Monday, 27 August 2012

Venturing Down the Pussy Riot Rabbit Hole




I should preface by noting that my word is not law. My only resources are basically what I can find on the Internet, which isn’t a guarantee that the following is completely accurate. The use of links to Wikipedia is more often for the benefit of English readers with no knowledge of the Russian language, rather than posting the Russian-only links. The various pieces of information I’ve gathered ultimately all seem to point in the same direction and hopefully give the narrative I've teased out of them a vague semblance of veracity. By all means I invite readers to point out any inaccuracies.

Secondly, this entry is not a debate of the symbolic merits (or lack thereof) of five women causing a ruckus in a Moscow cathedral for a couple of minutes, or the state of equality and liberty in post-Soviet Russian society. There are plenty of other staffers out there far more capable of tackling such topics, some of whom will be referenced.

Finally, apologies for the months-long period of silence; I know that some folk out there have actually asked me why there haven’t been any updates in a while, for which I’m touched. This is down to being plagued by physical problems, dragged into bureaucracy, and just being plain busy. Sitting down for a couple of hours to write something was very low down on the list of priorities over the past few months.

But I’m back now, so are we good to go?


Cool.

A friend wrote the following to me approximately around the time when three members of Pussy Riot – (seen from left to right at the top) Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – were staring down a judge in a Moscow courthouse:

Can you, like, provide a good explanation of what's going on? Swedish media is making them look like these fearless freedom-fighters, with noble causes, fighting Sauron himself. And that just seems way too simple.

Truth be told I had wanted to avoid the topic of Pussy Riot altogether. I am neither for nor against the group’s activities, but as I’ve delved into the history of the characters involved, I find myself becoming less and less sympathetic towards their supposed plight.

In response to the question, I suggested reading this marvelous piece written by Mark Ames to start with, because the man has an amazing ability of frequently pointing out how often the West is utterly ignorant or misinformed when it comes to everything Russia. The presentation of his remarks – certainly during his tenure at the Exile (NSFW) – may come off as extreme or solely designed to shock, but there are very few North Americans out there with as deep a knowledge of Russia out there as he. Ignoring him is ill-advised.

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The Exile was a freely distributed expat newspaper in Moscow for about 15 years that got shut down in 2008 and, if you read the Ames article above, it was partly because of one of the members of Pussy Riot. Despite appearances of a rag and the fact it was littered with adverts for strip clubs – which was an extremely smart move on their part, because every other free English-language newspaper like The Moscow Times, The Moscow News, or Element, seem to not understand that these are an ad revenue goldmine – it was one of the most well-written periodicals I've ever had the pleasure of reading. The Exile was essentially one big contrarian editorial with a libertarian satirical slant that was well ahead of the curve, and ridiculously funny to boot.



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Getting back to the question, the "fearless freedom-fighters" line immediately stood out for me. I find it increasingly absurd – and extremely worrying – that almost no one in the West has bothered to take a closer look into who these three "innocent", "progressive", "intelligent", and "every-other-adjective-the-Guardian-can-come-out-with" "girls" actually are. The deeper I’ve looked into this affair, the more it seems that they are anything but. Another friend wrote:

I have some friends dislocating their arms trying to pat themselves on the backs about supporting Pussy Riot, and yet like you say, most of us have never heard of before and have no easy way of gaining vital context.
That single sentence does a good job of capturing my attitude towards this entire farce. The longer the Pussy Riot debacle was drawn out, the more I was reminded of the pretentious Kony 2012/Make Kony Famous campaign and the initial reaction it generated. Remember that?


Then recall how only one person (a second-year politics student!) bothered to look into the Invisible Children bunch for slightly longer than the time it took to watch their 30 minutes of obnoxious YouTube garbage and revealed them to be significantly less-than-legit? And then just a week or so later public opinion turned against them and the Internet started calling the filmmakers everything under the sun, leading to director Jason Russell losing his mind and exposing himself on a San Diego street?


Well, I'm getting the same vibe from the Pussy Riot case. But with this entry by no means am I even attempting to be the guy that outed Invisible Children as a bunch of ne’er-do-wells lacking transparency over how they spent donations – nor do I even want to be. My motivation for finally approaching this affair is that (among other things) I am concerned that folk around me have jumped on the Pussy Riot bandwagon without even questioning the group's origins, as if to suggest that this is just another case of the good underdog vs. the evil establishment – one that lets us neatly fall into two camps, and the mere idea of proposing anything to the contrary is absolutely horrifying.

With that in mind, shall we meet the three “young” ladies who have just received a two-year sentence for an act of hooliganism?

