has worked as an activist with Greenpeace Russia.

It is shocking how the narratives of the US and Russia run parallel with regard to the two ladies presently imprisoned. A segment from a popular Russian television show illustrates the framing quite well. A reporter off-camera interviews an advocate for incarcerated members of Pussy Riot. He produces photographs of former Soviet dissidents. A strong hand flops the thick, glossy black and white images onto the middle-aged activist’s cluttered desk, and the reporter enunciates the names with a pronounced sense of self-respect and dignity as he arranges them carefully: Solzhenitsyn. Sakharov. True heroes of socialism. Then another photo is held up to the activist’s face. It is in color, but mostly blurred out—immediately identifiable by anyone who knows anything about the Pussy Riot trial: the notorious museum orgy.

Tolokonnikova (also known as Tolokno) was an early member of Voina, before a split in 2008, and the evolution of Pussy Riot, and she participated in the action. About five years ago, several activists with the anarchist art group, Voina, walked into the museum of biology in Moscow, stripped naked in a room full of stuffed bears and animal intestines, and began to copulate. A banner was unfurled stating “Fuck for the Stuffed Bear” (Ебись в поддержку Медвежонка) and activists exclaimed slogans like “We must bring our collective energies together to channel the spirit of the heir to the great pre-Slavic bear, in order to save Russia’s endangered species!” as they engaged in sexual intercourse. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s partner was her husband, Pyotr Verzilov. She was 9 months pregnant. Her child was born shortly after, a product, the couple aver, of that deeply spiritual event (tongue firmly planted in cheek).

The event brought shock waves throughout Russia. It was the day before the elections, which many saw as a fait accompli that would reassert the power of Medvedev and Putin. The pun on Medved, which is the Russian word for bear, was crystal clear. Not only is public intercourse absolutely forbidden under both religious and political law, but the four couples were engaging in anal sex, which bears the stigma of non-reproductive copulation—a scandal upon a scandal upon a scandal. By bringing these unmentionable acts of intercourse into a public museum, Voina created a spectacle in the absence of the real discourse to present or create the prospect of democracy where it did not yet exist. As was well known in the Soviet Union, a joke or fun, artistic adventure might be the best way to temporary liberation.

Most Westernerns did not quite get the joke. The fact that the banner, which read something along the lines of “Fuck to Support the Stuffed Bear,” was mistranslated into “Bugger fuck Medvedev” did not help. Many on the Left saw the act immediately as a misogynist one, wherein four women on their knees were made the brunt of a joke that would have Medvedev taken advantage of sexually—the objects of a violent curse. “If it had been guy-on-guy it would have been different,” one activist explained to me. Here again, the practical matters remain ignored: two couples were standing; there was, indeed, one instance of gender-ambiguous non-copulating intercourse; and the alternative of two male bodied people engaging in public intercourse may have ended in a lynching (although members of Voina and Pussy Riot are still quite active in the GLBT community). But it’s difficult to get into details when discussing public orgies. It’s supposed to be. That’s why “If you remember the ’70s, you weren’t really there,” or so I’m told.

Back to our television show reporter, who begins to grill the activist with the usual abuse: how can you call these freaks dissidents? Back in the communist days there were real dissidents like Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, but now we only have ridiculous public spectacles intending to push the limits of what’s acceptable in their liberation quest to destroy Russia. The same opinion is shared broadly among many in the US: these poor, misguided women being exploited and led into these horrible actions by misogynist “activists.” Yet Tolokno and Alekhina insist that they are patriots who want to defend Russia—an asseveration familiar to most political dissidents. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was an avid critic of the gulag archipelago in which Alekhina and Tolokno, two internationally recognized political prisoners, currently toil (if the reader takes issue with my usage of “Gulag Archipelago” in this case, I encourage you to read on). As for Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear scientist and peace activist, a museum dedicated to his memory in Moscow faced the wrath of Russia’s state-religious complex when director, Yuri Samodurov, was put on trial for displaying exhibits that challenged the Chechen War and religious orthodoxy. Before their split in 2008, Voina attempted to disrupt the theocratic hypocrisy of the Samodurov trial by putting on a punk concert in the courtroom. Edward Snowden has since been listed for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom and Thought.

