Sex, Scandal, And The Russian Opposition

One of the most interesting new bloggers on the Russia watching scene is Augis Barkov and his Red Hot Russia. Much like chinaSMACK for China, he searches out trending stories on Runet and translates them – with comments from netizens – for a wider English-speaking audience. Some of his topics I found interesting included Chechen fashion“Naked Party of Love”, and Russian dating profiles (from the 1900’s!). Augis recently wrote this exclusive article for Da Russophile on the Russian opposition’s use of sex, scandal, and slapstick to highlight various social and political issues.

There is no such thing as bad publicity. This paradigm works fairly well in advertising consumption products from chewing gum to works of art. But will it succeed in advertising political ideas? Can they be promoted by means of sex and scandals?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but some activists of Russian opposition seem to believe in Succès de scandale. Let me describe the most infamous examples of such acts and leave to readers the judgment whether they were performed by artists or hooligans, liberals or liberasts.

First name which springs to mind in relation to social and political protests expressed in scandalous form is the art-group “Voina” [“War”].

They are best known for the pornographic act which took place in Moscow Museum of Biology in 2008. Few days before the presidential elections in Russia (won by Dmitry Medvedev) a group of 12 activists conducted an orgy in one of the rooms of museum. Five couples simultaneously engaged in sexual intercourse while two other members were holding placard with the writing “Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear!”.

[Note: Puppy Bear (in Russian “медвежонок”) has the same root as Medvedev’s surname (“Медведев”)]

And according to the organizers, the purpose of this action was to express the “artistic support of inexperienced Puppy Bear in the beginning of his path”. They also noted that “as always, neither public nor law enforcement officers have interfered in what was happening”.

Those who want to see the NSFW pictures documenting the orgy – can follow this link.

Another “work” of this group had even won first prize in the annual competition organized by the State Center of Modern Arts! You won’t believe what creation captivated the imagination of this competition’s judges…

Well… it was the huge (65 meterslong, 27 meterswide) graffiti of Phallus painted on one bridge in St. Petersburg. On June 10th 2010, nine members of “Voina” poured white paint on the bridge. They did it precisely at1:39 a.m. – moments before the rising of the bridge when it was already empty from people and cars. The whole process took only 23 seconds!

It’s worth to note that the bridge itself is located opposite to the building of FSB (former KGB) where Vladimir Putin had worked in the past. So, huge Phallus slowly rising in front of FSB should have been an impressive sight. The action itself was appropriately called “Dick Captured by FSB!”

And now let’s transfer to 2012 when Vladmir Putin was re-elected as Russia’s President. So far, this year was marked by high level of political activity in Russia. And “performers” didn’t waste the chance to show their creativity.

[Note: regarding creativity it’s worth to mention that in political debates in Russian internet, oppositionists are often described with the word “креативщик” (loosely translated as “creative person”); this epithet, however, has a negative undertone]

The latest incident widely discussed in Russian media already for two months is the extravagant prayer of “Pussy Riot” – Russian female punk group.

Few days before the presidential elections, four girls wearing masks entered one of the main Russian churches (Christ the Savior Cathedral) and performed a prayer accompanied by clownish dance. One of their assistants filmed the dance and the video of this act was uploaded to YouTube with a soundtrack of “punk prayer” in which girls asked not to allow Putin to win the elections.

Currently three members of the punk group are arrested and wait for trial. Their performance didn’t win them supporters even among the most ardent haters of Russian authorities. But they still succeeded to polarize the Russian society around the question of appropriate punishment for their hooliganism.

According to the criminal codex they might receive the prison term of 7 years. Some people feel that this is exactly how “Pussy Riot” should be punished for hurting the feelings of believers and doing what the Russian Orthodox Church defined as blasphemy. Others think that it would be enough to fine them and detain for 15 days – term often used in Russia for administrative (not criminal!) cases of hooliganism.

Two weeks ago the case of “Pussy Riot” was highlighted by Amnesty International who gave the band’s members status of prisoners of conscience.

On one hand, it’s quite unusual taking in account that the only two other Russian prisoners of conscience are Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. On another hand, activists in Russia and China are often beatified in the West just because they are thorns in the side of their countries’ governments rather than for their actual achievements. For example, Ai Weiwei – Chinese artist who is also inclined to nude performances was taken under protection by Human Rights Watch; Alexey Navalny – Russian oppositionist – was drafted into TIME’s list of the most influential people in 2012; Liu Xiaobo – Chinese dissident –  was awarded Nobel Prize for Peace.

So, “Pussy Riot” being proclaimed prisoners of conscience is not that surprising.

In this light I would like to quote the Russian ultra-liberal activist Valeriya Novodvorskaya who in her recent article [ru] gave unexpectedly critical evaluation of “Pussy Riot” stunts.

