Reintroducing Russia

by Eliot Borenstein

Show of hands by all the Russia watchers out there: in any of the scenarios in which Russia not only returned to the news, but became a cultural flashpoint, did anyone imagine that the key words would be “pussy riot?” “Riot,” perhaps, but… Here I’ll leave it to my readers to complete the thought.

The decades following the Cold War have been rather stingy when it comes to Russia’s role in Western media outlets. A limited number of predictable narrative frameworks come out in semi-regular rotation: first there was the “bold struggle against communist holdouts” (a theme that was largely retired along with Boris Yeltsin); the “Russian mafiya” (“why we should still be afraid of Russia”); Chechen terrorism (the “war on terror”); Putin’s popularity (“Russia moves backwards”), and, most recently, the anti-Putin protests (appealing under at least two different rubrics: “the Internet will set you free” and “Arab Spring, Russian style”).

And then there was Pussy Riot. On the one hand, Pussy Riot has all the ingredients for a perfect media storm: viral video, feminist activism, delicate religious sensibilities, state persecution, and, of course, balaclavas. On the other hand, Pussy Riot disrupts the conventional categories for thinking about “Russia today,” in much the same way that it thwarts any attempt to define the nature of its actions. As Mikhail Iampolski aptly noted in Novoe vremia, Pussy Riot does not have a stable identity: it is a punk band that is not quite a punk band, an artistic collective whose aims are often political, a political movement that acts like an artistic collective, and an Internet phenomenon that cannot be exclusively virtual. Is the Pussy Riot story about the stifling of avant-garde artistic expression? A crackdown on a new generation of dissidents? The unchecked power of the Russian Orthodox Church? The tragedy of three modern-day Joans of Arc who happen to curse like sailors?

Certainly, there are Russian precedents for playful artistic subversion, going back at least a far as Mayakovsky’s futurist street theater, and, more recently, the Mitki, a Brezhnev-era Leningrad slacker phenomenon. But none of this was the face of dissidence. Soviet dissidence was deadly serious, and for good reason, but this earnestness was, to coin a phrase, Soviet in form, anti-Soviet in content. For truly corrosive irony, one had to look at styob, a Russian style of humor that ridicules its object by overidentifying with it (think Stephen Colbert always staying in character as a Fox News wingnut). Styob was all but invisible to Westerners; it never became part of Western narratives about Russia, perhaps because we couldn’t be sure we got the joke.

Though their trial was a farce, what’s happened to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich is anything but a joke. Both the charges and the sentence are excessive by any reasonable standards, and the Russian government deserves all the blame being heaped on it. In recent months, Pussy Riot has galvanized Russia watchers all over the globe: if you’re reading this post and are on Facebook, you’ll have seen the posts and reposts about Pussy Riot evicting Farmville and Words with Friends from your newsfeed’s virtual real estate. For what may be a very brief moment, Russia is “relevant” again, and humanists should be particularly thankful that this relevance combines politics with philosophy and the arts. Without question, those of us who condemn Pussy Riot’s persecution should continue to engage in supportive activism, but we should also ask ourselves: how can this event help us change the narrative? When all eyes are on Russia, and when what we’re looking at is a clever, cosmopolitan, multimedia phenomenon, it’s up to the Russianists of all stripes to show not that Russia is interesting again, but that Russia has been interesting all along.

6 responses to “Reintroducing Russia”

  1. Tony Anemone says:

    Yes, their trial was a farce, being accused with exciting religious hatred was ridiculous, and their sentence excessive by any reasonable standard. But their arrest, it seems to me, wasn’t. If a punk band had done a similar thing in St Patrick’s Cathedral, for example, they would have been instantly arrested as well, regardless of US freedom of speech, although the sentence, if they had been found guilty, would certainly have been appreciably lighter. Still, if you want to live in a society of laws, you have to obey the laws or face the consequences. . . Finally, I’m not so sure that Pussy Riot makes Russia interesting (again?). Russia has never stopped being interesting to me and I guess I’m not that interested in what the “mainstream media” finds interesting. . . . In any case, great opening post, and best of luck with the blog!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tony. And you make a good point about arrests: you can get arrested for a whole variety of things, in the U.S. as well as Russia. Or you can get a ticket on the spot. But it’s unlikely that something like this would even get to the sentencing stage–you’d get a fine and go home. A comparison could be made to ACT UP in the 80s, and that comparison was made…by Ed Koch, who applauded the Pussy Riot sentence while congratuling himself for taking a hard line against ACT UP ( Of course, even Koch didn’t find a way to send AIDS activists to prison for two years…

  2. Kevin Hataley says:

    After a summer of mixed emotions, I have come to agree with the line of reasoning proposed by Tony Anemone, but with this question: is the ludicrous nature of the trial and sentence perhaps a state response to the farce in kind?
    All the best with the blog Eliot!

  3. Charles Byrd says:

    Could you say a few more words about “Styob” and perhaps give some Russian examples? What does it mean to “overidentify” an object of humor? To what extant do you see Pussy Riot as practitioners of “styob?”

    On a larger note, thanks for starting a compelling blog.

  4. Sara Dickinson says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Eliot. Glad to see this blog!

  5. Kenneth Cargill says:

    Perhaps Pussy Riot has received a lot of concentrated attention, but in this age of blogs dedicated to every geographical region of the world (and certainly there are plenty that follow Russia), it is easier than ever for the motivated observer to follow Russia and learn about many interesting events without relying on the mainstream media. One of the interesting things I found out about indirectly in the Russian-language discussions of the Pussy Riot matter were all the other heinous abuses that go on under the Russian judicial system and which have not received much attention either inside Russia or abroad. Take, for example, the case of a provincial school teacher who was arrested on trumped-up corruption charges: According to the account given here, the victim’s older son was physically beat-up and threatened by the local authorities in order to extract a confession against his father. This, to my mind, is not much better than the practices of Stalinism, yet here it is still going on in 2012.

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