PUSSY RIOT: THE CLOSURE

This Is Not a Band

On February 11, 2016, I was supposed to converse with Pussy Riot.

The conversation never happened.

Four people sat at a table with microphones on stage, two of us silent, one speaking in a foreign language — with passion and charm — and one mumbling the translation.

The intentions were good: tell the world about the criminal regime that violates human rights by locking in jail and murdering all opposition to the government and its ideology. The world awareness can save lives.

What happened reminded me of a scene from a novel: Satan’s performance at a Moscow theater in 30’s. In Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, magically, no one knows who scheduled the show, or how, or why. The audience expects black magic. Things go out of whack: a talking cat, a beheading, a money shower. Satan’s crew seduces women in the audience into exchanging their dresses for haute couture outfits. After the show the new fashionable clothes disappear. Nude women run down the street, cops chasing them.

Tired and somewhat bored, Satan observes from the empty stage, “People will be people. They love money, but that’s nothing new… Humankind loves money, no matter what it is made of, leather, paper, bronze or, say, gold. They are carefree… so what… charity also knocks on their hearts… ordinary people… overall, not much different from all the people before…only the housing issue spoiled them.”

And this is how I felt at the end of the show. It got so boring that I started to daydream on stage of a big theater, in front of two thousand people, during a discussion of the bitter and burning subject that keeps me up at night. Hard to believe, but true.

Thinking about my son’s school grades.

Why? Mainly, a lack of organization that severely compromised the content and a poor format that didn’t allow the message to be delivered. Unless you were a complete Russia-under-Putin virgin or a passionate fan of Pussy Riot you have learned and felt nothing. How could it happen? Here is my brief report. I didn’t organize this show so these notes are just my personal observations.

HUMANKIND LOVES MONEY… BUT CHARITY ALSO KNOCKS ON THEIR HEARTS

The day after the show I received many messages asking for refunds.

The tickets were expensive — 25–48 dollars. Many of my friends could not afford to go. I was not paid (The Arts Resistance actions are ALWAYS money-free) so I did not sign any contracts and I am not sure who was in charge of refunds.

In Master and Margarita, at Satan’s black magic show, the money rains from thin air. The emcee screams, “Not real!” The money is real at the time, though. Later, it turns into mice, crickets, sparrows or just blank notes, leaving those in possession in trouble.

During the break, in the lobby, I personally collected 1,350 dollars donated by the audience.

Collecting money: in a bucket and Trump’s and Putin’s heads.

It was the most moving moment during the evening for me — the money flowed into that bucket, in the reverse quote of Bulgakov, not from the sheer air. I knew some of the donors — artists, musicians, people not wealthy by any standards. An independent artist’s life in San Francisco is a challenge. My daughter’s roommate, a student, donated twenty dollars. I felt grateful and proud of our community. When I handed the money to the “producer”, he sounded disappointed. He said, “I thought it’d be 3,000 dollars.” I felt like smacking him.

I want to know the allocation of the tour proceeds (one of my questions that I never got to ask.) I want to know there are no crickets and birds there. If it is going to Zona Prava, the NGO that helps political prisoners in Russia, and to cover travel expenses — bravo, hallelujah, and amen. But if it is going to pay for personal causes, I consider it a disgrace. Pussy Riot needs to make a statement regarding the proceeds of this tour.

Human rights activists who made name on fighting for freedom have no moral right to capitalize off of their fame pursuing the goals of personal well-being or publicity.

BRAND NAME RECOGNITION

It’s a fact: A person in the Getty Images photos first tagged as “Nadezhda Tolokonnikova” was not “Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.”

Left: Masha and Nadya. Right: The woman in the background, first tagged as “Nadezhda Tolokonnikova,” (Nadya) is Ksenia Zhivago. It’s easy to make a mistake.

She is Ksenia Zhivago, a poised and well-spoken visual artist with a Masters degree from Oxford. She joined Pussy Riot very recently. She is a co-founder of Zona Prava. Most Americans attending the talk didn’t realize this and happily raved on social media: “I’m seeing Pussy Riot!” The Russians in the audience were outraged. Nadya is a formidable thinker and speaker: her correspondence with Slavoj Zizek is thought-provoking and rich. I wanted to talk to her and I was not the only one. I received many emails the next day: “It is fraud.” “We feel cheated.” “Most people came to see Tolokno.” (Nadezhda’s nickname.) “If we knew she was not coming we would not have bought the tickets.”

