Monthly Archives: August 2013

Pussy Riot – One Year On (Through the words of Juan Rodolfo Wilcock)

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Demonstrators outside Kham sud 17 August 2012

17th August – was the anniversary of the sentencing of the Pussy Riot trio. From an orgy of press attention last year, there was a relative silence on the issue on this anniversary. Another Russian issue has emerged (the anti-gay laws and whether to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics) which surely will also fall beneath the radar at some point. Two of the trio remain in jail and one year later Russian reality seems to have entered into a phase beyond the absurd: a kind of phantasmagoric Kharmsian period of selective repression. Last August just after the sentence (I stood outside the court where the sentence was read out) I posted the comment below on my Facebook page. That day there was the sense that of real defeat. It was already in the air that this trial was a turning point. The triumph of hysterical moral traditionalism:

Hard to talk about Russia in anything other than paradoxes, irony and black humour after yesterday’s verdict but here are some bitter truths. The freest women in the country have just made their way to prison. Russian government officials and their paid lackeys will now surely go on a long whine about Russophobia. The real Russophobes are those turning this country into a prison camp, the church spokesmen and the judges leading one of the most vile and disgusting campaigns against three of the most intelligent and cultured women in Russia today, the drunk priests in their Mercedes running over pedestrians, the cynical news reporters who spout lie after lie for their paranoid masters, the judges who declare that being a socially active member of Russian society is a sign of mental illness, the Black Hundred types whose hatred of Jews and homosexuals have moved on to a hysterical hatred of any woman whose shows the slightest sign of independence, the religious addicts who hark back to a medieval world of the Domostroy, the Nashi type who brings placards shouting ‘down with degenerate art’ not knowing – or who knows and is probably happy in the knowledge – that they are parroting Nazi slogans, the type whose sense of ‘morality’ demands the incarceration of the radical, the feminist, the artist, the homosexual, the Jew, the foreigner, the other until their world is ‘pure’ – ethnically, socially, racially, aesthetically cleansed for the safe return to a despotic tsarism and tyrannical Orthodoxy. The true Russophobe today is that foaming patriarch exalting at the incarceration of mothers, that miserable nationalist whose fear of the other is so great that he goes into paroxysms of hatred imagining sick fantasies of revenge and torture, that religious fanatic whose only real values are inquisitorial ones. There is nothing more terrifying for Russia today than the ‘love’ of its nationalists – the true Russophobes- whose destruction of Russian culture advances at a furious speed.

Since then new political trials have been engineered. The trial of the Bolotnaya demonstrators, almost ignored in the western press, and a whole collection of morality laws have been framed to satisfy those very forces in Russian society which I described above.

Late last Summer and early Autumn, amidst the gloom of the post-trial despair, I read and re-read the Argentinian-born writer Juan Rodofo Wilcock. I’ve always in my own way found the environment in Russia more Wilcockian than just Kafkaesque. After all Kafka didn’t describe a universe where people are chased around the streets of Moscow by religious fanatics and riot police for wearing a pasta strainer on their head. After this indignity the moral guardians of the new moral order and architect of Russia’s anti-gay law, Vitaly Milonov would go on to blame them for moral decadence in society paving the way for the burning of churches. This is a quote from an Orthodox website which had a report on a failed attack on a church:

Milonov blamed the attack on moral decadence in Russia, citing as an example a rally of half a dozen followers of the tongue-in-cheek religion Pastafarianism who marched through St. Petersburg wearing pasta strainers on their heads last weekend. However, the lawmaker stopped short of accusing the flock of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whose church was officially registered in Russia in July, of torching the church of a rival god.

“It’s a sickly spirit permeating our society. First they wear pasta strainers and then they torch churches,” Milonov said, the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper reported.