First up is Maria Alyokhina, 24, mother to a five-year-old son.


Together with Samutsevich and Tolokonnikova, the three allegedly formed Pussy Riot in September 2011 to supposedly fight against the "Putin junta". Alyokhina is the so-called "Writer" of the trio due to her studies at the Institute of Journalism and Creative Writing. Her background is in humanitarian voluntary work, as well as a spell at Greenpeace Russia getting anti-logging petitions – a grand total of about 4,600 signatures – to send to Medvedev back in 2008. Before she was arrested she was in her fourth year of journo studies. Allegedly Alyokhina is a vegan and ended up reportedly malnourished in prison because she was not being fed appropriately by the authorities.

[edit: The following was not Alyokhina's doing, but is instead attributed to one of the individuals involved in Voina's museum orgy who shall remain unnamed. Details of some of the actions by Voina, which are not worksafe, from 2006-2012 in English can be found by clicking here] It has been claimed that in 2010, Alyokhina allegedly released an infamous video of herself masturbating in a St. Petersburg grocery store with a frozen chicken (just an article, not the video in question), which was subsequently stolen from the supermarket, but this is misattributed and deemed just another part of a smear campaign against the three.

Next we have Yekaterina Samutsevich, the so-called “Artist” and oldest of the trio at 29.



She graduated at the top of her class at the Rodchenko School of Photography. During her student years she got acquainted with Tolokonnikova, roughly around 2008, when Samutsevich was seen clutching onto the back of a Moscow train with art activist group Voina founders Natalya Sokol and Oleg Vorotnikov in June of that year.



In that instance the three refused to pay for the train, as apparently tickets are for the self-centered urban population blind to society's ills hidden in plain sight (or maybe they were just cheapskates). Strangely enough, students in Russia get enormous discounts on public transport and occasionally free entry into museums and the like.

Despite being relatively quiet during the trial, Samutsevich’s previous actions dictate otherwise. As part of the Moscow “faction” of Voina – a group that we will come back to in detail later – in July 2010 Samutsevich allegedly released 3000 live Madagascan giant cockroaches in the corridors of a Moscow courthouse, although there are claims that she didn’t succeed and that the police confiscated them at the court’s entrance.


(My Russian friend had one of these in his student halls for some reason. If you rub one on its back, it makes a creepy hissing sound.)

This insect-infestation move by Samutsevich was because a couple of curators were on trial for organizing the "Forbidden Art-2006" exhibition, which came under scrutiny in March 2007 when a Christian organization filed a lawsuit against them for purportedly defacing religious symbols and fueling national hatred. Said exhibition featured images of Mickey Mouse as Jesus...



…and Lenin on the cross.



Ironically, the very same courthouse that Samutsevich tried to infest with cockroaches is the one that recently handed down a verdict on the three. Samutsevich also took part in "Operation: Kiss Garbage" («Лобзай мусора» Lob-zai moo-sore-ah) where female members of the so-called Moscow faction of Voina in February 2011 went running around the Moscow metro kissing young female police school students seemingly in protest of Medvedev's impending police reform.



Last and by no means least is Nadezhda “the Philosopher” Tolokonnikova




Twenty-two year old Nadya (short for Nadezhda; other examples of such diminutives of Russian names are Dima for Dmitry, and Vova for Vladimir) is if not the apparent leader of the three women behind the glass, then certainly the most well known to the international public. Part of the reason for this is that her slightly hardier makeup-less sisters-in-arms don’t contrast well in split screens against tough guy Putin on TVs. Roll out the frail, gentle, allegedly hunger-struck brunette brave enough to stand up to the establishment fist-in-the-air instead.



A lot has been said about her, but there’s plenty more. Some of you by now probably know that she is, in fact, a permanent resident of Canada and even holds an Ontario health card.



This is due to the fact that her husband Pyotr Verzilov is a Canadian citizen. What some people might not know is that Nadya is not even from Moscow. She’s originally from Norilsk, Northern Siberia, which is mostly known for being freezing cold nine months of the year and incredibly polluted due to extensive nickel ore mining (some of you might have heard of “Norilsk Nickel” in connection with billionaire oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s business ventures).

About the most publicized factoid about Tolokonnikova is her participation in a group sex orgy at a Moscow Museum of Biology in April of 2008 when she was a heavily pregnant 17-year-old.



Pictured to the right is husband Verzilov desperately trying to stimulate his censored-out limp self into life. Nadya gave birth about four days later. When Nadya’s mother saw the video, she threw her daughter out of the house, while other group members faced disciplinary measures from their respective universities. The crass incident was orchestrated by the aforementioned group Voina (meaning “war”), and this is where things start to get particularly intricate.