(Maria Alyokhina was indeed Maria Alyokhina, “Masha”; and she was whimsical, candid and had a lot to say. I think lots of people followed her during the infamous trial so Nadya’s fans are prejudiced. Both Masha and Nadya ARE the face of Pussy Riot, now that the masks are off.)

Nadya as a lead in the new video by Pussy Riot.

The doubles situation gets more intriguing: the new video by Pussy Riot went public on February 3, 2016, five days before the beginning of the Pussy Riot tour of the US, with concerts in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Buffalo, Chicago, New York, Washington D.C. Nadya is the lead singer in the video. At least three back-up dancers bear a striking resemblance to Masha.

One might argue that there are many blondes in Russia. True. Yet.
Nadya and Masha, together.

There is no mention of Masha missing from Nadya’s video in the media. There is no mention of Nadya missing from Masha’s tour in the media. Both are Pussy Riot. (A Putin supporter active on the FB event page shared the statement of the “original” Pussy Riot excommunicating Nadya and Masha from their ranks in 2014.)

“Let’s be honest,” a Russian-American friend wrote to me after the show. I met her at Free Pussy Riot protest in 2012. She was a true supporter of the group through years, really excited to see them. “What the fuck is going on?”

The answer: I don’t know. Did artists who gained fame for their integrity distort facts for the sake of marketing and promotion?

The mind breaks down the world logically: heroes and villains, order and chaos, truth and lies, good and bad. Binary structure. Relative simplicity, and mainly, the comfort of the known, the graspable. The unknown is dangerous. Yes, but the one-sided, visible, flat truth is as misleading, and therefore dangerous, as a lie. Titanic. Iceberg.

Digging deeper works. It is all about the unlit basement underneath our minds. This Russian mini-clusterfuck is multi-layered, complex. I sense that Masha and Ksenia, just like Nadya and the anonymous Pussy Riot artists in Moscow, believe in inner freedom, human rights and democracy. I liked Masha and Ksenia. They felt real, sincere.

The confrontation, however, lost the simplicity and clarity of Pussy vs Putin.

Four years of humiliation, physical pain and violence, emotional stress, psychological manipulation, hatred followed by worldwide fame, celebrity status, praise, fans and groupies, and press attention lead to psychological changes.

From jail and hunger strikes to Hollywood: stress on stress.

NOT MUCH DIFFERENT FROM THE PEOPLE BEFORE

The political climate in Russia has changed dramatically — for the worse. It resembles Stalin’s Great Purge more and more. The protest movement is silenced. The members of opposition are in jail or in exile, some dead.

People in Russia can get two years in jail for sharing a post on social media and five years for blogging.

I really recommend the article below with the list of political prisoners and their “offenses.” I would be in prison or dead by now —a hundred times. So would you, probably.

Three years in jail for peaceful protests.

Twenty years in jail for making films.

A brick on the head for performing arts actions.

A bullet in the back for opposition leaders.

Family members of the opposition are murdered. I am unable to translate here the few press reports as the activist, the mother of the 25 year old victim, asked journalists to respect her grief and the safety of her other children and not talk about it. I am crying as I am reading about it.

“There exist many things considerably worse than death, and the S.S. saw to it that none of them was ever very far from the mind and imagination of their victims,” notes Hannah Arendt in her “Eichmann in Jerusalem-I” report.

She also quotes a former inmate of Buchenwald, David Rousser: “The triumph of the S.S. demands that the tortured victim allow himself to be led to the noose without protesting, that he renounce and abandon himself to the point of ceasing to affirm his identity. And it is not for nothing. It is not gratuitously, out of sheer sadism, that the S.S. men desire his defeat. They know that the system which succeeds in destroying its victim before he mounts the scaffold . . . is incomparably the best for keeping a whole people in slavery. In submission. Nothing is more terrible than these processions of human beings going like dummies to their death.”

According to The Express Tribune, “internet censorship in Russia soared last year as the government stepped up efforts to filter content online, a report by a rights group said Tuesday. [The group] counted media reports and government statements about blocked web pages as well as prosecutions of people for what they posted online. The group found incidents of Internet censorship increased from 1,019 in 2014 to 9,022 in 2015.”