Anyway to return to Wilcock and Pussy Riot: one of his poems that I read on a Moscow elektrichka and whose words summoned the image of Maria Alyokhina constantly to my head. A poem that seems to mirror both her Debordian and religiously-tinged ‘liberationism’:

Chi è legato alla carne deperisce,
come la carne che è in noi deperisce.
Ma la morte mentale avviene prima,
forse alla prima accettazione
di un ordine che non è concordia dei diversi
ma inganno e privilegio del potere.
Per non tradire bisogna avere cento occhi,
ma la ricompensa è la miseria.
Per non mentire bisogna avere cento braccia
ma la ricompensa è il disprezzo.
Per non essere leggeri bisogna essere leggeri
ma la ricompensa è il silenzio.
Per non essere crudeli bisogna essere crudeli
ma la ricompensa è la solitudine.
Seguire il Vangelo, non peccare in spirito
può portare in prigione, ma la prigione è aperta.

Those linked to the flesh wilt
Just as flesh wilts in us
But death of the mind happens earlier
perhaps the first time we accept
an order which is not the agreement of differences
but the deceit and privilege of power.
In order not to betray one needs a hundred eyes
but the reward is misery.
In order not to lie one needs a hundred arms
but the reward is contempt
In order not to be frivolous one must be frivolous
but the reward is silence
In order not to be cruel one must be cruel
but the reward is solitude
Follow the Gospel, don’t sin in spirit
It may lead you to prison but the prison is open.

Maria Alyokhina

Of course, much rot was written in the western press about Pussy Riot. At the Odessa Film Festival I managed to talk briefly with Michael Lerner, one of the directors of the film ‘Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer”. We both agreed that the campaign in the West was generally cringe-worthy and that all the actions by the Paul McCartney’s etc was, if not counter-productive, certainly hypocritical. Vadim Nikitin summed things up well in an article in the New York Times just after the sentence reminding people how dangerous the ideas of the group were for western hierarchies and systems too:

Pussy Riot’s fans in the West need to understand that their heroes’ dissent will not stop at Putin; neither will it stop if and when Russia becomes a “normal” liberal democracy. Because what Pussy Riot wants is something that is equally terrifying, provocative and threatening to the established order in both Russia and the West (and has been from time immemorial): freedom from patriarchy, capitalism, religion, conventional morality, inequality and the entire corporate state system. We should only support these brave women if we, too, are brave enough to go all the way.

It seems that, at present, Russia is doomed to suffer the extremes at an attempt of re-traditionalisation of mores directed by the political and religious hierarchy in order to scapegoat its many failings, yet the challenge laid down by the Pussy Riot Three remains. It remains even in respect to Western hierarchies. (Even their simple refusal to brand the idea of Pussy Riot against the wishes of their voracious lawyers deserves mention in the light of the incredible greed of one of their erstwhile western supporters, the ex-Beatle Paul McCartney). Their words are already being etched into more permanent memory and into ‘High Culture’ by the likes of Ilya Demutsky with his opera based on Maria Alyokhina’s closing statement:

Closing statement by the Accused

Ilya Demutsky Composer of opera based on Maria Alyokhina’s closing statement.

Back to Wilcock- my literary companion and guide in this Russia which is imprisoning its dreamers- a few words from him (who else?):

Don’t stay far away from me for long
unless you want memory to devour all
and leave no space for the present,
I often see you now beneath the trees,
the streets repeat you, the bathtub,
rooms, records, and the sea’s the same

Who else other than Wilcock to conclude? Well maybe Jean Genet, Juan Goytisolo, Guy Debord … but that’s for another post.

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We are all Nazi’s: Seroe-Fioletovoe and the witch-hunt against ‘illegal’ immigrants in Moscow.

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Seroe-Fioletovoe (Grey Velvet) as the ‘hanged gay’ in the 2008 Voina art action in Ashan, a Moscow supermarket chain.

