11:53 a.m. August 21, 2012

Crime and Pussy Riot

Back in early July, I got an agitated email from a friend of mine from the group Faith No More right after they played a concert in Moscow with Pussy Riot. Bill, the band’s bass player, was trying to make sense of the weird experience he’d just had in Moscow:

“I don't know if you heard, but we played in Moscow the day before yesterday, and we had Pussy Riot do a little bit for the encore. It was pretty insane...”

Bill’s been going back and forth to Moscow for a couple of decades now, so he knows what to expect from the place better than most: he produced some early Moscow punk records, and he brought Faith No More to play Moscow at the height of the Yeltsin debauchery.

Hell, Bill even hosted the legendary punk-radical Yegor Letov in San Francisco shortly before Letov died.

So Bill understands the weirdness and menace of Russia better than most. Yet even he wasn’t prepared for Moscow’s violent reaction to Pussy Riot, much of that hostility coming from the very same scene Bill had spent years cultivating and working with.

And this is the part of the Pussy Riot story completely overlooked or dismissed by the Western media, which loves the Pussy Riot story for a host of reasons: It makes us look good and Putin look bad, which hasn’t been easy since Dubya fucked things up; it involves three true-to-life Lara Croft brave-babes fighting KGB power; and, of course, it lets prudish middlebrows say “Pussy” and still sound morally respectable.

Which makes me wonder: If Beavis & Butt-head were around to fight for Pussy Riot's cause — and they most certainly would, in the hopes of finally getting laid — how would Russians, who worshiped Beavis & Butt-head as any right-thinking human being should, react to that? Somehow I doubt they’d be as weird and menacing to the cartoon characters as they were to Faith No More ...

FNM’s problems started before the show, when the concert venue operators at Moscow’s “Stadium Live” — one of the biggest arenas in Moscow, seating around 7,000 people — somehow got word that Faith No More planned to let Pussy Riot make a surprise appearance, and threatened and intimidated the band members to the point where the show was nearly canceled. Bill still doesn’t know how they figured it out — literally the only people who knew were a handful of Pussy Riot’s art collective, and Faith No More.

But the real shocker turned out to be the audience’s hostile reaction when Pussy Riot took the stage during the encore: Five girls wearing Pussy Riot’s trademark slasher/wrestler masks, holding up flares, mocking Putin for “pissing in his pants” in fear, unfurling a flag calling for the audience to support their Pussy Riot comrades being held in detention back in early July, when the trial was still just getting going.

(There are countless videos on YouTube showing Pussy Riot’s disastrous appearance.)

Bill wrote me:

“It was a little scary, but what I didn't expect were some of the negative reactions. I got a lot of comments (mostly from males) like: why does FNM stoop to this petty disgusting level of politics?”

That made no sense: If you’re for punk, you naturally support your punk comrades when they get stomped for pissing off power. It doesn’t happen very often anymore that punks piss off power enough to get stomped by the power of the State — not in the West since the late '70s, not in Russia since the Gorbachev years.

Bill continued:

“The irony is that the girls in the band are about 20-24 years old, very small and sweet. Considering the circumstances, they had a lot of balls ... much more than any of us. And it seems like everyone is more focused on how the girls disrespected the church than the 7 years of prison they are facing ... “So I wanted to ask you about this, since you have a much deeper insight into the Russian mentality than me: did we just inadvertently step into a big pile of shit or did we do the right thing?”

The answer is “yes" and "yes." But that's with 20/20 hindsight. To be honest, I never would’ve predicted that reaction from FNM's fans, the same demographic that was protesting Putin on the streets of Moscow a few months earlier.

It reminded me of something that hit me when I first fled to America in 2008 and saw this country full of soi-disant Russian experts talking out of their asses about the place and about Putin.

One thing I learned from 14 years in and out of Russia is that there is a whole lot I will never understand about that country and their mentality — I’m a Californian, not a Scythian. That said, I sure as Hell understand it far better than the “experts” who have a remarkable talent for constantly getting wrong every single thing involving Russia, sometimes with disastrous consequences — neocon dopes like Anne Applebaum or Thomas Friedman, mondo-hacks like the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt, or our dear Ambassador Michael McFaul ...

Which brings me to the part of the Pussy Riot story that the Western won’t touch: A huge number of Russians, many of them decent Russians, many of them the type we consider “our” Russians — want to get medieval on the Pussy Riot girls, string them up in Red Square, and make it hurt. Like I said, this anger comes not just from the reactionary peasant caricatures or KGB Putin goons or crusty Commies — but from “our” Russians too, educated yuppie-Russians, indie-rock/hipster Russians, student Russians, anti-Putin Russians ...

Hell, even a sizable portion of the hundreds of thousands who protested Putin earlier this year would be found in a lynch mob against the Pussy Riot girls. You thought what those Russians were protesting was the chance to become just like freedom-loving Nebraskans? (Wait, are there freedom-loving Nebraskans?) If you got that impression from the anti-Putin protests, you don’t know Russians very well.

The mysterious Russian soul is rarely mysterious in the romantic sense— “spiritual,” “unfathomably paradoxical,” “poetic” — there is that in their literature, but for the most part, Russians are mysterious to Californians like me because no one in their right fucking mind would react the way Russians tend to react to a lot of things.

So often Russians can surprise you with a raw savagery that’s by turns infuriating and impressive, depending on the issue and how close you are to the fangs. If you’re a bored middle-class Westerner looking for “authenticity” then Russia has more authenticity reserves in its 11 time zones than it does oil, gas, gold, snow and mud combined — too much “authentic” for most middle-class Westerners. I include myself in that group—the finale send-off Russia gave me was more authenticity than I’ll ever hope to experience again.

