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When Pussy Riot Rocked Russia

Still from “Act and Punishment.”

On August 22, 2012, my first article on CounterPunch appeared. Defending Pussy Riot against those on the left who supported the arrest of the three punk rockers who had been jailed for singing (or yowling) “Mother of God, chase Putin away” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, my article began:

Given the sharp divide on the left between those who consider the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) governments to be the first line of defense against Western imperialism and those who take the sides of the victims of such governments even when the U.S. State Department takes up their cause as well, it should not come as a surprise that the Pussy Riot trial has become a litmus test. Support for Pussy Riot is a sign that you are catching Christopher Hitchens flu or worse.

That was the first in a series of 243 articles appearing under my name at CounterPunch that comes full circle today with a review of “Act and Punishment”, a 2015 documentary on Pussy Riot that can now be rented on Amazon.

I should hasten to add that my first article on Pussy Riot was submitted at the urging of Jeff St. Clair. In October 2017, during CounterPunch’s fund-drive, Jeff referred to hate mail he had received: “Why are you so soft on Putin?”; “Why are you in Putin’s pocket?” He reminded readers:

Unlike many political sites, CounterPunch doesn’t a have company line. The online edition of CounterPunch has always been a venue where different voices, on what can loosely be described as the “left,” can freely engage in fierce debates about politics, economics, war, racism, music and political movements. We’ve tried to make CounterPunch free from dogma and cant, but to keep it open for writers with fresh points of view and vivid writing styles. The experience can perplex readers who are used to grazing in the usual media feedlots of processed prose and artificially-colored opinions.

Can there be better proof of that than my 243 articles that while mostly about film have also defied the supposed “company line” on Putin and Assad, even sneaking in my contrarian ideas about the two in an innocent-sounding film review?

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let me turn to “Act and Punishment”. In some ways, the film might have been better titled as “Actionism and Punishment” since one of its major concerns is to place the punk feminist trio into the context of the Russian performance art falling under that rubric.

Actionism originated in Vienna in 1960 and remained strong for a decade. There was no movement as such, just a local current of what was known as Fluxus internationally. In the USA, Korean-born composer Naim June Paik was probably the best-known practitioner of might be regarded as neo-Dadaism. In 1967, cellist Charlotte Moorman was arrested for performing Paik’s Opera Sextronique while topless, a stunt that clearly anticipated what the three Russian women and their fellow artists in Voina would do much later on when they staged an orgy in Moscow’s Biological Museum. Where else?

Joseph Beuys, the radical German artist who was the subject of a documentary I reviewed on January 17th, was also considered part of Fluxus. So was Yoko Ono. By the mid-60s, many of the artists involved with Fluxus internationally or its Actionism variant in Vienna were participants as well in the worldwide radicalization triggered by the war in Vietnam. For example, Dick Higgins’s 1967 “1,000 Symphonies” featured paper scorched by machine-gun blasts as a critique of the Vietnam War.

By the 1980s, Fluxus had declined mostly for the same reason that the radical movement declined. The war was long over and the hopes for socialist revolution had dimmed.

So why did it take so long for something like Actionism to appear in Russia?

I would argue that it was like a genie emerging from a bottle that had been deeply buried for decades. The stranglehold on culture and politics in the USSR had ended under Glasnost but a lingering authoritarianism under Putin created the conditions for a protest movement to develop that lacked a mass base. Just as Fluxus emerged in the early 60s, during a period when anti-Communism still dominated American society, its late-arriving Russian cousin developed when society as a whole had little interest in radical politics as such, especially since Soviet society was based on official radicalism in a manner of speaking. Russians sought “normalcy”, which Putin was able to deliver with the backing of the Russian Orthodox Church. This “silent majority” was what drove young Russian performance artists crazy, including Pyotr Pavlensky who nailed his gonads to the pavement in 2013 in order to protest the “police state”  under Vladimir Putin.

While not up to such extreme measures as Pavlensky, the artists organized in the collective Voina (war) did everything they could to oppose Putin’s authoritarian regime. The three women who would become Pussy Riot were all activists in the Voina movement. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich were respectively known to their friends as Nadya, Masha, and Katya. Nadya would seem to be the leader of the group and a deep thinker at that. She was enrolled in the philosophy department at Moscow State University and showed her grasp of deeper philosophical insights not likely to be taught there in her closing statement to the court:

During the entire trial, people have refused to hear us. Hearing us would mean being receptive to what we say, being thoughtful, striving toward wisdom, being philosophers. I believe that every person should strive for this, and not only those who have studied in some philosophy department. A formal education means nothing, although prosecution attorney Pavlova constantly attempts to reproach us for our lack of education. We believe the most important thing is to strive, to strive towards knowledge and understanding. This is what a person can achieve independently, outside the walls of an educational institution. Regalia and scholarly degrees mean nothing. A person can possess a great deal of knowledge, but not be a human being. Pythagoras said extensive knowledge does not breed wisdom.

Her statement and that of her two comrades can be read on n+1 magazine, a Marxist journal that has shown a remarkable degree of sympathy for the beleaguered Russian left, no doubt a function of having Russian émigré Keith Gessen on its editorial board. Keith, who is Masha Gessen’s brother, made contact with me in 2013 to attend a screening of the documentary “Winter, Go Away!” that also featured a talk by Kirill Medvedev, who I spoke to briefly at the meeting.

I can’t recommend “Winter, Go Away!” strongly enough, now available on Youtube for $3.99. I covered the film in 2013 in an article titled “The Myth of Vladimir Putin’s Progressivism”, the conclusion to which I will quote from now. My recommendation is to see “Act and Punishment” and “Winter, Go Away!”. While I agree with just about everybody on the left that Russiagate is an attempt by the Democrats to seduce the left away from mass actions against Trump, it would still be a mistake to not understand what these films are documenting. Opposing Chuck Schumer, after all, does not require you to soft-pedal Vladimir Putin.

I can only say that this film is an eye-opener, even for someone like me who has defended Pussy Riot against Putin and tries to keep up with the Russian left. (The film shows the feminist punk rockers being dragged out of the church.) Basically, the documentary demonstrates how radical the opposition to Putin was. Despite the pro-capitalist leanings of some of the major opposition figures—from multibillionaire candidate Mikhail Prokhorov to the aforementioned Gary Kasparov (he should stick to chess)—the rank-and-file of the movement are exactly the same kinds of people who occupied Zuccotti Park. Indeed, some of the chants you hear on the demonstrations are directed against Russian capitalism. You see young people heading toward the protests wearing Guy Fawkes masks, etc. The protests have been erroneously described as upper-middle-class temper tantrums funded by George Soros. It takes a huge amount of brass for some leftists to make such an attack when the Putin rallies are staged affairs that make the Republican Party’s look Bolshevik by comparison. Putin’s slogans were mind-numbingly nationalistic, with his well-heeled supporters chanting “Russia, Putin, Victory” at rallies.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is an interview with one Matvey Krylov who has just been released from prison for throwing water at a government official. The interviewer can’t seem to wrap his head around the question of someone going to prison for throwing water at another person. After repeatedly asking Krylov to explain what happened, the young man–who looks just like the sort of person who would have been found camped out in Zuccotti Park–tells him to Google his name. That will tell him all he needs to know.

 

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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