Testifying to the fact that members of Pussy Riot were informed in regards of Russian rock tradition there are Face Book testimonies of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova father, Andrei, who claims that he took teenage Nadia with him to several large Russian rock festivals, and that he introduced her to variety of music. And then the very fabric of Pussy Riot music, and of their lyrics, perhaps indirectly points to their familiarity with Russian musical tradition and off course with poetic tradition as well.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova herself states that poetry of Oberiu circle from the 1920s and 30s was one of the greatest influences on Pussy Riot. This establishes the bridge to the countercultural hero of Soviet days Egor Letov, who admitted strong influence upon him of the same Oberiu poets, especially Daniil Kharms, and Letov's rock poetry is deeply permeated by Oberiu spirit as is the poetry of Pussy Riot.
Also, and this is very important: Russian rock is a strange beast. Russian rock generally sucks. First of all it is not a good music. But it is significant music. Somehow it works for its audience. And it can be highly influential. It is at its best when national musical idioms are noticeably present in it, and the best Russian bands have a slight tinge of nationalism about them.
Secondly all Russian rock, is touched to some degree by the influence of punk rock. Off course one needs to say that there is practically in the World no rock music tradition which is not shaped to some degree by punk music. This is historical fact of dialectical development of rock music in the late 20th century, from crucial year 1977 when Sex Pistols exploded rock stage with their musical revolution, a revolution as significant as the one 20 years earlier ushered by Elvis Presley when he fused together black R&B tradition and white rockabilly one, and the one 10 years earlier by The Beatles when through the magic of the recording studio they created art rock. All these revolutions changed the body of pop-music forever, and the punk's one seems to bring about the most long lasting changes. For Russian musicians punk revolution was Godsend, a moment of Genesis from which Russian rock tradition really began, though rock music was played in the USSR since 1959.
Before Sex Pistols rock music in the West and everywhere else where it was played was dominated by hugely artistic, musically lush, technologically very advanced, professionally exquisite genres of progressive and hard rock. These forms required extremely high levels of musicianship, often classical music education, and tons of most modern and hugely expensive equipment. Musical compositions were often influenced by classical music, tended to be long, overproduced, with extremely lush sonority and obscure poetic messages.
Punk rock made all this pomposity obsolete, it stripped down the very body of rock bulbous and heavy to its very bones, living nothing behind but a 2 minute burst of noise and passion. Punk announced that "everyone can rock," that all you needed to know was to learn three chords and then you could form a band. And rock music world was never the same again.
And this was the message that Soviet rockers needed to hear for years. Because in the conditions of Soviet Union it was impossible for rockers to play like Pink Floyd or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. There was no symphony orchestras to hire, no studios with million dollar equipment, no synthesizers and melotrons. But anyone who could get a hold of a guitar could start a band. Zvuki Mu started playing in Petr Mamonov's kitchen in Moscow with kitchen utensils as instruments.
Punk gave Soviet rockers freedom, but it did not mean that there appeared many punk bands. Punk rock as such was back in the 80s and still is now a rather niche scene, with very limited appeal. What happened rather was that punk informed and influenced music of all other bands in Russia, leading them on the road of musical stripped down simplicity. Russians loved the liberating power of punk even if they did not play punk. For many musicians punk was not even in their sound, but in their attitudes, in stage antics, in youthful nihilism, in socially aware stands, in critical view of reality.
It was true in the 80´s as it is still true today that the very word "punk" carried the sense of cultural provocation, and evoked an attitude in musicians, in the audience and in everyman in the street. From the beginnings in Soviet mythology punk was somehow linked with fascism, perhaps because the regalia of early punks often contained swastikas. Swastikas not because of sympathy for Nazis but because of the desire to scandalize the philistines in the street.
And today Pussy Riot calling themselves a "punk band," qualifying their music as "punk rock," and performing a "punk-prayer" at the Temple just by sheer mention of this very loaded word "punk" break endless number of taboos.
For many offended by Pussy Riot punk is something simultaneously demonic and simultaneously Fascist. And for a former Soviet everyman it is hard to find a more offensive combination of symbols, and then there comes the sound, and the obscenities, and the "devilish" dances with militant kicks and immodest dresses and demonic balaclava masques... Now feathers will fly and the calls to burn at the stake and publicly execute the punk "witches" will follow.
But aside from the legacy of Soviet punk tradition what links Pussy Riot to the Russian rock counterculture is shared stylistics that goes far beyond of sonorities and attitudes of their chosen genre of pop music.
