Rocking with Archpriest Avvakum: Pussy Riot and Russian rock tradition (I)

Pussy Riot performance at the Temple of the Christ Savior, in Moscow, on February 21st,2012The story of Pussy Riot artistic intervention on February 21st 2012 in the Temple of the Christ the Savior in Moscow, and the following legal ordeal and penal colony martyrdom and the subsequent late amnesty and release from prison in December of 2013, is well known and I should not bore the readers with it. In fact in the months that followed their performance of the punk prayer and their arrest there was so much said about them that it is almost impossible to add anything meaningful to the analysis of Pussy Riot phenomenon.

And never the less no matter how much is said about them Pussy Riot remains in many regards to be a mystery, an act of contemporary art that is one hand as simple as any "three chord wonder" of punk music and as complex as any modern avant-garde work of art can be. I am sure that in the years to come their 40 second performance at the Temple will produce endless amount of dissertations dissecting their work from all possible scholarly perspectives, and still I imagine they will remain as illusive and puzzling as ever. And this is despite even numerous earnest attempts of the collective members to explain their art, their politics, their philosophical and aesthetic beliefs, their literary, musical, and spiritual influences.
Well, I guess I agree with Russian modern art promoter and collector Marat Gelman that this is a marker of true art when you look at it, and you know that you dig it, and you know you like it, but you still are not sure what is it that you are looking at.

Therefore I will not attempt to retell their story or to explain their art, but will humbly share with you some of my musings that arose in my mind over many months of closely following the Pussy Riot drama. And I offer these thoughts and observations not as firm conclusions on the matter but polemically as an invitation to further discussions.

I want to dwell specifically upon one aspect of Pussy Riot phenomenon that has to do with their stylistics, or rather with the aesthetical roots, historical background from which, as I assume, they arise from or harken back to or which they channel in their art.

As a counterculturalist, as a seasoned scholar of first Soviet and later Russian youth countercultures, as well as of subcultural movements of various sorts, I perceive Pussy Riot as a brand new incarnation of Russian countercultural tradition. It is a glorious tradition indeed, rich with spectacular achievements in variety of art forms such as poetry and prose, art, performance art, music and film. Great personalities came out from this tradition: poets such as Joseph Brodsky and Timur Kibirov, writers such Venedikt Erofeev and Vladimir Sorokin, painters such as Evgenii Rukhin and Mikhail Shemiakin, conceptualist artist Il'ia Kabakov, performance artist Andrei Monastyrskii, necro-realist filmmakers, singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotski and rock musicians such as Boris Grebenshchikov, Petr Mamonov, Sergei Kurekhin, and Egor Letov.

In view of Pussy Riot's preferred artistic medium which is punk rock music, it is namely Soviet and Russian rock music tradition that logically seems most influential in their case and this is the tradition into which they brought with their appearance a breath of fresh air.

Through the years of late Soviet socialism in the 80s, during the persecutions of rock musicians under Chernenko and Andropov, and through the years of Perestroika under Gorbachev, Soviet rock shaped and matured and acquired its originality, its courage and its wit, and gradually grew into predominant, most creative, most influential art form in the Soviet union, leaving behind even heroic Russian literature, in terms of relevance, daring, revolutionary zeal and artistic innovation. By the end of 1980s rock music virtually became the flagship of newly forming free of ideological dictate and bounds of censorship new free culture. Rock music singlehandedly hijacked the entire national discourse, permeated the very fabric of everyday speech, so that even serious grown up newspapers like Kommersant learned to speak in a new hip fashion from rock community and even babushkas in the street were quoting rock songs.

With the collapse of Soviet union in the late 1991 rock community lost its sense of self and identity, and it was not long after that former countercultural heroes regrouped and marched back into the underground now to combat a raising wave of mafia-capitalism sweeping the country. Such a groundbreaking musicians who were responsible for creation of the most interesting and original works in Russian rock as Sergey Kurekhin, Egor Letov and Sergei Zharikov of DK, plunged into bitter nationalism and Petr Mamonov an endlessly creative genius behind most important ever Russian rock band Zvuki Mu toyed with impenetrably self-indulgent projects in music, on theatrical stage and in film. The 90s became an era of stagnation and decay for glorious Russian rock, which was only followed by an absolutely devastating first 10 years of 21st century, when Russian rock declined into absolute obscurity and managed to produce almost nothing worth remembering. In 2008 death of Egor Letov the "poet laureate" of Russian punk sadly signified the end of Russian counterculture.

Surprisingly the same year a newly born counterculture literary announced its arrival with the "bang": art group's Voina staged orgy in the Moscow Zoological Museum under the slogan "Fuck for the heir Puppy Bear" to "celebrate" election of Dmitrii Medvedev in 2008 Russian presidential election.
And those who know the story of Pussy Riot know that 9 month pregnant Nadezhda Tolokonnikova took part in this orgy as one of the members of this now World-famous art-group. Therefore Pussy Riot stood directly at the inception of new Russian counterculture of which they currently became the most celebrated example.

Members of Pussy Riot cite as their musical inspirations variety of mostly Western musicians and bands: first of all Anglo-American punk and hard core rock, American feminist bands such as Bikini Kill, Le Tigere, Bratmobile and associated Riot grrrl movement of the 1990s, English Oi! Bands such as Cockney Rejects, from whom they directly quote in one of their songs.
Pussy Riot at Lobnoye Mesto on Red Square in Moscow Photo by Denis Bochkarev
Members of Pussy Riot are very young people, and are in their majority a part of the new generation that grew entirely outside of Soviet experience. Therefore Soviet era rock is not necessarily a part of their emotional thesaurus and since their most important formative years took place during the first ten years of new century when, as I sad Russian rock was at its worse, as it still is today, it is no surprise that they do not really mention Russian rock influences. According to one of the Pussy Riot lawyers, Mark Feigin, a keen observer of contemporary socio-cultural trends, he was endlessly impressed how Nadezhda Tolokonnikova always referred to herself as a new Russian, person Westernized in her values, free of oppressive Soviet legacy, assured in her identity, feeling free to do what she deems necessary.

But no one grows up in a cultural vacuum, and traditions of Russian rock, especially of Soviet period could not absolutely pass members of Pussy Riot untouched, without informing and educating them in some way. After all this is the music that people listen too, and it is a fact that already for several decades many young Russian rockers learn their musical skills not from Western examples but from Russian ones. In the late 80s there already existed a whole generation of Russian rock musicians who learned to play not listening to Rolling Stones but to Mike Naumenko of Zoopark.

(To be continued on Part II)


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