Samantha Lomb is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages at Vyatka State University in Kirov, Russia. Her article “Personal and Political: A Microhistory of the “Red Column” Collective Farm, 1935-36,” was published 2016 in The Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies. She is currently working on a book examining daily life on the collective farms and the day-to-day relationships between collective farmers and local officials. Her new book Stalin’s Constitution: Soviet Participatory Politics and the Discussion of the 1936 Draft Constitution published by Routledge.
The Clash, “Spanish Bombs,” London Calling, 1979.
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By Sean — 6 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: 1,956
By Sean — 11 years ago
Amid all the banter about a “new Cold War” between Russia and the United States, the Confrontation Cold War Museum in Moscow takes on a whole new relevance. The new tourist attraction is the former Taganski Underground Command Center, a 75,000 square foot underground dwelling built in Stalin’s last years to house the Soviet leadership in the event of a US nuclear attack. As David Holley of the LA Times reports, “historical remembrance and a touch of make-believe mix in an ambiguous but thought-provoking cocktail.”
Indeed. For a ticket price of $9.75 for students, $19.50 for adults and $39 for foreigners (ouch!), you can put on a Soviet army poncho and a gas mask and be led through the halls of a Cold War relic. The museum is still in development but as of now there are posters and other military equipment dawn the shelter’s mostly empty hallways and corridors.
But soon, promises Olga Arkharova, the museums director, a replica of the command center and a military themed restaurant will dazzle spectators.
The museum’s mission however is more than revisiting the Cold War through kitsch. “The task of our complex, which is called Confrontation, is to preserve this facility as a reminder and a warning that situations like this should be prevented forever,” Arkharova explained to the LA Times. “The idea we want to present to the children and the adults is that we want to have an open and frank dialogue with other countries, to prevent the world from entering another situation where we’re forced to build facilities like this.”
It seems, however, that all students are getting from the museum is that its creepy.
Andrei Kvyk, 21, a student at the Moscow Construction Institute, said being in the shelter gave him “the creeps.”
“They say that this is all a thing of the past and that the Cold War is over,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the case. I am sure facilities like this still exist in Moscow and across the country and are on combat duty every second. I am sure the Cold War was never over. They are lying to us.”
. . .
“It is so spooky — these tunnels, this porridge, this damp air 60 meters under the ground,” said Yana Arutyunova, 25, a market researcher who joined the tour. “People in the tunnels look like ghosts of the past. You can’t but feel danger here. Everything was removed at some point, all the equipment, but you can still feel this concentrated cold fear permeating the air.”
. . .
Nina Borodina, 21, a university student, said that “these haunting shafts” made her think of how her grandmother “lived all her life feeling the danger of being bombed any second.”
“She told me how terrified they were of an imminent nuclear war back in the 1960s,” Borodina said. “Now I can understand a little of what she lived through. I don’t think there is any danger of nuclear war now. We are friends with the West.”
She said she was convinced that, whatever complaints the two sides may voice about each other, Putin “is leading the country along the way of real cooperation with the United States and other Western countries, and they will never be our enemies again.”
“But it was good to come down here,” she added. “It gives you a sense of what horrors we were saved from.”
Spooky or not, I know that next time I go to Moscow, I am so there.Post Views: 540
By Sean — 8 years ago
Just after taking the throne in the spring of 1855, Alexander II convened a meeting of his ministers to assess the state of Russia, and in particular, its participation in the Crimean War. Unlike under previous Tsars, several of the “enlightened bureaucrats” didn’t hold their tongues and provided the newly minted Emperor an honest appraisal of the Empire. Among them was this unnamed Finance Ministry official, who gave the following assessment of the Imperial system:
“Nowhere is there so much and at the same time so little centralization as there is in Russia. On the one hand the ministries have arrogated to themselves the virtually exclusive right to decide all matters, but at the same time there is not the slightest link between the separate ministries. Everyone’s perpetual concern to safeguard himself against having to take legal responsibility necessitates a fearful expenditure of effort, paper, ink, and time, slows down the transaction of business, removes from the provincial and district agencies all the feelings of independence, and teaches them to act surreptitiously if at all. It goes without saying that all this stops short at the people, who have been abandoned to the authorities’ exploitation.”1
I couldn’t help but note the resonance this passage has for Russia today.
1 David Saunders, Russia in the Age of Reaction of Reform, 1801-1881, Longman, 1992, 209.Post Views: 429