The thing is that on a few occasions numerous observers compared Pussy Riot's antics at the Temple with behavior of Russian iurodivye or holy fools.
This is a very important observation because the entire body of Soviet and Russian rock music, including Pussy Riot has to do with stylistics of iurodstvo or holy foolishness, and of humorous discursial technique known as stiob, that is with elements known as folk-humorous in Baktinian sense.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the entire body of Russian rock music is permeated by these folk-humorous elements, and there is pretty much no band, particularly no band of significance in Russian rock experience that does not contain these folk-humorous elements. Presence of these elements is defining, it is what creates unique national identity of Russian rock, what gives it individuality and significance. This is what fundamentally differentiates Russian rock from the rock of Anglo-American tradition, which tends to be a surprisingly humorless art form. Presence of these folk-humorous elements in the body of Russian rock are so important that should they be removed, there pretty much will remain nothing else in this music to talk about.
And no one probably owned these stylistics more completely than the best and most famous Russian band ever - Moscow's Zvuki Mu.
Zvuki Mu was the quintessential embodiment of folk-humorous tradition.
Zvuki Mu was of course a band, and as such it was a collective project, and it does owe a great deal to the contributions of its individual musicians, particularly to the musical talents of its keyboard player Pavel Chotin and drummer Aleksej Pavlov. But in its essence Zvuki Mu was created by theanachronistic, primordial, time-twisting bizarre holy fool-like genius of itsfront man, poet and composer Petr Mamonov.
When in the late 1980s the band's British producer and eminent musician Brian Eno saw Mamonov on video for the first time he was shocked:
"In his image I recognized something truly ancient, medieval. And this was [...] almost scary. It's unbelievable how one could preserve this centuries-old code - I really saw nobody like Peter."
It would be probably better to say that Mamonov did not preserve some ancient code, but intuitively was able to recreate it, to find his way into it with astonishing precision. This code harkens back to the medieval European tradition of court jesters, of carnivalesque buffoons, and of Byzantine holy fools (iurodivye).
What impressed Eno was first of all Mamonov's grotesque bodily
plasticity, his facial contortions and bizarre gesticulation, his awkward and clumsy expressiveness. Brian Eno characterized it as follows:
I'd never seen anything like it. And I coined this phrase for it: "total
facial theater". Because the lead singer, Peter Mamonov, has the most
absolutely remarkable face. You simply can't take your eyes of it the
whole performance. It goes through so many weird contortions. It's so
expressive of the songs themselves.
"The theatricality of holy fools is unquestionable, and this is not surprising, since the elements of theatricality are so pervasive in Medieval life", says A.M. Panchenko in the book "Smechovoi mir" drevnei Rusi. "Holy fools aspire to excite the indifferent with 'a spectacle strange and bizarre'" and by that to undermine in their souls belief in the correctness and inevitability of the given world order, to sow the seeds of doubt, to make people think.
Delightfully observant Russian rock critic Artemy Troitsky (also a great admirer of Pussy Riot) brings up the following parallel between the image created by Mamonov on stage and in many of his interviews and the one of the medieval jester created by the imagination of Andrej Tarkovskij in his film Andrej Rublev and played by actor Rolan Bykov:
There's an episode featuring a desperate and obscene jester later
destroyed by the Tsar's soldiers - that's Mamonov as well. The artist
and the buffoon, the truth seeker and the liar, the native child and
villain, all coexist comfortably inside Petya to form an integral character.
Igor' Meshkovskii, the drummer of the early 1990s Moscow pop-punk band Gaza shared with me the following memory of the impact Zvuki Mu had upon some of their audience: once after the concert a middle aged woman came up to Mamonov and said: "I despise you! You are worse than [...] fascists!"
See?! Punk rockers once again are perceived as fascists! And off course the music of Zvuki Mu: primitive, verging on atonal, dissonant, hieroglyphically precise in its simplicity, is strongly influenced by punk and new wave, and comparably to music of seminal US hard core band Fugazi verges on avant-garde minimalism. Add to it Mamonov's preternatural devilish bodily and fashion contortions and strangeness of the entire show, you'll get "iurodivyi fascist demon" performance...
If they were women then there probably would be calls to burn them alive...