I know an opposition member who was jailed, attacked, but managed to escape and is seeking political asylum in the US. At 25, his hair is almost all grey. He shakes incessantly. No couch-activism there. We have no moral right to judge these people. Organized, disorganized, they are courageous and need our support.

MYTHOLOGIES, REVISITED

Life is no fairy tale, though. Heroes are human. When asked about her role models, Masha joked, “Mermaids and princesses, fairy tale characters.” Ironically, the feminist anarchist punk has become a fairy tale character herself.

Pussy Riot exists in the collective mind as a part of a myth, an epic social fairy tale. A group of anonymous women in bright-colored balaclavas is a sign.

Riot, riot.

It stands for riot, rage, rebellion. The visual sign combined with the verbal tag “pussy” (weaklings) and “riot”(civil disobedience, violence) takes on a new meaning: the uprising of the united “pussies” against the united “dicks.”

The masks and anonymity were one of the key factors for Pussy Riot popularity, cause aside. Few people knew the intricate details of the protest: who cared about Patriarch Kirill of all Russia and his ties with the KGB or the details of the presidential election in the Russian Federation? But almost everyone feels oppressed and enraged at times.

Yet, with the masks off and fishnet stockings on, the sign loses its universality and novelty but gets an additional connotation: the magic of objectified female power. Women warriors, Amazons, Charlie’s Angels. A toned-down, mainstream rebellion, with lipstick on. Psychologically justified? Yes. Punk, feminist? No. Effecient? Hardly.

But sexualized heroes or not, we are dealing with the same binary structure. Poor against rich, minorities against majority, feminists against patriarchy, LGBT against bigotry. Fathers and sons. The list can go on. The class struggle. The power struggle. The (blank) STRUGGLE.

And this is the part when, like Satan in Master and Margarita, I shrug. Yawn. Been there. Seen that. Done. It doesn’t work. The myth of “us” vs. “them” needs to go.

“Good Bye, Lenin”, a German film. The monument to Lenin is dismantled after the DDR is no more.

It is my goal and duty as a writer to break the myth — through literature. The real literature goes from a person to archetype, unlike a propaganda poster. The artist’s goal is to demythify the myth. To look under the balaclavas and into each face.

People are not signs. Not symbols. Pussy Riot are a few tortured, proud people who know life in the activists’ trenches, prison cells, solitary confinement or on stage and at press conferences. They are neither villains, nor heroes. The hysteria needs to stop. And there was a lot of hysteria before and during this event.

STARDOM

Professional and polite, the Warflied security helped to keep the star-struck fans outside. Drinks, parties, trips topped the list of things offered, but mainly people wanted selfies with Pussy Riot.

Leaving aside all considerations of dignity and privacy, I need to say that most performers need time, space and safety. Masha and Ksenia were tired. They did shows two nights in a row, in Portland and Seattle. The subject of their presentation was jarring and emotional. They are not rock stars on drugs but human rights activists. They didn’t ask for it but I believe that they need support and respect, not uninvited company.

I understand the desire to discuss a burning issue — somebody wanted to talk about imperialism by the backstage door — with a person whose opinion you respect. But taking a selfie with a feminist? Yawn.

LOGISTICS

To all people who thought it was poorly organized. It was.

I had a timeline, a script and questions. The show took a different path. Spontaneous and improvisational, to say the least.

The show started by a 45 minutes long documentary “Pusy vs.Putin.” Here are some excerpts:

There is a similar documentary on Netflix, Punk Prayer, so many people in the audience were familiar with this material.

The Arts Resistance did a 4 minute stunt with Trump and Putin in reference to Masha’s “Trump warning to America.” I had a question about her statement but we never got to it, so not everyone in the audience made this connection.

The Arts Resistance. Masks by AR artists Tsunami.

Q&A with the moderator (me) ended after two questions. I regret that I did not have a chance to discuss many serious, nuanced issues raised by the local artists, activists and the world community.

Masha made a presentation in Russian — passionate and informative, albeit a bit too generic and hard to follow due to the lack of structure and poor translation. The “producer” translated but as he warned me “he was not a professional translator.”

