Pussies vs. Dicks in Putin's Russia
by Justin E. H. Smith
Amateur neo-Kremlinologists will by now have heard of Pussy Riot, a league of masked anarchist feminist punks who, until recently, could be spotted around Moscow performing their music, uninvited, in public spaces. Their career was cut short when two of their members were detained by Putin’s security forces. Here is a clip of what appear to be various performances, to the tune of their best-known song, “Kropotkin-Vodka”:
As far as I know, no one has yet attempted to translate the lyrics into English, so let me give it a try:
Occupy the city with a frying pan
Go out with a vacuum cleaner, reach orgasm;
Seduce the battalions of police virgins.
The naked cops rejoice at the new reforms.
Cunt to the sexist fucking Putinites!
Kropotkin-Vodka floats in their stomachs
You’re doing fine, and the Kremlin bastards
Are having a rebellion of the johns, poisoning is fatal
Blinkers won’t help, meet Kennedy.
Cunt to the fucking cop stooges.
I must have slept, the day again is for oppression,
Brass knuckles in my pocket: feminism, that is,
Carry your soup to eastern Siberia,
So that [Pussy] Riot can be sufficiently vulgar.
Cunt to the sexist fucking Putinites!
If I were to attempt an analysis, I would point out that on one level it appears that something is getting lost in the translation of a certain species of Western anarchist feminism into the Eastern European context. The formula here seems to be the assertion of a radical political stance through straightforward, in-your-face vulgarity– something that I think is rather foreign to Western feminism. But I also think it’s a mistake to try to interpret this as a borrowing or a derivation from the West: in fact it connects up with a long history of political dissent in Russia, and more broadly in Eastern Europe, through the public assertion of sexuality, most of which has not traditionally been overtly feminist. Most recently, we had the case of Voïna (War), an artists’ collective that was brutally supressed by the KGB, or whatever they’re calling themselves these days, after painting a giant phallus on a drawbridge that rises right next to the security forces’ headquarters in Moscow. Banksy rushed to their support, though one suspects that he would have considered graffiti like this rather less interesting if it were to appear in London or Los Angeles.
More distantly, we have the pornographic novel-cum-memoir It’s Me, Eddie, written in the 1970s by Eduard Limonov during his sojourn as an impostor Refusenik in New York City, long before he became a mercenary in Serbia and, finally, returned to Russia to found the so-called ‘National Bolshevik Party’: a bizarre mix of hateful fascist ideology with subversive street theater and clever manipulation of 20th-century political iconography. (To the right is a photo of me speaking, but not agreeing, with said fascist pornographer, circa 1996). More distantly still, we find the work of the Yugoslav director Dušan Makavejev in the late 1960s and early ’70s, who, like the Russian examples cited, seems to have been excited by the idea, which can be traced back to the ‘Freudo-Marxism’ of the Soviet avant-garde in the 1920s –before Stalin’s imposition of socialist realism as the only legitimate form of aesthetic expression–, that true political liberation can only come with sexual liberation, or as Wilhelm Reich put it, and as Makavejev aggressively reminded us in his film about the apostate German psychoanalyst and communist: ‘Fuck freely, comrades!’
So Pussy Riot, I mean to say, joins a distinguished lineage. But one thing is different this time around: the oppressive state against which the avant-garde is recalcitrating has grown more sophisticated, adaptable. In the West, this adaptability takes the form of ‘greenwashing’; in China (as that one Slovenian guy is always mentioning), the state has figured out that it is better off not suppressing Buddhism altogether, but rather putting forth its very own, party-approved Dalai Lama to undermine the authority of that Western media darling in exile in India. The Putin regime, in turn, has responded to the Pussy Riot problem not only by brutal suppression (though that too), but also by propping up its very own aggressively sexual, masked, subversive, avant-garde-ish answer to Pussy Riot. As reported recently at Snob.ru (I haven’t quite figured out what Snob is all about; all I know is that it is a consistently interesting source of news and information coming out of Russia, and, perhaps not unrelatedly, its servers are currently down), and as confirmed by a simple YouTube search, there is now a character going by the name of ‘Dick Riot’, roving around Moscow, making an ass of himself.
He claims to be an independent journalist who happens to support Putin, and protests rather loudly when he is asked whether his stunt is being supported directly by the Putin regime. To be honest I can’t really figure out what he is on about in the YouTube clips of him, but he seems like a rather unpleasant person. Anyway what is of interest about him is that in today’s Russia such a man as Dick Riot could be one of the derivative products formed in reaction to the hybrid of Eastern European sexual-political subversion with Western feminism that is Pussy Riot.
Putin is no Stalin, and the fact that he has been able to consolidate power in the era of YouTube is in part a result of his ability to coopt the forces of would-be subversion, forces that to which a tyrant like Stalin could respond only through utter suppression. Usually, this cooptation is simple Berlusconi-style media manipulation; surely the most vulgar example of this was the ‘Tear Something Up for Putin‘ campaign, in which nubile young women could win their very own iPad2 by submitting a video of themselves sexily tearing something up that, it was understood, represented Putin’s cowardly enemies. One of the most favored submissions featured a Playboy-ready young woman tearing up a pile of US dollars.
But the reaction to Pussy Riot, perhaps, shows a new sort of cooptative sophistication. It responds to the avant-garde not with more, louder, sillier, glossier air-brushed nonsense, sustained by the hope of a new iPad, but rather with a figure that supposedly emerges from the fringes himself, bearing a mask, pulling stunts, playing the merry prankster. Of course, there is nothing at all avant-garde about Dick Riot, and in fact the substitution of ‘dick’ for ‘pussy’ is deeply, literally, illustratively reactionary, exactly like the disgruntled proposals we often hear in the United States for the creation of a ‘National Association for the Advancement of White People’. The very first lesson of feminism, learned by pretty much all non-australopithecines in the West a long time ago, is that feminist and ‘masculinist’ perspectives on one and the same thing are not, so to speak, enantiomorphs of one another. They are different because the feminine is always the marked category; everything is a dick unless otherwise specified.
So in that respect Dick Riot is not just reactionary but also redundant. That the Putin regime would be able (directly or indirectly) to produce such a creature, as its pseudo-avant-garde response to a genuinely subversive phenomenon, makes sense when we recall what a dick Putin himself is. I sat at a desk across from that morose little man in 1990, when he was consigned by the Gorbachev regime to a sinecure watching over foreign students at Leningrad State University. I swear I’m not making it up when I say this: I remember thinking, this guy’s got a problem. But he’s managed to do a lot with his problem, and again I think much of his success has to do with his adaptability. Stalin squelched the avant-garde. A tyrant with any hope of sticking around in the age of YouTube will take a different, more supple approach.
Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website