As many know, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin turned 59 today, a day which for the last five years is also the anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya’s assassination. As one would imagine, Putin’s return to the throne has made this birthday has made the pious and humble Russian people more grateful than usual. As if his personality cult needed more inflation, the great leaders birth was even commemorated with the Twitter hashtag #СПАСИБОПУТИНУЗАЭТО, “Putin, thank you for that,” a revamp of the old Soviet joke, “Прошла зима, настало лето—Спасибо партии за это” (Winter has passed, summer has come –Thank the Party for that.)”
But my favorite happy birthday to Putin prank so far is the kimono-clad Putin sitting in Indian-style right where the famous statute of Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky stood on Lubyanka square. According to one Russian blog, the Putin puppet appeared at [5:07] in the evening. Who had to gumption to place the Putin remains unknown.
Experts claim that on the birthday of the colonel (or lieutenant colonel so he’s not to be mistaken as deep sea diver) will be inexorably dragged through the headwaters. Especially since he has turned into a hero in popular comics. Others think that he hasn’t ever drank, engages in sports and thinks a lot about the Motherland, meditates, and can levitate anywhere. Even on his birthday. After all, he recently did exactly that when he managed to change places with President Medvedev. What a great energetic person.
Here’s a video of the prank.
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By Sean — 10 years ago
As I’m write, the last day of electioneering is closing in Moscow. Now we wait for Sunday to see the results of what some Western media outlets are speculating might be “Russia’s last,” “the least democratic election since the USSR collapsed,” and a symbol of Russia’s return to “a Byzantine form of state-society relations” where the national leader is transformed into a “semi-divine figure.” “Democracy” in Russia, says the Guardian, is about to depart. If it is departing, then what will it leave behind? Yes, United Russia’s recent media blitz has boosted Putin’s approval ratings as high as 80 percent, all but ensuring that it will sweep the elections with overwhelming force. Come Monday, can we expect Putin to make a statement similar to “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style. That’s what happened in the — after the 2000 election, I earned some capital. I’ve earned capital in this election.”? For as some are saying, this is less of a parliamentary election than a referendum on Putin himself.
Thank god we have the eXile to remind us a different time, roughly ten years ago, when the NY Times hailed Russia most corrupt election to date, the Presidential elections of 1996, “A Victory for Russian Democracy.” In an interview with the eXile, Michael Meadowcroft, who then headed the OSCE’s mission to monitor the Russian polls, explains how “he was pressured by OSCE and EU authorities to ignore serious irregularities in Boris Yeltsin’s heavily manipulated 1996 election victory, and how EU officials suppressed a report about the Russian media’s near-total subservience to pro-Yeltsin forces.” The story about how a politically embattled and unpopular Yeltsin beat Communist Party candidate Zyuganov is a staple in understanding 1990s Russia. And if the deluge of reports about election fraud in Sunday’s election are any indication, it’s also a tactic worth repeating with only a few minor upgrades.
It’s also a reminder of how the West’s problem with Russia’s democracy is not one about “democracy” as such. It’s about the for who democracy benefits. Now granted, the concern over Russian democracy has little to do with the Russian people, that is except for the few idealists who still hold on to its revolutionary potential. The Russian people are only rhetorically taken into consideration. The language of “human rights” is merely a linguistic truncheon wielded in the hope that Russia might bend to Western hegemony. The question of Russian democracy is not about all those moral trappings. It’s about who holds power and to what end. And if the election was a referendum on a Russian candidate that was more amendable to West’s collective economic and political interests, there is no doubt that much of the reporting on electoral fraud would be muted.
No, this won’t be Russia’s last election. Because if anything this election has proven that democracy is an effective way to rule. Just look at all the fancy tools it provides for coning the masses into thinking that the powerful actually have their best interests at heart. Advertising, opinion polls, focus groups, exit polls, internet campaigns, even phone messages to voters mobile phones are all deployed with market precision. Much is made of Russia’s virtual politics, but what is often forgotten is that there is nothing particularly Russian about it. One day, hopefully not far into the distant future, all of us on this planet will realize that democracy has lost its revolutionary potential and that through the nexus of technology and power it has become one with the various apparatuses of control. In the meantime, United Russia’s perfection of democracy’s deployment should make Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s own version of Karl Rove, smile at his greatest creation: managed democracy.
The word “managed” evokes images of performance. We see a whole host of managed performances taking shape on the eve of the polls opening. Since the results of Sunday’s poll will prove to be anti-climatic, the only potential snag in the election would be low voter turnout. Low turnout is proving to be Putin’s soft underbelly. And it’s a weakness that is partially his own making. It was Putin that declared the election to be a referendum on his rule. Low turnout, even if the margin of victory is vast, will be a dagger to Putin’s side. However, if polls conducted by the Levada Center are any indication the turnout will be more than adequate. It’s predicted that 63 percent of Russians plan on voting Sunday. This is despite that fact that 85 percent of television viewers pay no attention to political coverage.
