Vanguard Video, Final Edition! Leah’s Video for Putin’s Cultural Revolution (Week 13, Day 2)

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?

9 Replies to “Vanguard Video, Final Edition! Leah’s Video for Putin’s Cultural Revolution (Week 13, Day 2)”

  1. To discuss question 7. It seems that Mashani is praising Putin for being a protector, almost like a knight. While, Sasha is commending him on his power and alpha male persona. If i did not know of Putin I would expect him to be a selfless savior from Mashani’s song, but probably more of a more misogynistic alpha male, who is quite controlling. Something some men would praise, perhaps. It seems that, from what we’ve read about Putin this is what he wants to be known for, a powerful, protector. Although I would highly doubt he is actually a selfless person, as I doubt many politicians are.

    Gender in post-Soviet Russia seems very divided into two groups- masculine and feminine, and those do not seem to mix. If Mashani was an American artist I’d almost expect her to be wearing 1950’s garb. She is incredibly feminine, long hair, long dress, makeup. While Sasha is uber masculine, and almost scary with his dark glasses and aggressive tone. Especially examining this from an area where gender and the way one presents themseleves is more fluid, these music videos seem incredibly dated.

    It seems that in societies where gender and the way you present yourself is more fluid and free, acceptance of sexuality is included in that. But by putting stress on “two very different genders”, i.e. an uber feminine woman and an uber masculine man, I think it becomes harder for people to accept that there is anything else but a male female relationship. In relationships in the West, “roles” are becoming more and more uncommon. Men are stay at home dads, they cook, clean, and show emotion. Women work, do “masculine” chores, propose, etc. Relationships now (whether straight, gay, or otherwise) are more so about two equal partners, than a woman that does woman things and a man that does man things. Which is due to our move away from oppressive gender roles. But, by those roles being iron clad in Russia it probably leads to homophobia.

  2. In response to Question 9, new technology has evolved the landscape of protest in Russia. Because Russia has a very weak commitment to free speech, activists and protestors are limited to what they can and cannot do, but technology has opened a door for new ways to share their messages. Voina benefits greatly from their ability to record and post their performance pieces that they know will be erased quickly after they are made. Their messages can remain available on platforms like Youtube for as long as they want, and they are not constrained to what the Russian government limits their speech to. Pussy Riot also benefits greatly from technology. The filming locations for “Punk Prayer” make the video more appealing, and they would not have been able to perform in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Their “performance” in the cathedral legitimizes their chaotic style and overlaying their audio track allows them to combine their chaotic style with their actual message. The Internet should bring the audience closer to the protestors, but I am not sure if the Russian government would block these videos on Youtube because restrictions can be placed on the availability of videos in certain areas. If that is the case, the audience is not in Russia, so their messages are not making the sort of direct impact that the protestors would hope for. Technology still does help them spread their messages even if it’s not to the right audience.

  3. In Mashani’s song “My Putin!”, which is overwhelming pro-Putin and kind of comical at times, has a clear message. Besides the obvious praise from the lyrics of the music, Mashani sends a message through her dresses. When there are shots of the open air, Mashani is wearing a dress of the tri-color Russian flag. She is open, dancing, and free. However, the shots change to her in blue and yellow dress, looking helplessly and trapped in rubble, all the while this up-beat praise of Putin plays in the background. She is representing Ukraine, who is looking towards Putin to be their savior. She is obviously portraying the pro-Russian Ukrainians who are looking to be “free” like the happy Mashani in her Russian dress. By doing this, Mashani is portraying Putin’s geopolitical ambitions in a positive light. Putin is represented as the savior to make Ukraine “free” from the pro-Western powers that are in control. This supports Tony Woods argument that “Much of Russia’s conduct on the world stage, in fact, has to be seen as a series of responses” (Woods 133). Mashani and other pro-Putin proponents regard Putin’s actions as a response. To them, the real aggressor is the west, trying to cut off Russia. Putin is responding to this by annexing Crimea and helping Ukraine, and he is doing it in the name of their freedom. This video reveals that Putin is willing to be a “Savior” in a sense to countries against the West. He will make Russia strong and stand up to western aggression. These are the cultural beliefs that are present within Mashani’s video, and explains why Putin is so popular as a political figure; he is willing to “save” Russia.

  4. With the rich first-class production of Chaika’s music video and the song’s reliance on a pop-influenced beat, Pussy Riot became a pop-culture institution. The days of the raw relatable demonstrations of music videos became a vibe of the past for Pussy Riot. The red and black color grading, the artificial artistic sets, the thematic costumes, and the choppy spoken-poetry-esque lyrics of Chaika’s production separated Pussy Riot from the group’s previous demographic of blood-covered chin held high street protestors. The battered chanting rockers, the violently shaking cameraman, and the well-chosen significant locations all empowered the die-hard viewers of Pussy Riot to become political rioters themselves. Chaika will enable the new catchy Pussy Riot to reach virgin ears, but at what price. If Bernier Sanders had conformed and backed down from his life-long proclamation of socialism, he would have gained the necessary voters to close his fist around victory. But then he would have walked on his knees. The cost of Pussy Riot becoming “mainstream” will be fame without a tongue.