To fully understand Tolokonnikova, and consequently Pussy Riot, we need to take a closer look at Voina - especially considering an absolutely damning interview about Tolokonnikova and her husband with the group by Russian philosopher Vadim Rudnev from October 2011.

Voina was formed in the fall of 2005 by Oleg Vorotnikov…



…and Natalia Sokol.



Its alumni are made up of students from the Rodchenko School of Photography and Moscow State University (MGU) among others. The latter is one of Russia’s answers to the Ivy League, and at the time of Tolokonnikova’s arrest, Nadya was in her fourth year in MGU’s philosophy faculty.

The group is known for hit-and-run performance art actions. Some of them are vaguely amusing, like childishly spray-painting a massive phallus on a St. Petersburg bridge in 2010 (called “Dick Captured by KGB”) that couldn’t be taken down for several hours because the boats have to get through.






As a result of such actions, Vorotnikov and Sokol are now in hiding from the police. The former was actually put on an international arrest warrant back in 2011 for his “Palace Revolution” where he helped overturn several police cars in St. Petersburg. In the period of 2008-2009, Tolokonnikova and Verzilov became primary figures in Voina.

Following the orgy stunt and being kicked out of house and home, Tolokonnikova spent the summer of 2008 living in an unheated garage with her husband alongside Vorotnikov and Sokol





From this point on Nadya’s story becomes intriguing. In the interview with Voina’s Oleg Vorotnikov, Leonid Nikolayev, Natalia Sokol and Alexei Plutser-Sarno, the “progressive”, “intelligent”, “innocent” Tolokonnikova and her Canadian husband are accused by the four of being bumbling idiots, as well as thieves and liars who betrayed the group on numerous occasions.

These unflattering remarks don’t just lie in simple “ideological differences” between the artists. Over the course of their two years in Voina, Nadya and Pyotr seemingly pursued self-interests at the expense of the rest of the group. According to Plutser-Sarno, “[Tolokonnikova and Verzilov] didn’t suggest a single idea for an action. They never did creative work. They were occupied with self-promotion.”

One particular instance that draws the group’s ire is a September 2008 action in a Moscow megastore that the couple was involved in, wherein the fake execution of a gay man and a migrant worker was staged.





While the above photos taken by Reuters photographer Tom Peter show Nadya and Pyotr as the brains behind the action, an excerpt from the interview states otherwise:

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: Let’s take a look at how one of the Voina actions, say, Decembrists Commemoration, was planned. Brainstorming started with Natalia’s idea to stage something horrifying with a lethal outcome in the end. Oleg suggested the whole group should hang themselves in public.

Oleg Vorotnikov: Plut (Alexei Plutser-Sarno’s nickname) said then that the effect would be more dramatic if we’d be hangmen – not “suicide” victims. Koza (Natalia’s nickname) and I agreed. Plut told us that it would be great to dedicate this action to Decembrists and suggested a slogan “No one gives a fuck about Pestel!”

Yana Sarna: Pyotr Verzilov didn’t participate in this creative work. As usual, he came to the action to show off in front of the photo cameras. As usual, he drew supermarket security by his silly behavior and nearly ruined the action.

Oleg Vorotnikov: Nadya Tolokonnikova was told to go up the ladder, attach a loop around the neck of one of the “victims”.

                          Well, she went up the ladder all right, but she completely forgot about the loop. That’s why one part of the photo shoot failed. Usually we tried not to give her two tasks at a time, but that time we hoped that she could handle it. Apart from that, all she could do was march in front of the cameras with a “revolutionist-like” face.

Yana Sarna: After the action in various interviews Pyotr and Nadya called themselves the authors of this action, as well as leaders and ideologists of the group. They always plagiarize and take the credit for other people’s works. But you know, an apprentice can’t take credit for his teacher’s masterpieces even though he helped him to mix colours and handed him brushes.

Natalia Sokol: Four activists were arrested within this action. Plut and Vor (Oleg Vorotnikov’s nickname) went to liberate them from the police office in the supermarket. Among them there were two photographers. Plut secretly managed to take away all the memory cards with photo documentation.

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: Pyotr and Nadya disappeared from the place immediately. They didn’t help anyone.


