In this article Roger Silverman writes about the events that began in 2012 when three courageous women defied Russia’s dictator Putin in a daring public demonstration, and were subsequently jailed. Their stand belonged to a proud Russian tradition of defiance by artists and writers of successive autocratic regimes, first under the Tsars and later under Stalin’s tyranny and the rule of his successors. This article was written at the time of their trial.
The defiance shown by Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova towards the dictatorship of Vladimir Putin has captured the public imagination everywhere, especially of young people. The daring exploit of the Pussy Riot women at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral has instantly enmeshed the cogs of growing revolt within Russia to the wheels of the worldwide anti-capitalist uprising manifested in street protests, general strikes and occupations around the world.
There is no country with a richer tradition of literary and artistic protest against autocracy than Russia. Stretching back to the aftermath of the Decembrist revolt against tsarism in 1825, successive generations of writers defied the censors and braved the living hell of Siberia to throw down their challenge to Tsars, commissars and oligarchs. Chernyshevsky was locked in the Peter-Paul Fortress; Dostoyevsky suffered a mock execution and years of hard labour in Siberia; and the list of brilliant writers and artists who perished in Stalin’s gulag is almost endless. Even the years of the so-called “thaw” only produced a new crop of victims.
The attitude of the writer towards the state has in Russia above all always been one of revolt. The revolution liberated the creative energies of a whole generation. From 1914 onwards especially, the youth were thrown into turmoil by the world war, soon to be followed by a decade of dizzying upheavals: the revolution, the civil war, and the rise of Stalinism. The first years of the revolution gave a tremendous impetus to artistic experimentation. Artistic freedom in the days of Lenin and the Bolsheviks flourished as never before or since: theatre, cinema, poetry, music, art and sculpture sprang up and touched the lives of the masses everywhere.
The Bolsheviks defended to the death the absolute right of artistic and literary freedom. At the same time, they did not always fully agree with the more extreme of these literary pioneers. Lenin expressed a kind of avuncular irritation with those who demanded the instant creation of a “proletarian culture”. For a start, he said, we’d be happy enough to get a decent bourgeois culture; a reasonable aspiration, after all, on the terrain of a peasant country still hobbling along on the technology of the medieval wooden plough amid a fog of feudal superstition and mass illiteracy.
Trotsky too argued against the impatience of some Futurists for the instant “overthrow” of the old culture. “To say that Futurism has freed art of its thousand-year-old bonds of bourgeoisdom is to estimate thousands of years very cheaply… The call of the Futurists to break with the past, to do away with Pushkin, to liquidate tradition, etc., has a meaning in so far as it is addressed to the old literary caste, to the closed- in circle of the intelligentsia…. But the meaninglessness of this call becomes evident as soon as it is addressed to the proletariat. The working-class does not have to, and cannot break with literary tradition, because the working-class is not in the grip of such tradition. The working-class does not know the old literature, it still has to commune with it, it still has to master Pushkin, to absorb him, and so overcome him.”
Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that even during the privations of the early 1920s, for all their reservations, Lenin and Trotsky willingly endorsed the publication at state expense of the full range of artistic output – if only, as they put it jokingly, for the sake of “cranks and charlatans”; the point being that even the most outlandish of tastes were still in those days provided for without question.
The young intelligentsia experimented with new modes of expression, in art, music, and poetry. The old forms and the old structures made no sense to them in an epoch of catastrophe. As the most talented of the new poets, Vladimir Mayakovsky, said of the turbulent period in which they had grown to adulthood: “these events made Futurists of us all.”
At one end of the poetic spectrum, there were those like Khlebnikov and Kruchenikh who busied themselves, literally, with inventing a new language composed of meaningless syllables; at the other, those who strove to overcome their past record of individual middle-class rebellion and fuse their hopes with the victory of the revolution.
The most prominent member of these was Mayakovsky himself, who went through an intense personal struggle to renounce his extraordinarily talented larger-than-life ego to place himself fully at the service of the revolutionary proletariat. “I stamped on the throat of my own song,” as he so eloquently put it, and for three years worked flat out composing advertising jingles for the thousands of public-information posters put out throughout the civil war by the agitprop agency ROSTA. By the end of the civil war, exhausted and still personally unfulfilled, he found himself increasingly at odds with the social elements thrown up by the ebb-tide of the fast-retreating world revolution: the speculators and NEPmen and the growing army of petty bureaucrats that were infesting the Soviet apparatus. He went on a trip to the USA, wrote a futuristic poem celebrating the engineering feat of Brooklyn Bridge, and returned with no worthier focus for his talent than a series of sharp satirical plays scourging the new Stalinist bureaucracy, including a play called “The Bedbug” in which the bureaucrat was identified with that most vile species of poisonous insect. For the last years of his life, Mayakovsky was hounded to despair by the Stalinist puppy-dog poet Demyan Bedniy of the so-called “Association of Proletarian Poets”. When the romantic peasant poet Sergey Yesenin slashed his wrists and wrote a farewell suicide poem in his own blood, Mayakovsky wrote a scathing parody of it… but it was not long afterwards that this giant of literary talent himself went on to take his own life – asking in his own suicide note to be spared the duty of an explanation “because the dead hate gossip”. Neither individual rebellion, nor devotion to the Party cause, nor futuristic experimentation, nor political satire had provided sufficient outlet for his energies in these perplexing times.