One of the most interesting texts of the past few weeks has been a text published on the Ekho Moskvy website in early August. The activist Seroe-Fioletovoe (or Grey Violet), a former member of the art group Voina, (a group with common links to Pussy Riot) and the hanged gay in one of their radical actions. In a Moscow supermarket an immigrant, a Jew and a gay were ‘hanged’ in the middle of an aisle in front of shoppers going about their shopping. The radical alterity of this action half a decade ago is, in many ways, becoming apparent only now as a presentiment of the deeply sinister present moment. Ironically the action was cited by President Putin as an incitement to extremist hatred in the aftermath of the Pussy Riot affair. Seroe-Fioletovoe’s reaction to the recent rounding up of ‘illegal immigrants’ in Moscow (in immediate reaction to a case of resistance by Daghestani immigrants who had finally had enough of police harassment) printed below suggests that the alterity of his vision has not gone away. While liberal discourse has concentrated on the recent laws on gay propaganda, Grey Violet – a libertarian queer activist – produced this ‘scandalous’ text accusing everyone (and even political gays and lesbians, leftists, anti-fascists and anarchists) of being Nazi’s. Accusing himself too. The text is important because it lets no one off the hook and allows for no compromises saying we can’t excise the radical demands and spirit of the ideas of Voina or Pussy Riot and hope for a relative political liberalization for ourselves whilst a new scapegoat is found). Only radical ideas, radical democratic practice, only by extirpating all xenophobic tendencies can Russia avoid fascism. And this discourse is surely true for Europe, America or other parts of the world too. While Russia is symbolic of the more sinister aspects of the present moment the radicalism of some of its activists goes far beyond in word and deed the conformism of many of their European or American counterparts. Grey-Violet’s text is prescient given the growing xenophobic electoral campaign for Moscow mayor of Putin’s main rival, Alexei Navalny, of the past few days.

Today in Moscow the authorities replied to the issues posed to it, including the xenophobic issue.
In reply to the defence of Russian citizens by relatives from beatings and kidnappings by people in uniform and without, the authorities have begun ethnic cleansing and are building concentration camps for those who don’t have the fortune to possess a piece of paper with the title “passport of the Russian Federation”, for those without the fortune of having a sufficiently “Arian” appearance.
Even the opposition supports this- all the candidates for the post of Moscow mayor are going into the elections with a nationalist rhetoric and nationalist programme.
And the main rival to the candidate of the authorities (the nationalist and protest leader Alexei Navalny) as always, most of all attempts to upstage the authorities even in this sphere, continuing to play migrants off against his supporters who are, in general, well-off people, possessing the privileges of having a European appearance, a Russian passport and belonging to the ethnic and cultural majority.

Yet perhaps and this is probably closer to the truth, is it not the authorities who are trying to upstage him? And all this cleansing and concentration camps are on the conscience not only of the authorities but also on that of the protest movement.
And it, the protest movement, remains tellingly silent.
The movement is socially closer to the nationalist Navalny, for whom the Manege turns out, socially closer to Ilya Farber, the “only European” in the “backwater” village. But far from it are thousands of people living nearby who are right now being arrested throughout the city and send to tented filtration camps.
Right here and now.
And all are silent. And all sit at home.
Occasionally the liberals start to grumble in their small, little cosy Facebook worlds. The leftists say nothing. It’s as though the anarchists and anti-fascists have fallen into the water. The political gays and lesbians have tightened their lips.
Why? Because there is “nothing personal”. Or rather the “personal” is everything.
Because the chance of a national-democratic “victory” is more important.
Because they are ready to walk over the lives of other people.
The lives of those who have no voice. The lives of those who are excluded. And it means that all are Nazis.
All Moscow liberals are Nazis.
All Moscow leftists are Nazis.
All Moscow anarchists are Nazis
All Moscow anti-fascists are Nazis.
All Moscow gay activists are Nazis.
And I, too, am a Nazi.
For all that time I do nothing for those whose voice is excluded – until they have gained their voice.
Because there can be no talk of any elections nor of any democratic politics when there are those whose voice is excluded.

A Short, Unfinished Note on Russia and Misunderstanding.

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In a recent Moscow Times article the theatre critic and translator John Freedman mused on a declaration by US senator John McCain on the Russia that is and the Russia that we wish for. Instead of this being a reaction to a hollow expression, Freedman turned it into a reflection on both the past and the possible territory into which Russia is moving. For a newspaper article it is an unusually dialogic text. The circumstances of traveling back to the US from Russia and discovering a host of old newspapers from a period when western perceptions of Russia were almost diametrically opposite to those existing today make it so. For me the subjects broached in the article are, in a way, too excessive for words. Or rather that the words are so difficult to find. How to describe Russia, how to compare Russia, how to read Russia. This is the conundrum for me. In many ways this minimalist journey through citations is not a bad one.