There was also a problem with logic, in my opinion. Demanding reforms from dictatorships is fruitless. Debating the conditions of Nazi or Stalinist concentration camp is immoral. The negotiation in question makes it sound like Putin’s regime is similar to the US, just more extreme. It is not. Cardinal point of the discussion: RUSSIA IS RULED BY ACTUAL CRIMINALS, the former KGB officers who committed real crimes like thefts and murders. Americans relate to the social issues like flawed justice system, prisons, and gender inequality and make parallels. Many mistakes in international policy are made based on this false assumption. We need a change in mentality, a deeper understanding of the situation before taking any action. Victims need our help. Executioners need the international court trial.

Masha’s speech was followed by a slide show about the artist and activist Petr Pavlensky, currently incarcerated for his actions. Zona Prava is currently helping the artist by collecting funds for a lawyer and to support his family.

Petr Pavlensky’s actions: The burning doors of FSB. “Carcass”, barbed wire as the metaphor of the law as the tool of oppression.

The second part of the show was a Q&A with the audience. By that time many people had left. The show ended with another 15 minutes documentary, similar to the first one.

There was only one article covering the event despite the fact that all major SF publications were interested.

48 Hills, a non-profit publication, wrote: “ Yet for as interesting as the film and the discussion was at times, the event was pretty disjointed. Ranging from issues with translation, to an awkward rapport with the moderator and clunky handling of the Q&A session, the evening just never quite seemed to gel. … the main issue with the discussions seemed to be a mismatch of expectations within the audience.”

According to Gregory Scharpen of KALX (Berkeley Radio) “the managers for Pussy Riot have been incommunicado with the the [Warfield] manager regarding any press interviews, and she’s given up trying.”

There was no coverage in Los Angeles — the next stop of the tour.

The Seattle Times showed compassion: “Though the event was somewhat casually produced — no proper introductions, an uncooperative laptop with no sound for the film at first (and no technical director in sight), a T-shirt supply that vanished almost instantly — somehow it felt fitting for what was more an activist gathering than a performance.”

The panel in Portland got reviewed by The Portland Mercury under the title “Last Night’s Conversation with Pussy Riot Was Weird.”

And so it was.

I don’t think Pussy Riot — or Masha and Ksenya — needed a moderator. Symbols do not converse. They signify. They carry the message.

What they do need: a good tour manager, professional producer, media spokesperson and a professional interpreter. They need help with logistics, planning and event coverage. They need more transparency in the advertising materials. A commercial show is not a punk prayer. It is fair for the audience to want refunds if the show sucks due to the poor planning.

HOW TO HELP

The failure of this show is a success in its own bizarre way. It is a non-verbal scream for help.

The Russian opposition needs help. Money, support, friendship. Being heard. These brave people risk their lives and well-being by standing up for the obvious rights we have here: freedom to say what you want to say and wear what you want to wear and love whom you want to love. They are exhausted by the years of vain efforts, threats, and violence. People, in words of Bulgakov’s Satan. Do not idolize these people. Do not wait for them by the back stage door, starry-eyed. Do not dismantle them later for failing to be a fairy tale hero. This is no magic show. It is easy to fetishize masked dolls. It is easy to be a living room activist. Much harder to help, hands-on — feisty, rude, difficult — real humans.

Here are the ways to help the Russian opposition:

1. Write letters to political prisoners. Hanna Miller, a Berkeley-based journalist and human right activist, has volunteered to translate letters and take them to prisoners in Russia this summer.

2. Spread the facts about the violation of human rights in Russia by sharing them on social media. See the links above, Zona Prava or contact www.artsresistance.com for more information.

3. Find out more about Zona Prava and way to help here.

4. Help refugees and the members of opposition seeking political asylum by providing shelter, food, legal and psychological rehabilitation help. The Arts Resistance has a list of refugees in need of help. www.artsresistance.com.

IMPORTANT: I do not represent Pussy Riot or any other groups or organizations. My information is based on interviews with the artists. This is the fifth article of the The Arts Protest project as I find these facts relevant to the Pussy Riot show in San Francisco on February 10, 2016. Read the introduction and the first article “SCANDAL: INSANITY ART-LANGUAGE” on Medium.Read second article Splendors and Myseries of Mythology, an article-call for action Three Years Alone for Stand-Alone Protests, and the fourth article Power and Opposition: Sadomasochism Inc.

*All facts and photos are in public domain and available through Google. Links to the original sources are included.

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