Violence and cruelty of [Russian] authorities are sickening, but some subjects offered to us for human rights defense, also cause nausea.

One thing  is the modest, pure and selfless Svetlana Bakhmina or brave stoic Vasily Alexanian <…> Another thing – the clone of Ukrainian “Femen” – strange punk band Pussy Riot.

Let me note: girls should be released immediately and the case must be closed. <…> But this does not mean that they should be declared prisoners of conscience. Because they don’t have the conscience.

Opposing Putin in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior is as appropriate as dealing with the FSB in St. Petersburg by drawing phallic images on Liteinyj Bridge. <…> The group “Voina” is as illiterate, tactless and devoid of any culture as our “pussies”. This does not mean that the group “Voina” should be imprisoned. But why giving awards for the obscenities? Instead ,make them wash the bridge, or even pay for the washing.

No need to compare the ill-bred “pussies” or half-naked Femen or oppositionists with phallus with those to whom Amnesty International dedicated the symbol of candle in barbed wire.

You can entirely undress, but it won’t make you equal to Sergey Kovalev, Alexander Podrabinek, or Vladimir Bukovsky – dissidents imprisoned for the real deeds, and not the rudeness. Yes, it is necessary to release the girls, but they should be denied the right to join the ranks of those who protect freedom. And “Femen” should go to work in striptease – it fits them more.

Example of FEMEN (group of Ukrainian girls “monetizing” the space of their breasts with different political slogans) has inspired followers in Russia.

Thus, some time ago, a newly formed “Party of Love” decided to stage in the center of Moscowpolitical protest of their own. It seems, however, that their desire to undress was so urgent that they forgot to prepare any placards (or at least paint slogans on their naked bodies). Therefore, the visitors of GUM (Moscow’s central shopping mall) were puzzled by the purpose of four guys and one girl who climbed in underwear into fountain and stood their seemingly satisfied with themselves.

Later the youngsters claimed that with this brave act they wanted to support the girls from “Pussy Riot”. And complained about the cruelty of Russian police who detained them and “tortured” for 10 hours by calling them bad names and threatening to put in prison for hooliganism.

Very few Russian netizens were amused by this act and many suggested that these political activists should be whipped by parents (even if it’s a little bit late).

This article was written by Augis Barkov who also runs a blog RedHotRussia in which he posts translations of hot stories and videos from Russian internet along with comments of Russian netizens. You can follow Augis Barkov on Twitter – @RedHotRussia.


  1. As I have repeatedly pointed out, the activities of Voina and Pussy Riot (their membership appears to overlap) would undoubtedly have resulted in criminal prosecutions if they had happened in Britain. The “fuck the heir, puppy bear” sex orgy would have been prosecuted in Britain under the offence of gross indecency in a public place. The incident of overturning the police car would have been prosecuted as an act of criminal damage. The throwing of live cats at staff working at McDonalds would have resulted in prosecutions for assault and animal cruelty. Even the drawing of the phallus on the bridge is potentially an offence under British law, though probably one that would not have resulted in a prosecution. As for the incident at the Cathedral, this would almost certainly have resulted in prosecutions for indecency and incitement.

    These are serious offences some of which (eg. the sex orgy in the museum, the overturning of the police car and the throwing of the cats) would certainly have resulted in prison terms if they had been prosecuted in Britain. In relation to the sex orgy there would have been concerns that the venue chosen (a museum) is a place accessible to children. Moreover the British public is notoriously sentimental on the subject of animals and the cat throwing incident would immediately have forfeited for Voina whatever public sympathy it might have had.

    There is a widespread view that Britain is a very liberal society, which is very tolerant of eccentric behaviour and to a great extent that is true. However that liberalism and tolerance depends on a clear understanding within society of where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour are. This is something that has been achieved over a very long period and which forms an important element of British social conditioning. In Britain behaviour of the sort that Voina and Pussy Riot engage in would be seen as having far overstepped those boundaries. The reality is (though this may seem surprising to some Russian readers) that the Russian authorities have shown far greater tolerance and forbearance towards Voina and Pussy Riot than the authorities in Britain would ever have done.

    • kirill says:

      I agree that these “protests” are simple lawlessness. In Canada and the US you don’t get to protest by breaking the law in a brazen fashion. It’s too bad in Russia that the law enforcement is slow to catch up to this. Every one of these lawbreakers should face personal consequences for their actions. Amnesty International can all them prisoners of conscience all it wants but nobody who is not already biased against Russia will take such accusations seriously.