However, a Russian “silent majority” won’t fly. While low turnout is a signal of the “satisfied voter” in the United States, in Russia, non-participation is a sign of protest and discontent. Mobilizing the vote therefore takes on special significance since when considering Russia’s history of democracy, whether “socialist” or otherwise, the ritual of participation has always been emphasized. You see this in efforts to mobilize voters to participate in elections for local soviets in the 1920s. Sure the elections were single candidate and rigged, but that didn’t stop the Soviet regime from dumping resources into going through the motions. The very form of democracy has always been more important than its content, and now is no different. As Boris Kagarlitsky rightly notes,
The authorities cannot control whom we give our votes to but in every possible way try to make us participate in the electoral process. They are more concerned with the turnout than with the electoral preferences. There is certain logic to this position. Compulsory social rituals like coming to the polls are important to the authorities despite all the futility of the polls themselves. They want us to act in certain situations blindly and without dissent. Training obedience is the central element to the domination system.
I couldn’t agree more. This makes for an interesting comparison with the United States. While in the latter control is administered via apathy, alienation, and individualist driven consumerism, in Russia, at least until commodity production has fully sown its alienating seeds, the ritual still matters. The system’s legitimacy is still dependent to some extent on civic participation. The very fact that Russians will vote at all helps to re-inscribe the system’s right to exist and do so as it sees fit.
One thing that shouldn’t slip from the observer’s eye is how this re-inscribing is facilitated by the wedding of Russian capital with “managed democracy.” Notice how mobile companies like Beeline, Megaphon, and Sky Link have all jumped on board to mobilize the vote. Their customers will receive unsolicited text messages like “Go vote on 2 December! Your vote is important to the entire country!” All of this is done at the behest of Russia’s Election Commission. Voter mobilization will also take on more analog forms. Polling stations around the country plan on doling out food, coupon booklets, medical exams, haircuts, prizes, and other items to wet the civil appetite.
Russia’s political and economic class will certainly led a hand. Industrialists big and small like Sergei Nedoroslev, the owner of Kaskol, see election day like a holiday where families gather and vote together. “I live and vote here [in Moscow],” he told Vedomosti. “And I have not missed one single election. It’s a holiday, buns will be given!” He plans on escorting his wife to the polls after lunch. So too this anonymous manager of a metallurgical firm. “I always go vote with my entire family. It’s like a holiday. [Voting] is everyone’s social duty.” Yes, the ritual of voting must be important. Even metro-sexual oligarch Roman Abramovich plans on traveling to his Siberian fiefdom of Chukota to cast his vote.
If voter turnout does surprise Russia watchers and ends up low, there is always Plan B. The lack of physical appearance will certainly be supplemented with a flood of absentee ballots. Absentee ballots allow one person to cast several votes in several different polling stations. Police in Komi have already confiscated 60 absentee ballots purchased on Kirov region. Defiant, the Communists have vowed to not stand for the counting of “dead souls.” But in reality, what are they going to do about it?
All of this engenders questions about the political nature of Putin’s system. The question of whether it is authoritarian or democratic is too polarizing. Thinking about Russia as one or the other masks more than it reveals. Russia’s inner workings seems be defy both categories. Like most modern states, it’s a mixture. A political pendulum that sways between the two poles, but never mustering enough power to swing all the way to one or the other, even briefly. So what kind of system are we talking about here? Does it require us to invent a new analytical language to describe it? Is “Putinism”–if we can even call it this–and all of its political trappings–“managed democracy” and “sovereign democracy”–the ideological substructure of Russia’s 21st century modernization? Is it really a perversion of democracy, or is it simply the vanguard of its global exhaustion?
On this I guess we’ll have to way and see.Post Views: 64
Anatol Lieven: “What is in fact better: authoritarian control from above or mass hysteria from below”?By Sean — 9 years ago
[T]here was another way in which the world seemed to revolve backward during the Valdai, which was if anything even more disturbing. During two lunches over the course of the conference, the president and prime minister of Russia spoke with us for a total of almost seven hours, answering unscripted questions without the help of aides. The foreign minister, deputy prime minister and deputy chief of the general staff spoke with us for several more hours. The chances of this happening in George Bush’s Washington, or indeed most other Western capitals, are zero.