A “split” in the group came in December 2009 – or, as claimed by Vorotnikov et al, Pyotr and Nadya were unanimously expelled from Voina. In November of the same year, Tolokonnikova and Verzilov were meant to go down to Kiev to help Ukrainian artist-activist Alexander Volodarsky organize an action outside the houses of Ukrainian parliament. [edit: Volodarsky actually disputes the following accusation in a blog post, and that he's sick of being "a bargaining chip" between the two camps] The plan was to strip naked and simulate public sex by the walls of government, but…


Oleg Vorotnikov: Pyotr ratted out Volodarsky to the cops and informed us about it with joy and satisfaction.
                            He tried to convince Koza and me that it’d be a good PR move for the Voina Group. He is so immoral that he didn’t even understand why we were so outraged by his words. He said to us: “Are you insane! It’s such a good opportunity and an incredible PR move for us. I’ve already given a dozen of interviews!”

In another LiveJournal entry, written by Plutser and titled Alexander Volodarsky: “Pyotr Verzilov Fucked Us All and Betrayed and Robbed Me” (in Russian but NSFW) - a statement that Volodarsky refutes - the incident resulted in Alexander getting six weeks in pre-trial detention, followed by three months in a labor camp. As if it weren’t enough that the couple supposedly fed Volodarsky to the Kiev cops, as the title of the LJ entry suggests, Nadya and Pyotr also stole Volodarsky’s belongings and money.

The group was not amused by the couple’s move. To mask the fact that they had been unceremoniously booted out, Pyotr reportedly spread a rumour that the group had in fact split into “two” Voinas: the "real" rabble-rousing Voina i.e. Vorotnikov, Sokol, Plutser, etc. and the Moscow “fraction” of Voina – or, as Plutser refers to them, “Verzilov and his girlfriends”.

Adding insult to the injuries of Voina, Pyotr then broke into one of the group’s secret storages, stealing banners and various materials from the group’s actions over the years before traveling around Europe exhibiting the works in various galleries, taking credit for activities he had no hand in. Because most of the group members were either in prison or in hiding from the authorities, they couldn’t approach the various gallery owners over the false representation. Furthermore, according to the group, just a few months following the expulsion, Pyotr and Nadya pulled off another far more damaging theft:

Oleg Vorotnikov: In May 2010, Pyotr Verzilov and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova broke into our storage and stole the whole Voina archive: banners, my personal library, original video footage of the actions, disks with various info, our music library, equipment, including amplifiers, loud speakers, DVD-players, projectors etc. They stole my desk top with all the info on Voina. They denied the fact of burglary, but a bit later their friend Katya asked us to take some of the stolen stuff from her balcony – things that Pyotr and Nady left there as useless.

Natalia Sokol: I caught Peter once when he was downloading all the data, including a Voina photo archive from my laptop. He didn’t return anything and insisted he didn’t do anything. Later I realized that his theft was much more extensive than I thought before. For example, he also got all my usernames and passwords to various websites. He changed passwords to several Flickr accounts, where I uploaded photos of Voina actions. In happened in January 2009. Now I don’t have any access to them.


Furthering the group’s accusation that the two are nothing more than a pair of plagiarists, Plutser noted that the cockroach incident that Pussy Riot convict Samutsevich tried to pull off in 2010 had been discussed the previous year at a meeting.

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: Peter stole the idea of the “Cockroach court” action from Oleg. The idea of using insects, such as cockroaches or bees, was discussed at the group meeting in 2009, when Peter was still in the group.

At the “Cockroach court” action Peter didn’t manage to get the cockroaches inside the courtroom. But he lied about it to journalists. You won’t be able to find any pics or video of this co-called action as they don’t exist – cockroaches were confiscated by the court security at the entrance.

Natalia Sokol: Pyotr tried to compensate this total failure by his usual clownery, posing and lying to the cameras in front of the court.

Oleg Vorotnikov: There is only one glamorous pic of this action – a naked Nadya lying with cockroaches on her breasts. That’s not Voina style. That’s a disgrace. Pyotr simulates protest and counts on gutter press.


To top it all off for Vorotnikov & co. the whole time Nadya and Pyotr were claiming to be leaders of Voina.

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: Our slogan, “Anyone can make actions!” is still alive. But if Oleg, Natalia and Leonid make new risky actions, Pyotr and Nadya only use this slogan as a cover to steal our ideas and make feeble copycat actions.

Leonid Nikolayev: When they try to do their own actions it turns out to be a complete disaster. Take for instance, their latest shallow action in which they hugged cops and fed them with chicken. Previously, they once again discredited Voina’s name by frenching young female police school students in the Moscow metro.

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: Their actions are a mere clownery that has nothing to do with heroic art of the Voina Group.