But instead of holding up the old socialist warhorses, Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, the reporter may as well have held up photos of journalists Ana Politkovskaya and Anastasia Baburova, or activist lawyer Stanislav Markelov—all assassinated by unknown assailants. At the same time, he could have held up the images of the youths cut up in the torture chambers of the neo-Nazis, who have been waging a street war against immigrants, the GLBT community, and people of color in Russia. They publish their worst feats of brutality, in which seven or eight of them descend on unsuspecting, working class people with total impunity in broad daylight. While Putin has sought out the extradition of the leader of one of the most vitriolic right wing groups, the neo-Nazis maintain a strong political presence within the government.

My own personal history here is perhaps elucidative. I went to Russia for five months in 2005, in part to learn about the process of political activism after the fall of the Soviet Union. Having noticed several skinheads winding their way through the subway system, I discussed the issue with a colleague who roundly denied the notion that skinheads existed in Russia at all. The next day, the English-language newspaper, The Moscow Times, ran a story with the state officials officially denying the presence of neo-Nazis in Russia. I repeated to him the old edict, “Don’t believe anything until it has been officially denied.” Working with a certain samizdat translating histories of wasted lives, I found myself examining endless stories of those youths accused of “sluggish schizophrenia” (vyalotekyshchaya schizophrenia) during the Stalin era, and sent to psychiatric hospitals (gulags) in the coldest parts of Northern Siberia for what Baudelaire would have simply called “ennui.” It was not more than a few months after I left Moscow for Texas that we all learned of the cameras hidden under rocks, wire tapping, and state surveillance that finally culminated in Putin’s total expulsion of all non-Russian NGOs.

It is no small coincidence that the head of the prison labor camp to which Tolokno has been sent announced himself as a Stalinist on her first day being there. The systematic brutalization against the Left, along with the impunity of the fascist falangists, forms two sides of a generalized campaign of repression in everyday life, which strikes through the exploitative economic and political atmosphere to a Stalinist undergirding of order and discipline. Those who, like Pussy Riot, try to stretch the limits of the imagination and peacefully open up discussion about popular expression will be shot down or thrown into the lower depths. What did the bank members of Pussy Riot do to be sent to prison labor camp, where they work 17 hour days sewing army uniforms under constant threat of rape and summary execution? They performed a protest song in a church to demonstrate against hypocrisy of power relations that condemn GLBT people while treating women as disposable objects of pleasure. Indeed it is hardly even worth mentioning, as their lives have simply become symbolic capital through which the Putin Administration can appeal to its rural constituency, even if it sickens the more fashionable circles of Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is a similar scenario with the activists from Greenpeace. Is it deplorable that Putin is holding them prisoner today? Of course, but it is by no means surprising.

Today’s dissidents in Russia are not cleanly defined wise old men—though there are many who I have known personally who risk their lives every day by continuing to lawyer, teach, and publish. In 2010, a mass movement in which both Tolokno and Alekhina were active formed around a campaign to save the Khimki Forest from deforestation via the Moscow-St. Petersburg Highway. The most important aspect of the campaign was that it was a popular movement that drew thousands of protestors to the streets for public concerts and protests. But the spirit of the movement was largely drowned out by the police and fascist falangists. Mikhail Beketov, editor of the Khimki newspaper who followed and supported the campaign, died earlier this spring from injuries incurred after being beaten with an iron bar by two unknown assailants. Other campaigns have suffered similar fates. Young environmentalist Stepan Chernogubov was a bit luckier than Beketov—he was recently beaten within an inch of his life for documenting the pollution from a chromium plant near the Chusovaya River. Instead of listening to his experience, police took him, still bleeding, into custody and interrogated him. Another activist, Suren Gazara was thrown in jail after criticizing a governor about forestry policy, and has since fled the country.

While it would be totally inane for US citizens to vaunt their democracy over Russian repression—particularly given the enthusiastic brutalization of the Occupy movement and ongoing espionage scandal, not to mention the telling fact that it was Putin, himself, who put a stop to the US’s murderous intentions in Syria—we, the people, should recognize Pussy Riot as our own. In spite of their scandalous tactics, or indeed because of them (as Madonna, herself, has suggested), these activists ought to remind us of ourselves, if through a looking glass. Tolokonnikova and Alekhina may not be Solzhenitsin or Sakharov, but they stand on the same principles and face the same harsh treatment. Indeed, they are heroes.

Alexander Reid Ross is an activist and journalist. He is coordinator of the Earth First! Journal—Cascadia Field Office, and is a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). He is also the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Grabbing Back: Articles Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014). If you would like to send letters of support to Pussy Riot prisoners, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, feel free to send them to a.reid.ross@gmail.com, and he will translate them for you and send them to the support committee in Russia.

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.

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