On the other hand, I was told, several U.S. experts who had been invited refused to come because they were afraid that to be seen to talk with Russian leaders would hurt their chances of being selected for jobs in the next U.S. administration, or even their candidate’s chances of being elected president. In particular, they were afraid of attending a conference including meetings with the presidents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia—even though they had the option of not attending them. The idea that it was their duty as analysts to find out what these people are thinking evidently did not occur to them.
In the course of the discussions, we heard a great deal from Russian participants about Russian national interests, and about international peace, stability and cooperation against global threats; but not one word of ideology. The tone was sometimes harsh, but entirely pragmatic. On the other hand, from the U.S. administration and presidential candidates we’ve heard a flood of ideological clichés from the cold war about defending democracy and spreading freedom—platitudes with absolutely no relevance to the reasons for or the circumstances surrounding the war over South Ossetia.
Of course, taken as a whole, U.S. society is much more open and democratic than Russian society; but this is no longer necessarily true of American politicians or Washington elites when it comes to key issues of foreign policy. As for most of the U.S. media, its response to the war over South Ossetia demonstrated that it can on occasion be every bit as hysterically one-sided and willfully inaccurate as the Russian one. Indeed, in this case it was parts of the U.S. media which told by far the biggest single lie—namely the outrageous suggestion, in the face of all the known facts, that it was Russia and not Georgia that started this latest war.
Over the course of our lunch in Sochi, Vladimir Putin congratulated the U.S. media ironically on this performance—they acted “as if they had been given an order.” This raises the interesting question of what is in fact better: authoritarian control from above or mass hysteria from below. The way things are going, we will get plenty of opportunities to study this question in the years to come.Post Views: 51
By Sean — 5 years ago
The trial and conviction of Pussy Riot has sparked a number of historical analogies. Never wanting for hyperbole, the Washington Post, among others in the West and Russia, argued that the trial echoed “Stalinism” (an analogy nicely rebutted by Mark Adomanis). The Pussy Riot case has also been likened to the 1964 trial of the Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky, not to mention harking back to the trials of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel in 1965. But historical analogies did not end with the Soviet period. Another common refrain was that the accusations and trial of Pussy Riot reflected medieval Russia. This comparison wasn’t hard given that Artem Ranchenkov, one of the case investigators, cited Orthodox canonical rules of proper church dress from the 4th century Council of Laodicea and the 7th century Quinisext Council. Nor was it difficult to call the affair “medieval” since the trial proceedings were often more like an ecclesiastical than a civilian court. The coup de grace for which was when Yelena Pavlova, a lawyer representing nine of Pussy Riot’s “victims,” called feminism a “mortal sin.”
Another common historical analogy making the rounds were excerpts from Article 231 of the Imperial Russian Criminal Code of 1845, which stated that “improper loud cries, laughter, or any other noise or unseemly conduct that causes temptation, averts attention of worshipers from their duty to God” carried a fine of 50 kopeks to a ruble or detention from three to seven days. If the disturbance occurred during church service, the sentence was prison for a period of three weeks to three months. The irony here was that under the “well-ordered police state” of Nicholas I, Pussy Riot’s sentence would have been far lighter. Yet, others listed other possible laws applicable to Pussy Riot from the 1845 code. One blog post listed 24 satutes, Articles 182-205, concerning blasphemy, sacrilege, and other violations of faith. The sentences varied from corporal punishment, forced labor in factories and mines, jail time and exile to Siberia. The only problem is that blasphemy and sacrilege are not in the Russian Criminal Code of 2012. That is unless it’s disguised as “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”
But the historical semblances didn’t stop with references to bygone eras or now defunct imperial codes. Some of the more interesting ones were those that placed Pussy Riot within a broader historical tradition of Russian minstrelsy, where hooliganism, art, and protest collided into a staple of Russian medieval culture.
Indeed, there were two references to Russian medieval minstrels, or skomorokhi, in the trial. When one of the prosecutors asked Stalnisalv Samutsevich, the father of Pussy Rioter Yekaterina, if he believed “it was acceptable to say ‘Holy shit’ in a church”, he compared his daughter’s act to that of the skomorokhi of the sixteenth century. Likewise, in her statement to the court, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said that Pussy Riot were in the tradition of the skomorokhi. “We are jesters, skomorokhi, maybe even, holy fools. We didn’t mean any harm.”
Skomorokhi were minstrel entertainers in Kievan and Muscovite Russia that performed for public and Tsar alike. They were wildly popular as they performed songs and folktales or acts of trained bears to the delight of onlookers. Despite their entertainment value, like Pussy Riot, they combined entertainment and mockery with unruliness. Unlike the balaclava-clad feminists, however, the lawlessness of the skomorokhi mostly involved theft and pillage. One famous story told of a band of minstrels distracting the peasants of Likovo with their performance, while their comrades were busy rounding up the villagers’ sheep. Other incidents told of skomorokhi ransacking barns, raiding animal pens, and making off with whatever they could grab. According to Russell Zguta, a historian of the minstrels, “The performing minstrels would frequently allude in song and proverb to the mischief their unseen comrades were engaged in, but no one was wiser until it was too late.”