      Where’s the vaunted western civilization that these idiots claim they are trying to bring to Russia? Do they even know anything about the west? To me they look like useful idiots engaged in soft terrorism on behalf of foreign powers. Perhaps the laws in Russia should be stiffened to combat this sort of activity.

    • yalensis says:

      @alexander: I believe a key point of British “eccentricity” and tolerance thereof is the assumption that the “eccentric” be a member of the upper class! Lower classes? Not so much!

      • yalensis says:

        P.S. Of all these acts of “hooliganism”, the only one that really bothers me is the graffiti on the bridge. I cannot tolerate graffiti. Plus, these bridges are national landmarks and heritages. Anyone who defaces them should be punished severely. Sex in the cathedral? I could care less!
        P.P.S. These narcissists really need to have their own reality show, that would keep them occupied for a while.

      • Dear Yalensis,

        What you say is of course absolutely true. Eccentricity in England is overwhelmingly an aristocratic affectation or is at least associated with the aristocracy. I would add that it is a specifically English conceit. You do not encounter it to anything like the same extent in Scotland, Wales or Ireland even amongst the aristocracy there.

        Having said that, Britain is traditionally a very individualistic society and the British do have a tradition of tolerance for unusual behaviour. However the point I was making is that this is a tolerance that has very definite limits. Some of the things Voina and Pussy Riot have done fall well outside those limits.

  2. I think I should say that some of the protests discussed in this post do seem to me to fall within the definition of acceptable forms of political protest. The painting of the phallus on the bridge and the fountain protest at GUM are two examples. Obviously such protests involve a large measure of exhibitionism and one wonders how politically effective they are. However any form of political protest if it is to be effective has to aim to capture attention. Protests like the painting of the phallus and the fountain protest at GUM do no one any physical or mental harm and cause no damage to property and are therefore to my mind acceptable and should be treated with a fair degree of leniency and understanding.

    Protests that involve property damage or violence (including violence towards animals) are completely unacceptable. The overturning of the police car and the incident of the cats being thrown at the staff of McDonalds are such examples. Such protests are straightforward crimes and should be treated as such even if that means that the people who commit them go to prison.

    More problematic are actions that are extremely offensive but which do not involve property damage or violence. Examples include the “fuck the heir, puppy bear” sex orgy at the museum and the Pussy Riot protest at the Cathedral (I am not by the way saying that the two are equally offensive. The protest at the Cathedral was far more offensive than the protest in the museum). Here it seems to me that the authorities need to balance the anger and distress such protests might cause against the general right of free expression in a democratic society. It is precisely such a balancing exercise that is envisaged by the European Convention of Human Rights of which Russia is a signatory and which clearly says that the right of free expression is a qualified right, which can be restricted in appropriate circumstances, and is not an absolute right. The protesters for their part need to think carefully whether the anger and distress caused by such protests does not in the end undo whatever positive effect they aim to achieve by such protests.

    I think any reasonable person looking at these cases would agree that in the protest at the Cathedral the protesters went too far. Taken together with the straightforwardly criminal behaviour in the cases involving the overturning of the police car and the incident of the thrown cats it suggests a reckless and arrogant attitude and a lack of a sense of political and social responsibility. The protesters could do worse in my opinion than take their cue from FEMEN. Unlike the Russian protesters the FEMEN activists have gauged the level of their protests much better, which is why they have avoided becoming drawn into the sort of storm that Pussy Riot now find themselves in.

    • kirill says:

      I am not so sure that all of these incidents should get protection. They all involve some form of property damage or trespass. The same rigour should be applied in law enforcement. They perpetrators should be at the very least fined. That is how life is in the west and supposedly Art Voina and friends are all fighting for the western life in Russia.

    • yalensis says:

      @alex: Painting graffiti on the bridge IS property damage. Can you imagine how much it costs to clean off the paint?

      • yalensis says:

        P.S. Harming cats is wrong and should be punished severely. My kitty forcing me to type this under duress of threatening claws…
        P.P.S. I know I asked this question before, but never got a satisfactory answer: Once police arrested Pussy Riot girls, did they not rip off their masks and reveal their secret identities? Or was it like in Zorro, where he is sitting in cell for 3 days, and Alcalde never bother to remove his mask?

        • Dear Yalensis,

          As I understand it the girls were not immediately arrested. Rather they were escorted out of the Cathedral by the Church’s own guards. Only later were they rounded up and arrested by the police. Whether the Church guards got them to take off their balaclavas when they escorted them out of the Cathedral and were able to identify them to the police is something I simply don’t know.

