by Caroline Tracey
At Yale, it’s Sex Week, every coitus-obsessed Eli’s favorite opportunity to gab for eight days straight about hookups, bedroom triumphs, and cringe-when-recounting failures. In Russia, it’s still the real world, where there is more than one topic of casual conversation, and there is also quite a lot going on. But lucky for us, sex has entered into those goings-on this week, and makes for a good conversation.
Last Thursday, the anti-Putin protests at the Kremlin received a performance from eight members of Pussy Riot, a female band formed in September as a reaction to the news that Putin intended to return to the Russian presidency. The group hides their faces behind neon ski masks, using anonymity to enforce the idea that they could be anybody. As the Guardian reports, “Their average age is 25. They are hardcore feminists. Most studied the humanities in university. They won’t detail their day jobs.” The band cites its major influences as America’s riot grrl bands of the 1990’s – Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear (from England), and Heavens to Betsy. Riot grrl’s political agenda was nearly exclusively feminist-focused. At its origin it tried to create a sphere of punk that was welcoming to girls and to provide a means for girls to speak out about issues such as abusive relationships and body image. The lead singers of some of the bands raised their notoriety by writing “SLUT” on their bodies for performances. In Russia, the issues at stake are not just women’s issues, but the members of Pussy Riot see a special role for women in the current protests. “The revolution should be done by women,” said one member, going by the name grazhdana, or citizens: “for now, they don’t beat or jail us as much.”
Pussy Riot is the latest in a long tradition of female rabble-rousers, a tradition reflected by the poetry penned by female dissident Anna Akhmatova about suffering under Stalin:
“Even if they clamp shut my tormented mouth
Through which one hundred million people scream;
That’s how I wish them to remember me when I am dead
On the eve of my remembrance day.” (from Requiem,” 1935-1961)
The group’s lyrics put a modern-day twist on the poetry of past eras:
“revolt in Russia – the charisma of protest / revolt in Russia, Putin’s got scared!”
“Egyptian air is good for the lungs / Do Tahrir on Red Square!”
During the terror of the early Soviet Union, it was up to intellectual dissidents such as Akhmatova to keep alive the hope and emotion of the Russian people, as well as to chronicle it. She and all her contemporaries suffered for carrying that burden: Akhmatova recalled that when she went to the train station to see off those being exiled, she could not walk two steps without running into another friend to whom she must bid farewell. Her first husband was shot three years after they were divorced; her son spent ten years in a Siberian prison camp; her third husband died in a gulag. Her contemporaries Mayakovsky and Yesenin committed suicide, along with her “sister poet” Marina Tsvetaeva, whose husband and daughter had been taken to prison camps.
Now it’s hard to imagine a Russia where the poets are treated so brutally, or even where they can drum up such controversy as to attract the government. That incendiary torch has been passed to activist-artists such as Pussy Riot, who take their cues both from their Russian predecessors and other global figures.
It’s not only Pussy Riot, either, who are using sex to participate in activism in contemporary Russia. Last April, an art group called Voina (war) whitewashed a 65-meter penis on a drawbridge in St. Petersburg, such that when the bridge was raised the erect phallus would point to the local headquarters of the FSB (the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB). Alexander Donskoi, former mayor of the northern city of Arkhangelsk, opened Russia’s first sex museum in Moscow last June; he had beaten a candidate from Putin’s party by a narrow margin in the mayoral election and shortly thereafter been imprisoned (for falsifying his academic qualifications) when he announced his ambition to run for President. At the museum he promotes sexual freedom in a progressive and multi-faceted way: on one hand, he creates open discourse in a country where there is no sex education in schools but where there is one the world’s largest prostitution industries; on the other, sex is used as a medium for political messages. One of the museum’s paintings depicts Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, both naked, sparring; Obama holds a wad of dollars, and Putin, who is painted with two phalluses, is surrounded by oil and gas.
Donskoi, Voina, and Pussy Riot are oriented towards the media with a power and relevance that the practitioners of the old intellectual arts–modern-day Akhmatovas–no longer hold. They don’t spend hours in exile researching Pushkin to advance their art, but dissident intellectuals haven’t ceased to exist in Russia – they’ve just turned pop.
Caroline Tracey ’13 is in Silliman College. She is a Yale Globalist Beat Blogger on Russia and Eastern Europe. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org