Sometimes minstrel “hooliganism” was sanctioned, especially by Ivan IV, who was known to use them to mock and heap scorn upon his enemies. These acts were sometimes sacrilegious. One story told of Ivan having Archbishop Pimen of Novgorod placed on a white mare which paraded him around Moscow accompanied by a band of minstrels. In fact, Ivan Grozny was no mere observer. Sometimes he was a participant in the revelry. In the later part of his reign, he was known to put on a mask himself and dance and frolic with the skomorokhi.
As Ivan’s unleashing of the skomorokhi on the Archbishop suggests, the minstrels had few friends in the Orthodox Church. Church officials viewed the skomorokhi as disseminators of paganism, purveyors of “shameful performances” on street corners and marketplaces, and disruptors of church rituals. Weddings garnered many priests’ ire as the minstrels’ performance often overshadowed the religious sanctity of the nuptials. Sometimes confrontations between priests and skomorokhi descended in fisticuffs. In his biography, Ivan Neronov, a leader of the Orthodox Zealots of Piety, told of an incident in the mid-1640s where he attacked a group of minstrels, seized their instruments and smashed them. Angered, the skomorokhi severely beat clergyman in return. But the zealot was undaunted. As Zhuta reports:
Henceforth [Neronov] and some of his students patrolled the streets of the town during the major festival periods such as Koliada in order to discourage the skomorokhi from performing. But, says the author, students “received not a few wounds at the hands of the skomorokhi, those servants of the devil, and they bore these bodily wounds with joy as they returned to their homes, bloodied but alive.”
Avvakum too had confrontations with skomorokhi. When a band of minstrels with dancing bears arrived to his village of Lopatishch in 1648, he quickly set to drive them away. “I, a sinner, being zealous in the service of Christ,” he wrote, “drove them out and destroyed their masks and drums, one against many in the open field, and I took two great bears from them—one I killed but he later revived, the other I set free in the open field.”
Neronov’s patrols and Avvakum’s clash with the minstrels provide a whole new historical context for the recent call by Ivan Otrakovsky, head of Orthodox Christian movement Holy Rus, for Orthodox activists to form patrol squads to protect worshipers from the “enemies of faith.” “The time has come to remind all apostates and theomachists that it is our land and we forbid blasphemous, offensive actions and statements against the Orthodox religion and our people,” Otrakovsky wrote in his appeal to the faithful. A modern day Zealot of Piety, I’d say.
Though skomorokhi enjoyed the patronage of Tsars Ivan IV, Fedor I, and Mikhail Romanov, the latter’s son, Alexei, took stringent action against minstrelsy. Urged by his confessor and leader of the Zealots of Piety, Stefan Vonifatev, and pushed to reestablish public order in the wake mob violence in Moscow and revolts in Ustiug, Solvychegodsk, Yaroslavl, Tomsk, Novgorod and Pskov, Alexei issued “On the Righting of Morals and the Abolition of Superstition” in December 1648 against the skomorokhi. Aleksei was alarmed by the “drunkenness and devilish amusements” of the skomorokhi, which turned the people away the Orthodox faith and God and to the worship of the minstrels. The 1648 edict unleashed a wave of repression against minstrels, including the confiscation and destruction of their instruments, and penalties such as knouting and exile for performing skomorokhi entertainments, as well as prohibitions on a whole host of pagan rites, festivity, games, and practices. Even priests questioned confessors about their connection to the skomorokhi. They asked penitents: “Did you seek out the games of the skomorokhi? Did you seek out Satanic games, look upon these, or yourself take part in them?” If they answered yes, the penitent was required to recite, “I have sinned, I delighted in hearing the sound of gusli and the organon, of horns, and all manner of skomoroshestvo, of Satanic sayings, and for this I also paid them [that is, the minstrels].”
The skomorokhi hobbled along after 1648, but thanks to Alexei’s crackdown, they never regained their popularity, notoriety, or cultural significance. While the practices of the skomorokhi certainly continued in different forms, according to Zhuta, historical references to them died out after 1768.
But as the Pussy Riot affair shows, the memory of the skomorokhi lives on in Tolokonnikova’s “We are jesters, skomorokhi, maybe even, holy fools.” And perhaps thanks to her, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevitch’s “punk prayer” they will live again, in all their former anarchic glory.
All references come from:
Russell Zguta, Russian Minstrels: A History of the Skomorokhi, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.Post Views: 117