Part of the hostility to Pussy Riot is that they’ve become a cause-célèbre in the West. Russians have not had a very good historical experience with things the West think Russia should do, going back a few centuries — the memory of America’s support for that drunken buffoon Yeltsin while he let the country and its people sink into misery is still raw — "a painful memory" like John Turturro's character says in "Miller's Crossing," a memory woven tightly into the Russian RNA’s spool of historical grievances. And nothing triggers that reactionary Russian live-wire gene like an earful of Westerners moralizing about any topic, even the most obvious topic, even the topic where it’s 100% clear we’re on the right side for once.

So when they hear us finally paying attention again to Russia because a punk band with an English name using Latin script falls under the Kremlin’s gun, they don’t necessarily see “injustice” the way we do from our far-away vantage point — they see another dastardly plot by the West to humiliate Mother Russia and bring her to her knees.

Bill and his band are still the only Westerners who put something on the line for Pussy Riot — and the only ones who nearly paid for it. And yet in spite of the hostile reaction, and in spite of his support for Pussy Riot, and in spite of being weirded out by the whole thing, when Bill and I talked about the infuriating “Russian soul” over the phone, his reaction was the same as mine: “This is why I fucking love Russians.” You can't take the maximalism and the authenticity only when it's safe for you and not for others.

The Pussy Riot story was still fairly marginal when Faith No More brought them on stage for the encore in early July. Now everyone from Madonna, Bryan fucking Adams and Paul fucking-fucking McCartney is jumping aboard the “Free Pussy Riot” bandwagon. All of which is sure to trigger that ol’ Dostoevskian reactionary gene in Russians. And just yesterday, it was announced that Russian police are targeting another five Pussy Riot members for the same fate as their three jailed comrades.

To get a look at that recessive reactionary Russian gene in action, you need to watch some more YouTube clips. The first shows a couple of Pussy Riot supporters in the southern Russian city of Rostov (once named “the serial-murderer capital of the world”) getting stomped last week by a mob of low-forehead goons, as the cops pretend to protect the Pussy Riot supporters.

The second is from last Wednesday showing a handful of Pussy Riot supporters unfurling a banner at the same holy church that the girls are accused of “desecrating” — then getting jumped by cops, their masks torn off their heads, reporters getting thrashed as the Pussy Riot artists scamper away.

One more thing about Pussy Riot, and this is personal:

I just realized that just before The eXile was shut down in mid-2008, I wrote about one of the Pussy Riot girls who was just sentenced to two years in prison: The hot brunette Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. She and the others are part of a radical Moscow art collective called “Voina” or “War” — their radical, confrontational absurdist political aesthetic is part of an old avant-garde tradition in Russia going back to figures like Daniel Kharms or Mayakovsky up through our own eXile columnist Eduard Limonov, who's still getting thrown in jail every month or two.

Here’s what happened: In March 2008, just when Putin was handing the presidency to his hand-picked monkey Dmitri Medvedev, the Voina collective, including Pussy Riot’s Tolokonnikova, pulled off a political “art” stunt that was so insane and over-the-top, I decided to turn it into a big photo essay in The eXile. The “artists” gathered in a Moscow museum, brought a few photographers with them, stripped completely naked, and started having a real no-bullshit XXX orgy underneath a banner that read: “Fuck For The Successor Medvedev”.

Among those who stripped off all their clothes and got “fucked” doggy-style for Medvedev: a very pregnant, younger Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, who's now sitting in prison.

When we sent our galleys to our printers to churn out our usual run of 25,000 newspaper copies, the strangest thing happened: Our printers refused to print The eXile. They were scared; they made a big dramatic show of denouncing us. Quietly they told us that they didn’t want to get on the new President Medvedev Administration’s bad side so early. We tried a couple more printing presses, but no one would take it. So we had no choice but to censor the entire spread in the print version in order to get it printed and distributed: We blacked out the entire page, then put a small white box in the middle that read simply: "In Loving Memory of the Vladimir Putin Era 2000-2008". I wrote about the bizarre censorship episode for the defunct Radar magazine, a cached version can be found at the waybackmachine.

The problem was this: Every Russian knows that when power changes hands, the chinovniki, the bureaucrats, suddenly stir to action like a hornet’s nest with frightening zeal. They want to justify their jobs to their new bosses — and that usually involves finding and catching some “enemies.” So the smart Russians lay low during those months of power transition.

For her role in the "Fucking For Medvedev" stunt, the Pussy Riot girl was thrown out of MGU university, as were several other members of the Voina collective. Considering the fact that MGU is considered one of the 2-3 elite "Ivy League" equivalents in Russia, that was like a death sentence to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's future — and it only radicalized her.

And a couple of months after our newspaper was censored, The eXile received an official notification from the Kremlin agency on mass media and culture, informing us that we were being “audited” for extremism, spreading sexual and pro-drug propaganda, inciting ethnic hatred, and god knows what else. That had never happened to a Moscow newspaper before — not English-language, nor Russian language. It was the sort of thing that happened only in the corrupt regions.

We never figured out what it was exactly that motivated the Kremlin to shut down The eXile when they did. It wasn't supposed to be a surprise, given the shit we published all those years — and yet it was a surprise, or rather, a mystery.

Now I have to wonder if they shut us down when they did as part of the fallout from publishing and promoting the pre-Pussy Riot “Fucking for Medvedev” happening. Clearly whatever these radical artists are doing is something that sticks in the Kremlin's craw.

This recent crackdown on Pussy Riot also happened to coincide with this year's change of power. The three Pussy Riot girls were first arrested in March, the same month that Putin retook his President’s office in the Kremlin, the seat kept warm by Medvedev. Just like last time, the change of power meant chinovniki got busy working. And when chinovniki get busy, people get destroyed.