During the show Mamonov adapted other people's voices, and spoke out as if he was for real, without ever giving you a "wink, wink" to indicate that he is joking. You walked away never knowing what the hell it was, where is Mamonov's authorial attitude, where is the message, and what the message really is. In face of this total ambivalence you walked away hoping that it was a joke, because the world where this is not a joke is truly a horrible place.
This is the phenomenon that D.S. Likhachev and A.M. Panchenko described in their influential work quoted earlier, "Smechovoi mir" drevnei Rusi, speaking about the phenomenon of holy fools.
In the historical tradition of iurodstvo (holy fools' behavior), in
buffoonery of the holy fools they saw a penetrating critique of the
surrounding world. The fool is wise, but secretly, with his special wisdom.
The holy fool's criticism of the world order is expressed through his
behavior, his antics, his speeches. This is a criticism of reality based upon its conflict with life's ideal as perceived by the holy fool.
Petr Mamonov has and always had this holy fool-like perception of
reality deeply ingrained in him. He talks along these lines in his 2003 interview with Dennis Ioffe and Michail Klebanov:
"We are a lie, a lie. The truth is one - God. But we are a lie. Therefore we should not solve things with our mind. We should
put our trust in God"
For the holy fool relationships of the world of culture and anti-culture are thrown upside down: he claims that the world of "culture" (that is, of reality) is in fact the world of anti-culture. It is not real, it is fake and wrong and therefore the holy fool behaves the way one has to behave within the world of anti-culture. The holy fool is antisocial in the ideal sense of this phenomenon. Unlike "normal people" he sees and hears something different, something real, and has a clear idea about the ideal world, about the way things should really be in the universe. Hence the significance and strangeness
of his utterances. His world of anti-culture is turned toward the "reality of the beyond" not in the mystical sense but in the sense of presumption of existence of the unseen ideal.
The world of the holy fool is dualistic in its foundation, it is two-sided: for the ignorant it is laughable, silly, and for ones in the know it is specificallysignificant. The holy fool is like a visitor from this anti-world, the world inside-out, who clearly sees absurdities of reality in the light of his "genuine" true knowledge.
It is namely on this level of folk-humorous discourse, of iurodivyi buffoonish antics Pussy Riot fits into the tradition of Russian carnivalesque rock. And their own artistic acts, especially the one on the soleas of the Temple of the Christ the Savior evoked numerous comparisons with iurodstvo, I mentioned earlier.
Well, how can it not, when the very place they chose - a temple is exactly where traditional holy fools engaged in their psychodramas? And then what do they do there? Like traditional holy fools of the old days they criticize and mock both secular and religious authority. And the religious authority, its supreme leader the Patriarch gets it very hard, he is accused of deviating from "true" religious belief, being seduced by earthly motivations.
"Patriarch Gundiaev believes in Putin
Bitch, better believe in God instead!"
There is also present in this punk-prayer traditional for iurodivyi coexistence and juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane: the chorus borrowed from Rachmaninov's "Moleben" addresses Holy Virgin, imploring her to "chase away Putin" and also asking her to "become a feminist." Pussy Riot also proclaims that: "Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!"
And as a profane counterstroke in the best holy fool traditions there erupts obscene refrain:
"Sran', sran' sran' Gospodnia!"
"Shit, shit, holy shit!"
These lyrics are combined with humorously pseudo militant leg kicking and fist pumping to the rhythm of music, while clad in buffoonishly bright dresses and tights and covering their faces with balaklava masques. This appearance is simultaneously militant in gesticulation and almost overly girlishly cute, striking as equally sexy and unapproachable. This attacking grotesque evokes in the viewer a sense of confusion and also the sense of being present at something significant.
In my opinion this song (punk-pryer) and the accompanying performance harken back not even to Zvuki Mu, but to something much deeper in Russian history. The cultural allusion that comes to mind is the one of Archpriest Avvakum, 17th century leader of Russian Old Believers, who in his famously polemical writings utilized the whole array of holy fool's stylistical moves: there you find parody, satire, stylization, fake prayers and lamentations, curses, obscenities, scatological insults, prayers, deeply poetic philosophical musings, and classical for holy fool rhetorical lowering of once own image, only in order to flip it around and to erupt from the dirt and feces in all his spiritual glory.
Members of Pussy Riot are very well informed young people, so I would not be surprised that they are directly familiar with works of Avvakum, but that does not really matter, they found each other across the time and space, and should they have ever met I am sure that the riotous Archpriest would rock with them on the soleas of the Temple that doubles as a car wash for the rich...