  5. In regards to question 13 and watching “Party Like A Russian,” and , I started to laugh because I thought it was a little over the top for the music video. But once I started to watch a little more of the video and listen to the song, I notice it was a take on the elite society in Russia with the way they were dressed and the location that they were filming. But when looking into the song and what he is saying about Putin’s Russia is in the first few lines when he states, “It takes a certain kind of man with a certain reputation
    To alleviate the cash from a whole entire nation.” It’s almost like Williams is trying to say Putin wants to support only the elite with the way he describes the life of Russia. But after looking at the lyrics again, Robbie Williams only sings about partying but while taking a poke still at the oligarch’s. When it comes to the song and how its suppose to be taken from an outsiders point of view, I believe it can be taken as a joke and to mock the Russians, but it could also be looked at as simply a song saying to party like a Russian would.

  6. 10.
    The beginning of the song starts out with the traditional Orthodox church singing but they are singing about banishing Putin. Pussy Riot starts out with the church music and praying in their music video. When the switch to punk happens the band members stop praying and start chaotically dancing. Overall, it seems as though the church music is used in a mocking way as in the “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist,” but punk tells the true story of being a feminist and it is not what Mary had in mind. I think it enhances their message because of the mockery of praying and how the become a feminist is also mocking Mary. For them to choose prayer, I think that was a way to state that things that are said in prayer, don’t always mean something holy. That pray isn’t necessarily the word of God, and that you don’t have to listen to or do it. It fits in with the things they are protesting, such a gay rights. The Orthodox church does not like the LGBTQ+ community and Pussy Riot is mocking them on it.

  7. In response to question 11:

    I think that it is wise to hold these demonstrations in those kinds of locations. A message like that is not going to be spread in Russia without people filming it and posting it on the internet. If they did a protest of that nature on any random street corner then they would still be beat by the police, however no one would know about it. In doing it in public locations, people are able to see what they are taking a stand for and how the government is responding to them. The Olympics was a particularly good venue because they had the entire world stage and all eyes on them for the dissemination of their message.

  8. Question 12 and a bit of 11
    I think Pussy Riot’s intentions were clear when they performed in public. They wanted the public to see the corruption happening. They wanted to get their messages out there. They did. After their arrest, people were angry at the sentence of two years they were given. Even if the people did not agree with what they did, people were still angry that they got two years. I think they had clear goals. I mean they were put on a world stage after getting arrested. This put Russia’s politics on a world stage for everyone to see. They were even interviewed on American new shows and performed in the United States. I do think it is wise for them to do what they did. They had a point they wanted to get across and they did. It doesn’t matter if people agree with it, they at least heard it. I think Chaika is a different form of what Pussy Riot was trying to convey. Their earlier pieces just meshed together videos of their acts in public. This newer video takes a higher production value, and it was very entertaining to watch. I think the messages they want still stand. I took the video as them mocking Russia and being satirical. Especially the line that says something along the lines of you can get away with murder if you suck up to your boss. The lyrics really point out the corruption within the police and governments. The messages are still kind of the same, they still want people to know that there are bad things happening in Russia, but the way they convey it is different. The first songs were just calling Putin a terrible person outright and listing all the things the regime did wrong. Chaika is more satirical and ironic especially after being political prisoners. They say that they are friends with Putin and they say all of these things about being good women and good patriots, but the video and a few other lines show the satire. They are beating people up in the background, and they talk about how to do things under Putin’s government. I think it was a good chance. I liked it a lot. I personally think the newer style is more effective. A good video also plays into what people watch or listen to and why. I think also, the different styles and beat widens the audience that Pussy Riot wants to get to. Before, it was chaotic and punk, and the new style just broadens the audience pool because it is a catchy beat. I did a bit of an internet search to see what they are up to, and they were planning to tour North America this year (probably not now because of the circumstances) but they are widening their audience. I think it is good. They want to spread more messages that are important.

  9. In response to 13:
    I thought the song was catchy and the video was interesting to watch. However, it seems as though the song is trying to represent a divided nation between rich and poor. He is dancing in a beautiful house with very elegantly dressed women that seem to resemble the renaissance. I am not sure if this is his intended message, but when I see people dressed like that it makes me think of how a few people were living like kings while the rest were living like peasants. His lyrics have a lot of reference to Putin without directly referencing him, for instance: “Aint no refutin’ of disputin’ – Im a modern Rasputin'” . Aside from how obviously clever this line is, he also paints the picture that his character in the song is horribly corrupt and does not care about his people. Connecting these two ideas creates an insulting representation of Putin’s Russia. As for what i believe the true meaning of this video is, is that its an insult at the Russian government and is also a way for a very well known and prominent figure to raise awareness for an issue that needs attention. His video is currently just shy of 40 million views, his most viewed video is 210 million views.

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