Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 13, Day 2. Our subject is Putin’s Cultural Revolution, and our teaching assistant is Dante.
I have a couple of announcements for you. First, please remember that next Monday, May 4 we will meet in real time on Teams for our last day of class. Please remember to complete all your Revolutions Timeline posts by the end of the day on May 3! On the 4th, we will discuss the Timeline and our big takeaways from this semester.
Second, if you have not yet submitted your Rough Draft, I want to encourage you to do that as soon as possible. As you know, there’s no penalty for turning it in late. But you do need to turn it in at least a couple days before you submit your final draft. Your rough draft is worth 10%, and if you don’t turn anything in, I can’t give you credit for it. So please do get that submitted.
Today we’re wrapping up our mini-unit on Putin’s Russia by talking about culture. We’re looking at Putin’s Cultural Revolution through the lens of popular culture because it provides the most vibrant, flexible, and immediate view of a subject that is constantly evolving. As we’ve discussed the past couple of classes, Putin has a great deal of genuine support among Russians, but there is also a persistent trend of protest against him. Like everyone else, Russian artists have had to decide where they stand on Putin’s presidency. Some, like the singer Mashani and rapper Sasha Chest, have joined Team Putin wholeheartedly, while others, like the groups Voina and Pussy Riot, have made their names through acts of creative opposition. Interestingly, one of Russia’s biggest post-Soviet rock stars, Sergei Shnurov of the band Leningrad, has tried to sidestep this issue by publicly embracing a form of capital-driven, valueless nihilism. Today’s sources are going to help us explore each of these positions.
Arkady Ostrovsky provides thorough background information on Sergei Shnurov, and Mashani and Sasha Chest are pretty straightforward figures. I’ll give you some more information on Voina and Pussy Riot now, since they are a bit more complicated. Voina, whose name means “war,” is an art collective that first made its appearance in 2007. Their artwork is ephemeral; they create it in public spaces without permission, knowing that it will be destroyed almost immediately. The point is to make a leftist political statement though radical, creative disruption, and to this end, they document their actions and publicize them after the fact. That’s how we have the video of their piece “Artists Flip Off the FSB,” in which they use paint and a raised drawbridge to denounce the post-Soviet secret police. In doing so, they are drawing on a tradition of outsider art established by underground Soviet artists in the 1970s and 1980s. But we might consider their connection to earlier movements, as well.
Pussy Riot is more well-known in the West. Two of the group’s founding members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Peter Verzilov, started out as members of Voina before breaking off to form their own group. Pussy Riot is both an art collective and a band, and they share Voina’s mission of protesting Putin’s government through radical performances. They staged their first actions in 2011 at prominent sites in Moscow, including a prison where political protesters were being held and Red Square. Their most famous action is the “Punk Prayer,” which they performed in 2012 at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. They chose this location because it is the seat of the Orthodox Church, which has developed a mutually-reinforcing relationship with Putin, and because its opulence serves as a reminder that the government spent millions restoring the church (which was destroyed in the Soviet Era) instead of renewing infrastructure and combatting social problems.
Three members of Pussy Riot were caught by the police during this action and put on trial. Two of them were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in prison. This may remind you the consequences faced by Ludmilla Alexeyeva and other Soviet human rights activists, and the members of Pussy Riot certainly see themselves as heirs to that tradition of activism. While many Russians disapproved of Pussy Riot’s actions, they also felt that this sentence was too harsh. Additionally, the trial brought unwelcome international attention to the fragile state of free speech in Russia. The prisoners were freed a couple months early, in honor of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. As you can see from the second video, they returned immediately to making protest art.
The third video, “Chaika,” dates from 2016 and demonstrates both Pussy Riot’s continuity and its evolution. Chaika is the surname of Russia’s Prosecutor General, whose corrupt dealings were revealed in a 2015 documentary made by the Anti-Corruption Foundation. This foundation was established in 2011 by Alexei Navalny, who we discussed last time. As this should make clear, while the circle of oppositionists in Russia is relatively small, they are well connected, and the cross-pollination of their ideas is often quite productive.
The last video was made by British pop star Robbie Williams in 2016. I will leave it up to you to determine what message it conveys about Putin’s Russia.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. Let’s start with Ostrovsky’s article. How would you describe Sergei Shnurov and his band, Leningrad? What kinds of things do they sing about? Why do you think they became so popular in the early 2000s and have remained popular today? In what way do their songs and their performance style capture the zeitgeist (the feeling of the times)?
2. What is Shnur’s stage persona and how does it compare to his actual background in real life? Why do you think he has embraced this persona? In what ways is this act of self-reinvention similar or different from Bolshevik ritual building in the 1920s? As an artist, is Shnur closer to the avant-gardism of Boris Arvatov or the “proletarianism” of the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians? (Keep in mind that I’m asking this question about his approach as an artist, not the music he makes, though you can consider his music in your answer.)
