Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Punk Russia.


With Pussy Riot in the news we may read into the origins of this punk band and look to Voina. It seems somehow significant that this movement to shock cultural conservatism out of Russian society. The fall of the Berlin Wall affected a lot of people in a number of ways. Before the fall there was an entire underground scene of avant-garde art, music and literature, the work was defined by its opposition to the Soviet socialism as well as American capitalism. There has to be a new side to take, beyond left and right. It wasn’t just the emergence of democratic institutions, but the birth of a set of political options that were stunted in utero. We’ll get back to this later. Russia actually has a long history of avant-garde art and we should not mistake Pussy Riot for a deviancy of the post-Communist federation. As the Kremlin prefers to frame the Church as an anti-Stalinist institution it conveniently forgets the importance of the avant-garde in Russian history. Not just in the origins of the Soviet Union, but in the escapism from Brezhnevian repression.

By the early 1930s Stalin had solidified his position with the help of his appointed bureaucrats, the New Economic Policy could be abandoned in order to pursue the brutal collectivization of agriculture. It was at this time that Stalin heralded a new era in Russian art and architecture, it would be known as socialist realism. In the early years of the Revolution the aesthetic of Bolshevism became constructivism and, to a lesser extent, futurism. The Soviet artists were organised into Prolekult, at its peak the organisation had over 84,000 members active in studios and factory groups. The revolutionary avant-garde went back to the earlier uprisings against the Tsar in 1905 when they emerged as left-wing Bolsheviks and became enthralled with the idea of inspiring mass-revolts through art. After the long anticipated 1917 Revolution the avant-garde exploded in its activities even though it was never all that popular with the Orthodox Marxists in the ranks of Leninism.

This was not unique to Russia it has to be said as the surrealists climbed into bed with socialists to the extent that Leon Trotsky contributed to Breton's Surrealist Manifestos. In fact, Andre Breton once summed up the simplest surrealist act as "going into the street, revolver in hand, and firing at random into the crowd for as long as one can". Breton was keen to shape the surrealist movement to fit his own tastes, which carried the symptom of scorn for the novel (with a few exceptions). He also had no interest in music whatsoever. He went onto ostracise Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille and Salvador Dalí from the group for a variety of reasons. Dalí is a notable exception, to this pattern of artistic radicalism, in his violent passivity at the rise of Franco in the 1930s. This was while Picasso conveyed the horrifying emergence of Fascist Spain over the corpses of a great number of leftists in his own painting. Naturally a mutual disdain burned between Picasso and Dalí.

The leading figures were either absorbed into socialist realism, died off or found themselves marginalised in later life. The avant-garde would only re-emerge in the 1970s and 80s as a negative opposition to state-socialism and liberal capitalism. This time it offered little in positive vision, only a mockery of what had been for so long. At best the artists reverted to the politics of anarchy, forever leftwards. The underground scene thrived in Leningrad and Moscow. There the youth (including the spawn of prominent bureaucrats and commissars) turned to cultural activities – especially music – to capture and mock the absurdity of the USSR. Politics had precious little to offer for the children of Brezhnev, it was not a means to reorganise society. The youth reached out to American Punk because only change seemed possible outside the political realm. It was a way of retreating from any engagement with the corrupt politics of the state that had no place for them to participate in the first place.

For the poet Eduard Limonov the new music scene embodied everything good about Russian maximalism – the tendency to take things to the extreme. The collision of bland bureaucracy and vapid optimism in Russia under Gorbachev could only be met with a militant anti-establishment fervour. Perhaps at some level this was an attempt to recapture the Russian tradition of nihilism. The hero of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons was Bazarov, an idealistic young radical, a devotee of universal freedom destined for tragedy. The novel reflected the Russian nihilism of the late 19th Century. This was when nihilism was of a generational rejection of the old traditional and cultural whole. It was better to profess a faith in ‘nothing’ than to buy into the conventions of traditional religion. The nihilists looked for a better understanding of this world as the future hope rather than living for the promise of salvation in the afterlife.

When the poet Eduard Limonov returned to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union he was appalled by the imposition of Western-style capitalism through ‘shock therapy’. It was a disaster and Limonov was convinced that the liberal societies of the West were no better than the old totalitarian model that had collapsed. Capitalism was just more sophisticated in its oppression. He decided to take drastic action and formed a new political party to take back Russian society from the rapacious forces of globalisation. Limonov set out to develop a new kind of politic out of the avant-garde scene that he had come out of it. He set out to take ideas and tendencies from within avant-garde art and music to redefine his oppositional politics. The aim would be to establish an alternative that would break through the bourgeois illusions of Western democracy to show the masses that the elites were greedily eviscerating Russia to feast on the entrails. 

It would be the National Bolshevik Party. It became the embodiment of the resurgent nationalism – through which the masses could be harnessed as a force – that has sought to quash the Russian process of modernisation since the 1990s. During the bombardment of Sarajevo, Limonov was present in solidarity with his Slavic brethren and there he was with Radovan Karadžić and was filmed taking a turn firing into the streets below them with a rifle. In the meantime, the drink-sodden Yeltsin and the gang of free-marketeers around him practically destroyed Russia only to give way for the rise of Putin. Some of the musicians from the Russian Punk even scene joined the National Bolshevik Party where they would aestheticise the political. As Walter Benjamin would remind us, with great wisdom, behind every Fascism you can find a failed revolution. The disillusionment that had carved out a comforting oppositional aesthetics to the Commissars found no way to define itself after the collapse of really existing socialism.

Once it was the Punk movement of New York City that had offered escapism to the Russian youth, only for it to boil over into a neo-fascism with Limonov's leap from a radical poet in exile to a full-blown reactionary. He had arrived in 1974 just in time to see the Punk scene kick-off in New York. Limonov became close to the likes of Richard Hell, Patti Smith and the Ramones. Limonov took the Punk vision fused it with the pervasive disillusionment of Soviet society. Now Pussy Riot blends Punk with a feminist politic in the post-Soviet Russia where the Kremlin seeks its authority in religiosity and jingoism. It still smacks of the comfortable resistance of artists in the 1970s and 80s. The anarchic form and subversion of any traditional standards without necessarily any positive vision to take the place of the dysfunctional institutions of really existing democracy in Russia. Nevertheless, it is clear that Pussy Riot embodies a valuable tendency in Russian music and art that should not be suppressed as it was under the Stalinists.

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