Photo: Igor Mukhim, via Wiki Commons
Photo: Igor Mukhim, via Wiki Commons

During the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the cultural spotlight was shared by two girl groups presenting two contrasting views of Modern Russia. The official view, of a world power and respectable culture, were represented by t.A.T.u. Reunited to perform at the Opening Ceremony, the pop duo are Russia’s most commercially successful musical export, and signify Russia’s desire for respect. This made President Vladimir Putin proud of his country, and he shone the spotlight on them brightly. Another view of Russia, that of a society dogged by outmoded conservatism and governed by a repressive totalitarian, is blazoned by Pussy Riot. The punk rock performance art group also recently reunited, and brought their tactics to Sochi, to film a protest for their new single. This view disappoints Putin, and he has gone to great lengths to hide this view from the spotlight.

You may remember t.A.T.u. as the controversial pop duo who brought alternative sexuality onto the international stage by making out and feeling each other up in the video for their 2002 hit “All the Things She Said.” You may have even bought the album. Blender magazine declared t.A.T.u. “the future of rock & roll.” Inevitably, their sapphic desires were revealed as a stunt, and the gimmick wore off. t.A.T.u.’s popularity in the West waned, although they remained popular in Russia and Eastern Europe for almost a decade until their breakup in March 2011.

Five months later, a group of feminists with anarchist connections founded a new collective. Today, Pussy Riot are likely the most famous Russian band, while operating as everything but: performance artists; political theatrics; intellectual figures; human rights activists. Forbes magazine declared Pussy Riot “the future of civil disobedience.” But their status as a band remains, despite barely being one. Most fans had not heard their music until last week, apart from a handful of cellphone video documentations. You can’t find them on Spotify, but you definitely know who they are.

As far as Vladimir Putin is concerned, Pussy Riot is attracting unwanted attention to his policies, while generating zero capital. Putin is engaged in a meticulous campaign to present himself as a conquesting strongman and a modern myth for Modern Russia. He controls the mediainfluences the courts, decides whether businesses succeed or fail. And he has enacted a bizarre and horrifying law banning gay “propaganda.” After his second consecutive term, he strongly endorsed the election of fellow United Russia party member Dmitri Medvedev, generally regarded as Putin’s patsy. After Medvedev’s term was up, Putin was able to run for another term since it would be non-consecutive. When citizens protested the inauguration of his controversial yet technically legal third term, he had them arrested in Bolotnaya Square.

Putin’s criminalization of homosexuality and harsh treatment of protesters were the targets of Pussy Riot’s infamous “punk prayer,” titled “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away” and performed February 21, 2012, at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Dressed in their signature colorful balaclavas, Pussy Riot assembled at the altar and rocked out. They were eventually subdued by security personnel, with much difficulty. The Orthodox community, a close supporter and important voting block of Putin’s United Russia party, was predictably outraged. Blasphemous, neon-colored feminists screaming in the sacred sanctuary? Something had better be done about that. So on March 3, Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were arrested and charged with “hooliganism”.

The very next day, Putin was re-elected to a third term with a suspiciously high 80% of the vote. On May 6, the eve of his inauguration, upwards of 20,000 protestors took over Bolotnaya Square; a battle against police ensued and over 500 protesters were arrested. Seven months and a trial later, Samutsevich was released on probation, but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were sentenced to prison camps in the “Gulag.” The harsh sentences made headlines in the U.S., and rallied pro-speech, anti-Putin activists in the West. The reaction in Russia was less controversial (according to one survey, 55% of Russians prefer “order” to “human rights”). The day after his 60th birthday, Putin declared Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova “got what they asked for.” With that problem locked away, Putin was able to focus on preparations for the coming 2014 Winter Olympics.