3. Ostrovsky explains that Shnur calls Leningrad a “gang” rather than a “band.” Find the paragraph that begins, “Leningrad, his band, is a motley crew…” Make a close reading of that paragraph and the next one. Can you unpack Shnur’s position? Ostrovsky calls this “nihilism.” Do you think it’s for real? Or is it just another part of the persona? If it’s part of the persona, what lies behind it? How does this attitude help us understand Leningrad’s popularity?
4. One of the more remarkable aspects of Shnur’s philosophy is that he hates the idea of being a “protest band.” In describing his first band, Van Gogh’s Ear, he tells Ostrovsky, “We rebelled against all those ‘rock values,’ against ‘confession’ and ‘protest,’ because there is nothing more commercial than protest in Russia.” (Ostrovsky, web) How do you think Pussy Riot would counter this claim? If he’s right, does it necessarily follow that commercialization undermines the message and sincerity of protest music? Has protest music been commercialized in the US, too? Can you think of a Leningrad-style band that calls this out in our society?
5. Shnur claims to be apolitical. Is he? Are there ways in which his work supports Putin’s government? Are there ways in which his work undermines it? Is it up to Shnur whether his actions are political or not? How does his situation compare to the kompaniya members in the late 1950s, who also saw themselves as apolitical?
6. Consider Mashani’s song, “My Putin!” The message here is pretty obvious: Putin is the man for her! But what’s going on with her dresses? In the open air shots, she’s wearing a dress in the colors of the Russian flag, while in the “dungeon” shots, she’s wearing a dress in the colors of the Ukrainian flag and looking helplessly at the camera. She even praises Putin for “returning Crimea” and predicts that he will “restore our own all-freedom Union.” Consider that this video was made in 2015. What exactly is Mashani saying about Putin’s geopolitical ambitions? How does this fit with Tony Wood’s claim that Putin has largely been reacting to world events rather than driving them? What does Mashani’s video reveal about the expectations Putin has created and how they are intertwined with his political popularity?
7. Mashani is very girly, while Sasha Chest is hypermasculine. What qualities does each artist praise Putin for? If you had never seen or heard of Putin, what type of person would you expect him to be, based on these songs? How does that compare to Putin as he actually is? How do the two artists’ gendered visions of Putin this help us think about the construction of gender in post-Soviet Russia? Can you make a connection between their gendered performances of themselves and the recent rise of homophobia in Russia?
8. Voina’s performance piece “Artists Flip Off the FSB” also has a clear message. What are your thoughts on this as a form of protest? How does it compare to Navalny’s crowd-sourced RosPil blog? How does it compare to the Soviet dissidents’ 1966 Constitution Day Protest? By adopting noms de guerre (false names) and putting themselves at risk of arrest, the Voina activists echo the actions of Vladimir Lenin and Vera Figner. Why do you think this form of revolutionary activity has resurfaced in contemporary Russia?
9. Both Voina and Pussy Riot rely on new media. Voina’s “cosmic dick” was erased by morning, but the act of creating it lives forever on YouTube. Similarly, Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” is not a straight recording, but a series of cuts edited together and overlaid with a separate audio track. How have new technology and the internet changed the landscape of protest in Russia, a country that lacks a strong commitment to free speech? How has the Internet changed these cultural protesters’ relationship to their audience? Who and where is there audience, and what are the repercussions of that?
10. In the “Punk Prayer,” Pussy Riot uses two very different types of music: punk rock and traditional Orthodox church singing. How do these two styles interact in the video? How does the juxtaposition of them work to enhance Pussy Riot’s message? Why do you think they chose the form of a “prayer” in the first place? How does this fit with the range of subjects they are protesting in this song? (It may be helpful to go through the video slowly and make a list of all the issues they raise. There are many!)
11. Pussy Riot likes to stage their actions at significant locations. Consider their use of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and of the 2014 Olympic site in Sochi, venues where they knew they would be attacked by police. What are the pros and cons of this strategy? Do you think it is wise? Why or why not?
12. “Chaika” is a very different production, in terms of the music and the video. Comparing this video to the others, how did Pussy Riot evolve from its origins to 2016? What has changed and what has remained the same in their activism and artistry? How do those changes relate to the consequences of their earlier actions? Do you find the more playful, coherent style of “Chaika” more or less effective than the raw, chaotic, “Punk Prayer” and “Putin Will Teach You To Love”? What are your predictions for Pussy Riot’s future?
13. Robbie Williams’ “Party Like a Russian” gives us an outsider’s view of Putin’s Russia. What do you make of this song and video? What view of Putin’s Russia does it present? How does it relate to the breakdown in relations between Russia and the West that Tony Wood describes? Is this song a protest, a xenophobic insult, a joke, or something else?