As an integral part of his relentless struggle against the monstrous Stalinist tyranny, Trotsky insisted on the absolute right of artistic freedom. “Art, like science,” he wrote, “not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them… Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity.”
The growing bureaucratic stranglehold on art and literature was an indispensable element in the consolidation of the Stalinist tyranny. Those writers that managed even temporarily to survive, resorted increasingly to grotesquerie, surrealism and satire, the better to hurl their barbs at the new regime more obliquely: Bulgakov, Zamyatin and others. Some kept to mere journalistic sketches, like Zoshchenko, Ilf and Petrov. Most ended up in Siberia or at best were muzzled into silence.
Some – including the Pussy Rioteers’ literary hero Vvedensky – gained a further temporary lease of life by seeking relative safety confining themselves to writing for children. Many of these showed remarkable ingenuity in their subversive use even of this genre – notably Evgeny Schwartz, who successfully smuggled past the censors a play for children about the slaying of a dragon by a hero called Lancelot; his place is usurped by the corrupt town mayor who fraudulently adopts the title “Dragon-killer”, and who later becomes haunted by the mysterious appearance on the town walls of the letter “L” – a reference that was certainly not lost on the delighted Moscow audiences who enthusiastically applauded its one-and-only performance on stage.
The Pussy Riot trio today have consciously modelled themselves on the last of the open literary rebels: the OBERIU group, led by Vvedensky and Scharms. In some ways like many Western writers during the madness of the twentieth century in Europe – Kafka, Ionesco, Beckett – these writers too created an entirely new genre that incorporated the madness of the world around them into their art.
Even Trotsky in his day engaged in some gentle mockery of the more exotic elements in the contemporary wave of artistic experimentation: “To be sure, a young Futurist did not go to the factories and to the mills, but he made a lot of noise in cafes, he banged his fist upon music stands, he put on a yellow blouse, he painted his cheeks and threatened vaguely with his fist.”
However, Trotsky explicitly acknowledged the absolute necessity at times of even the most flamboyant gestures to the further development of cultural life. He insisted: “Every new artistic or literary tendency… has begun with a ‘scandal’, breaking the old respected crockery, bruising many established authorities. This flowed not at all solely from publicity- seeking (although there was no lack of this). No, these people – artists, as well as literary critics – had something to say. They had friends, they had enemies, they fought, and exactly through this they demonstrated their right to exist.”
The performance of today’s punk rockers obviously owes something to this same colourful tradition of youthful rebellion; but the crucial difference today is the groundswell of public sympathy in their defence – a public mood that has even won reluctant acknowledgement in the form of the relatively mild sentence demanded by the prosecutors and the rather grudging hints by Putin himself that they should not be treated too harshly (judged, presumably, only by the none-too-gentle standards of his KGB heritage). This gives the Pussy Rioters a proud place in the deeper Russian tradition of artistic protest. What the Pussy Riot performers have done is the right and prerogative of artists throughout history: to find their own voice, no matter how “shocking” the initial effect. And they would have found no more enthusiastic champion than Trotsky at their side today.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in particular places the Pussy Riot act firmly in the tradition of two centuries of Russian protest. “This is a trial of the entire political system of the Russian Federation… repeating all of the worst moments of Russian history. What was behind our performance? Nothing other than the autocratic political system. Pussy Riot’s performances can either be called dissident art or political action that engages art forms. Either way, our performances are a kind of civic activity amidst the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties… We put on political punk performances in response to a government that is rife with rigidity, reticence, and caste-like hierarchal structures. It is so clearly invested in serving only narrow corporate interests.”
She traces a direct link to that school of dissident Soviet writers who made the very last heroic stand of Russian modernism in the 1930s before the flame of artistic creativity was finally snuffed out by the Stalinist terror – to the members of the OBERIU group. Like their counterparts in the West, but on the even grander dimensions of the Russian steppes, writers like Kharms and Vvedensky used paradox and absurdity to mirror the horrors and irrationality of the epoch. What, after all, could be more grotesque, more absurd, let alone more horrifying, than the genocide of the Nazi extermination chambers, the millions incarcerated in the Stalinist gulag, the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Tolonnikova quotes Vvedensky’s aphorism: “The inexplicable is our friend”, and comments that “the OBERIU poets and their search for thought on the edge of meaning were finally embodied when they paid with their lives, which were taken by the senseless and inexplicable Great Terror…. Paying with their lives, these poets unintentionally proved that they were right to consider irrationality and senselessness the nerves of their era. Thus, the artistic became an historical fact.”
In their closing speeches to the court, the Pussy Riot women have turned the tables and placed the Russian state on trial. Maria Alyokhina rightly calls the performance that prompted their arrest “a small and somewhat absurd act” that has “snowballed into an enormous catastrophe”, and correctly concluded: “This would obviously not happen in a healthy society. Russia, as a state, has long resembled an organism sick to the core. And the sickness explodes out into the open when you rub up against its inflamed abscesses…. Having spent almost half a year in jail, I have come to understand that prison is just Russia in miniature.”
These courageous women have inspired millions by their example. Their sacrifice will not be in vain. Let them not be seduced by false friends who are shamelessly cashing in on their appeal, but who only represent other oligarchies and rival corporate interests to those of the Putin clique now ruling Russia. Let them join hands with the worldwide uprising against capitalism and let us together build a new world.