As 2013 came to a close, the heat was on. Negative press was mounting around the world. First, the ongoing incarcerations, including the temporary disappearance of Tolokonnikova. Next, the gay “propaganda” bill. And now, criticism of the Winter Olympics preparations in Sochi. On top of that, there was the seizure on August 11 of a Greenpeace ship and detaining of its crew, the “Arctic 30.” Putin had to demonstrate his benevolence to the world. Enter Putin’s amnesty law, dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution. Just in time for Christmas, the law granted amnesty to Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, and some of the Bolotnaya Square protesters, as well as scapegoated oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the “Artic 30.” Gratitude was not shown; Alyokhina told reporters she would have refused amnesty if given the choice, rather than being forced to participate in Putin’s PR stunt.

Just before the Winter Olympics, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina toured through the news outlets of Western Europe and the US. The media darlings’ visit to New York culminated in a benefit show on February for Amnesty International, where they were introduced by Madonna at Barclay’s Center. The next day, a mysterious open letter appeared on the official (but otherwise recently inactive) Pussy Riot website. The letter announced that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were no longer members of Pussy Riot. Hinting at an internal dispute, it was pseudonymously signed by the nicknames of the group members, including (with the whiff of disinformation) the nicknames used by Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina. Both Russian and Western media jumped on this story without verifying the letter’s provenance. Initially confused, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina refuted the letter a few days later.

Photo: Interscope Russia
Photo: Interscope Russia

At the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony on February 8, t.A.T.u., the crown jewel of Russian pop culture, performed their hit song “Not Gonna Get Us” on the world stage. Lena Katina and Julia Volkova had been on separate trajectories, developing solo careers with the the occasional performance as t.A.T.u. But they were brought together again by Opening Ceremony director Konstantin Ernst. According to the New Yorker, Ernst is “the premier visual stylist of the Putin era,” and through his leadership at Russia’s Channel One network, that visual style has shaped the image of one nation under Putin. I missed the Opening Ceremony, but read that the t.A.T.u. performance was edited out by NBC for “time” purposes. (Perhaps because t.A.T.u. sang the original Russian version of their song, “Nas Ne Dogonyat“, and NBC knows American audiences don’t like subtitles.)

Not far from the Olympic Park, Pussy Riot took to the streets of Sochi. They were arrested on dubious charges of theft on February 18, and released the same day. The following day, they filmed a music video for their new song “Putin Will Teach You How To Love.” During the public performance,  the group was assaulted by whip-wielding Cossacks. The whole attack was captured on camera, and the next morning, Pussy Riot’s “protest music video” was up on YouTube. It seems nothing can keep them silent; not the police, not the corrupt legal system, not even a militia in ornamental costume. The world is listening now, and Pussy Riot will be heard.

Meanwhile, as quickly as they reunited, t.A.T.u. broke up again on February 18, a week and a half after the Opening Ceremony. Citing a litany of personal disputes, Lena Katina stated in a vlog that she couldn’t continue working with Julia Volkova. Any suspicions that the reunion was orchestrated on a flimsy premise were confirmed. Perhaps Putin’s facade of the new Russia, so meticulously constructed and ringing hollow, will be proven unworkable. But who knows — Mussolini famously made the trains run on time. Except that he didn’t, and the myth persists regardless. And despite Putin’s much-ballyhooed amnesty law, last week, eight of the Bolotnaya Square protesters were convicted with dubious evidence, on charges of rioting and violence against police. Seven were sentenced to four years in prison on Monday. Outside the courtroom, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were arrested, along with dozens of protesters.

The day before, t.A.T.u. premiered their final, posthumous single on Russia’s Love Radio. The title, “Love In Every Moment,” might serve as an ironic epitaph to the duo’s disbandment. The original music video for “Not Gonna Get Us,” the song t.A.T.u. performed at Sochi, starts with mugshots of the duo and proceeds with the story of Lena and Julia escaping capture, fleeing to Siberia in a tanker truck, even running over their manager. Lovestruck, the duo sing the whole way as they leave a trail of wreckage. Toward the end of the music video, the girls climb out of the cab onto the roof of their getaway truck, and embrace each other as they speed blindly through a blizzard in the darkness. Russia pushes on.

Author

Stephen Shearer

Stephen Shearer is a San Francisco- based artist, musician, and self-appointed critic.

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