Unfortunately there are certain quotes that are so omnipresent that they make you want to reach for the proverbial gun after hearing them yet again. There is the Churchillian quote that anglo-saxon’s like to use about Russian being the “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” , and the Tiutchev quote that Russians quote with regularity when they know they are dealing with a foreigner with little experience of Russia:

Умом Россию не понять, /Аршином общим не измерить. У ней особенная стать, В Россию можно только верить!

You will not grasp her with your mind, Or cover with a common label, For Russia is one of a kind —
Believe in her, if you are able…

The Moscow Times have provided another list of quotes of varying inanity or apparent profundity here

But the quote that I’d choose to try and get someone’s head around Russia is the least pithy one but the one that needs to be reflected upon. It was the John Bowlt one that John Freedman quoted in the article. But not just the quote (“Russians are just as civilized as everyone else”) but what Freedman calls the wryness and the forcefulness of the statement need to be replicated too.

Russia seems, as John Freedman says, to be moving into a particularly unpredictable territory. The problem is that the signs are dire but the descriptions of these signs or the lack of imagination people have when discussing Russian are just as dire. Take, for example, the recent splat or, as the competent Russia-hand Julia Ioffe put it, the “mansplaining and O’Reillying” of her by television presenter Lawrence O’Donnell

This is, in many ways, indicative of a certain way of how journalists are expected to discuss Russia. It seems to be a rare journalist (and Julia Ioffe seems to be one of them) who tries to resist the common sense so nauseatingly totalising in the western media. It may be quite understandable why. Russia has, it seems, entered into a qualitatively different period of repression since the Pussy Riot trial. Its government has enacted some pretty weird and disconcerting homophobic legislation along with a number of other sinister steps. Some of the more scandalous moves of the Russian authorities are actually under-reported. The anti-gay law so far has been rather patchily applied whereas the moves of the police authorities against migrants have been massive. According to Human Rights Watch the figures of detentions has reached 4,000 Moreover, this ‘hidden news’ doesn’t seem to be irking anyone too much. Those linked with the Russian opposition haven’t been furiously pounding their twitter accounts or their Facebook pages with protests because, well, this would an uncomfortable issue for the Navalny camp. When one documentary film director put a picture of the camp up of a child in a migrants camp with the title ‘Ordinary Fascism’ he received little understanding and much criticism from his, most probably, oppositional-minded followers. One of the only figures to write an angry, radical post about this subject was the queer activist and libertarian, Seroe-Fioletovoe. Denouncing everyone as a Nazi (from Moscow liberals, leftists, anti-fascists to gay activists and himself included) it was one of those pieces of writing that most probably wouldn’t appear in any mainstream publication outside Russia (it appeared on the blog of the Gazprom-owned by opposition minded radio station Echo Moskvy. Just as a Pussy Riot group never appeared in the Vatican in spite of the churches absolutely horrendous history of covering up pedophile priests for decades. This, for me, indicates one of those reasons that John Bowlt’s quote has something to say for it. The radical backlash stil llooks more possible in Russia. At present, it seems that black humour is the mainstream refuge from the grotesque new morality legislation that has been brought into play. A little like in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union (but yes this is an overused trope too) there is a certain kind of joyful ‘desperate complicity’ (and resistance at the same time) in revealing the worst aspects of the present moment- showing that you are surviving and naming the worst, the darkest, the most absurd moments of the present. Perhaps if Joyce had been Russian he may have written that the present (rather than history) was a nightmare from which he was trying to escape.

Coming up with ways of comparing Russia and ‘the west’ is a frustrating business. They all, sooner or later, end up in the vortex of the well-worn trope that disguises much more than it reveals. Better to re-read Boris Groys’s essay on ‘Russia as the Subconscious of the West’ before I add to the predictable tropes and dig myself into any more holes for not having said quite what I meant to say.