          Incidentally you touch on an important point. None of the girls who has been arrested has so far admitted to being present in the Cathedral when the incident took place. This is important because the reason Amnesty International has given for giving the girls prisoner of conscience status is because the case against them violates their right of free expression. This is a potential defence (though see my comment below) but is not one the girls themselves are for the moment making because they do not for the moment admit they were there. In other words Amnesty International has declared the girls prisoners of conscience on the strength of a defence the girls have not yet made. This is exactly the sort of absurdity one would expect when Amnesty International declares persons prisoners of conscience at such an early stage in their case before their trials have taken place.

  3. kirill says:

    I am sure that the “persecution” of Pussy Riot features in this report. Perfidious Albion is in no position to judge democracy in Russia. It has a long tradition of undermining its geopolitical rivals with dirty methods (c.f. piracy on the Spanish fleets) and today gives safe haven to gangsters such as Boris Berezovsky.

    I am glad that Russia has turned the screws on Ukraine’s stolen gas black market. The UK was a beneficiary of discounted gas sold to the EU.

  4. My 2 cents on this – as I’m not, after all, the author of this article. 😉

    Non-sexual (well, to some extent; they are typically more classy than pornographic) exhibitionism like Party of Love or FEMEN is okay. An orgy however is kind of on the border. As a normal citizen I don’t mind running into the former but would not want to observe the latter. That is for frat houses and very seedy clubs, not public spaces. “Fuck for heir Puppy Bear” participants should be fined and perhaps given a day or two of community service.

    Those stunts like overturning police cars should of course by punished. As there was a policemen inside one of the overturned cars, this is actually a clear cut case of assault in addition to public property damage. The proportionate response here would be several $1000’s in damages (as a taxpayer, I obviously would not want to pay for their “art”) and a few months in prison.

    Pussy Riot really overstepped the boundaries of civility and common decency in a major way with their “performance” at CSC. Even most liberals like Navalny and Novodvorskaya are forced to agree. While ultra-liberal Western journalists demand they be freed and decorated as HR martyrs, 47% of Russians think that 7 years would not be an inadequate sentence for them. I am nowhere near as harsh, but agree (with you and Kononenko) that steep fines and perhaps 100 hours of community service are not unreasonable penalties. They knew full well that had they tried their stunt in a mosque or synagogue they’d get hammered by the law (and perhaps not only the law). It is unconscionable then that the ROC and its many followers should be regarded as a valid target for these displays of petty, vindictive vulgarity.

    The dick drawing thing? I mean most people stop thinking its the most hilarious thing ever after the age of 15, but I guess some have arrested development, they can’t be blamed for it. Whatever. But what astounds me is that a state organization would give prizes for that. I mean, really? There are thousands of little-known and far more deserving to my mind artists in Russia who deserve greater recognition. Why then honor a band of glorified hooligans who just happen to call themselves an art group?

    However, probably what fascinates me most – in that morbid way that makes the skin crawl – is the sheer GROSSNESS of many of these “performances.” Cases in point: How the Pussy fed War, or the various cockroach- and pregnant orgy-related exploits of Tolokonnikova (WARNING: Visit those links at your risk; I will not be liable for your psychotherapy costs). These episodes should be discretely publicized by bloggers with strong stomachs, to “enlighten” more curious denizens about the craziness of these people, before being mercifully relegated to the dark, forgotten recesses of cyberspace.

  5. Jennifer Hor says:

    I can’t see that any form of political protest will get far at all when the means by which it’s carried out (the stunt in the cathedral, the stripping down and getting into the fountain, the sexual activity in the museum) attracts more attention than any message attached. Initially the stunts will get lots of attention and press but if there are too many of these kinds of “protests”, people will start ignoring them and refer to the activists as stupid and childish. These acts might have been called “performance art” once upon a time and such acts end up either forgotten or an embarrassment for the people who performed them, in the way many actors in Hollywood would prefer their public not to see their early films (because they were in the porn movie industry or they did cheap B-grade horror films before they got their break). Performance art these days in the West attracts little public attention unless the media highlights it and that nearly always means having to hire some PR agent to talk to the media.

    Also any political protest that involves simulating sex will always be suspicious in my book because it looks as if men are using women and that in itself will send wrong messages to people. Even sexual positions themselves (missionary, doggy style) can send out messages contrary to the intended message.

    • Dear Jennifer,

      I agree with every point you make. I would also add viz Anatoly’s comments that it is particularly absurd to award state prizes to these people when artistically speaking they are so completely untalented.

      Performance art has its place. The Russian avant garde were big into it. Indeed they pioneered it. It was also practised by the Dadaists immediately after the First World War, by the Surrealists and Absurdists in Paris in the 1920s and 1950s and by the leaders of the western counterculture movement of the 1960s the epicentre of which was California. All of the people I have just discussed produced some of the greatest and most original art in human history. What have Voina and Pussy Riot produced? A drawing of a phallus on a bridge.