Ultimately, Vorotnikov is not happy with Tolokonnikova’s husband:


Oleg Vorotnikov: Verzilov is a liar, a thief, a police provoker and dexterous deceiver.


I’m going to have to resist regurgitating the rest of the Voina interview – which, if you didn’t click on the link earlier, you can read here – as this lengthy post needs to come to a close.

In conclusion it should probably be noted that the people involved in Voina and Pussy Riot mostly come from more or less privileged middle-class backgrounds. The majority of people featured here both in Voina and Pussy Riot all studied at some of Russia's most prestigious institutions. None of them were poor or found wanting until they decided to abandon home comforts and resort to a romantic lifestyle of digging out clothes from the trash, squatting in garages, and shoplifting.

...Or maybe it's not important who or what the members of Pussy Riot are, and maybe this post is ultimately worthless in the grand scheme of things. But it should be important, because unless Tolokonnikova & friends had suddenly changed their ways in the short time since the split from the original Voina, then they didn't jump around in front a church altar for the good of society - they did it for themselves.

Update: I highly recommend reading the following two links written on British lawyer Alexander Mercouris' blog.

http://mercouris.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/pussy-riot-2/

http://mercouris.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/pussy-riot-after-the-judgment/

Long but extremely thorough and well worth a read. Unfortunately, some folk have already made their mind up about the case.

5 comments:

  1. Hi Ben,

    If you look at the woman who inserts the chicken where chickens were never meant to inserted in the Voina video, it's definitely not Alyokhina. This is a smear which probably originated with RT and was perpetuated by AP.

    The action was in fact done by the "original" Voina in 2010, after the split. Vorotnikov, Sokol, young Kasper and Nikolaev can also be seen in the video.

    I won't post the woman's name here, but it has been published in Russian blogs and social media like VK. She's fairly well known in St Petersburg art circles. Her reasons for debasing herself like this are unclear, but she also took part in the museum action (she's the blonde on the left). It's highly unlikely she has any involvement with Pussy Riot.

    I haven't found any references that definitely link Alyokhina to Voina (either faction); Tom Peter in his photo essay says he never met her while he was in Russia. I hope you can find it in yourself to retract the chicken smear at least, cause that's a pretty disgusting thing to have associated with your name.

    I'd also be a little more critical in reporting Vorotnikov & Sokol's allegations about Verzilov. Volodarsky himself disputes the account, saying that it was an honest mistake that led to his arrest, and that he is tired of being a "bargaining chip" between the warring factions.

    http://shiitman.livejournal.com/703694.html

    Verzilov has never really given his side of the story, probably because he doesn't want to wrestle with a pig in mud... but I suspect there's some revisionism going on there. Ex-friends usually make the most bitter enemies.

    The whole thing is very murky and we'll probably never know the whole story.

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    1. Hi Alex, thanks for your input about Alyokhina and Volodarsky. I've amended the post accordingly, as it's exactly the sort of thing I've spent the past couple of days trying to figure out. I probably should have made it clearer from the outset that I'm not out to smear either camp, and I don't agree with Voina's methods of protest.

      You're right that the Pussy Riot affair is very murky. So much so that I'm not exactly sure I want to write the second part, because this blog isn't really meant to be about deception, backstabbing, or just general moaning at the state of affairs that many blogs typically suffer from. The more I look into it, the more complicated and nasty the Pussy Riot/Voina story becomes.

      On the other hand, I think it's worth at least trying to see past the media circus this has all generated.

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  2. Hi Ben

    I suggest the site www.artprotest.org if you want to do further research. Lots of background stuff and links there, even profiles of Voina and Pussy Riot members. I presume your Russian is better than mine. (I know the alphabet and "пиво, пожалуйста", been there once but I'm a kiwi).

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  3. It is magnificent how you managed to completely expose the theme which you have chosen for this exact blog entry. BTW did you turn to some other blog articles as a source of information to fulfill the entire picture that you have revealed in your article?

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    1. Thanks for the kind response.

      Most of the material I got information from are linked in the post. To add what I mentioned at the beginning of the post - aside from using wikipedia which is intended for the sake of simplicity concerning persons/places/events known well to many - most of the links are attempts to be objective as possible. As such, I've tried to link to news articles (Reuters, SPTimes) and primary sources (Voina interview, youtube videos), rather than second hand opinion, to back up my points. Obviously the inclusion of the Voina interview can be considered one-sided

      If you can dig past the overwhelming number of articles in support of the three girls, all the information is readily out there. Truth be told I was tempted to write more, but that would have resulted in something twice the size and involved the greater community of Moscow/Russian artists.

      Delete