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.

If you like the words I write, and want me to write more of them, consider donating or supporting me on Patreon.