Olga Kuchinskaya is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. She specializes in science communication related to health and the environment. She’s the author of The Politics of Invisibility: Public Knowledge about Radiation Health Effects after Chernobyl published by MIT Press.
Siouxsie & The Banshees, “Dazzle,” Hyæna, 1984.
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By Sean — 8 years ago
I often tell my students that Russian politics is a zero sum game. You’re either in or you’re out. One’s political patronage begins and ends with one’s institutional authority. Without the ability to dole out favors, and more importantly protect your clients, you’re nothing in the world of Russian politics. Zip, ziltch, nada, nichego.
There’s no meaningful tradition of a Russian elder statesmen. There is no custom of ex-politicians having a visibly influential hand in politics. There are no Bill Clintons and no Henry Kissingers. And certainly no Richard Nixons. Once a powerful Russian politician retires, or what happens more often, is forced out, the sun sets on their power. It’s an old Russian practice dating back to Muscovy when Grand Princes had to sideline rival boyar clans, placate them through compromise, or for those who didn’t fall into line, simply exile or have them slaughtered. Remember when Peter the Great threw his half-sister Sophia into a convent and exiled her co-conspirator Vasily Golitsyn to the north. Or have the conspirators in the Tsykler plot executed over the exhumed corpse of Ivan Miroslavsky, the head of his stepmother Maria’s clan, and had their blood “sprinkled on the dead carcass which in some places was rotten and consumed.” Peter was good with the symbolism. And punishment was often collective. As the 1649 Law Code stated: “If someone commits treason, and after him survive a father, or mother, or brothers, or uncles, or any other member of his clan in the Muscovite state…conduct a rigorous investigation…If it is established conclusively that they knew about the treason of that traitor, punish them with death.” Interestingly, the same principle was applied during Stalin’s terror.
In the Soviet period, the way to get rid of a rival was to physically annihilate him. Remember Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Lev Kamenev, and Grigory Zinoviev. Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 changed the calculus. Rivals were no longer physically annihilated, only politically, and were allowed to live out their lives quietly. Remember Vlacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Georgi Malenkov, and Nikita Khrushchev. Old Molotov spent his final years in the main reading room of the Lenin Library working on his memoirs and appealing the Politburo to get his Party card back.
This zero sum game appears to have ramped up since the collapse of communism. Some even say that the Russian elite has reverted back to its feudal past and readopted the “Muscovite model” of rule. Whether Russia continues to be a feudal society is a matter of debate. It can’t be denied, however, that Putin’s presidency and Medvedev’s succession have maintained a stable oligarchy in power not seen since the 1930s. Putin’s only revision to post-communist “feudalism” is the notion of the Tandem, which thus far has maintained political stability between liberal and conservative elite factions. Still, it had to purge the major political players from the 1990s from the halls of state power to get to this point. The current oligarchy’s rivals are either dead, driven into exile, in prison, blackballed and besmirched, or, if they’re lucky, left to peacefully live in political obscurity, as long as they keep to themselves. It’s not difficult for those in power to maintain this tradition. Since many Russian power brokers gained and maintained their power through nefarious means, once they lose their position, they immediately become vulnerable. It’s not just because they no longer have the privilege of the office to hide behind. It’s also because the loss of position means being deprived of the clients who gave a patron his power in the first place. Given this, it is no surprise that investigations of theft, corruption and fraud emerge after a broker’s fall. It is because of this naked vulnerability that I believe Putin will be around for a long time. Not on account of his love for power per se, but because he doesn’t like prison or exile.
Still, why does the zero sum politics remain? My theory has to do with elite class consciousness, particularly in the old Marxist adage about a class in and for itself. Russia’s elite is a class in itself, but it has yet to become a class for itself. Meaning, the Russian ruling elite has yet to realize that it doesn’t have to cannibalize itself to maintain power. All it has to do is recognize its corporate class interests and see their rivals as essentially all part of the same gang. There can still be factions and low level conflicts, but these never seek to completely destroy a rival.
There is no better recent example of this zero sum game than ex-Moscow mayor and former major political player, Yuri Luzhkov. Luzhkov was the last of the Mandarins from the 1990s. It’s amazing that he held on as long as he did. But eventually he did fall, and what initially appeared as soft landing has now turned into a full speed head-on into the pavement. At first, Luzhkov didn’t understand the rules of the game, which is surprising since he’s been at it so long. A mere week after his firing, like so many before him, Luzhkov declared himself a “democrat” and vowed to continue in politics. That venture was short-lived because at the same time the ex-mayor was manufacturing his democratic credentials, he was also desperately trying to find an EU country willing to give him residency. Their response: Yuri go screw yourself.
The charges of mass theft, particularly on the part of his construction mogul wife, Elena Baturnia, are coming to fruition. Two weeks ago, a Moscow city audit accused Luzhkov of embezzling almost $8 billion during his tenure as mayor. The Ministry of Interior has been investigating his wife for embezzling $440 million through her company Inteko (my guess is that they’ve been keeping documents on them for a long time).
Well, the chickens have finally come home to roost as masked Interior Robocops raided Baturnia’s company. The Moscow News describes the tangled web of theft as follows:
The prosecutor’s eye is homing in on a deal in 2009, when Bank of Moscow lent 12.76 billion roubles to Premier Estate. The company was created three months before the deal, Interfax reported.
The little known company used the funds to buy a 58 hectare plot of land from Inteko for 13 billion roubles, although its charter capital was just 10,000.
The transaction took place three weeks after Moscow City Duma approved a 14.99 billion rouble transfer from city coffers to Bank Moskvy, Kommersant reported.
By selling the land, as well as some shares in Sperbank, Rosneft and Gazprom, Baturina reaped 27 billion roubles. Of this, 18 billion went to pay off debts, to Gazprombank and other creditors.
But it wasn’t just the company that benefited. “The money, received as a loan from Bank of Moscow and worth around 13 billion roubles, was transferred into the personal account of Elena Baturina,” the British Home Office’s press service told Kommersant.
Baturina’s brother says that she’s already fled the country. You’re damn right she did. Apparently, the whole Luzhkov family is stewing in Britain. No matter, the Russian authorities have no problem trying fallen oligarchs in absentia.
Others of his clan are going down too. Lukhkov’s metro boss, Dmitry Gayev, will soon find himself charged with embezzling $3.8 million. Gazeta.ru is reporting that his former head of sport has been sacked by Sobyanin. And Luzhkov’s vice mayor, Vladimir Resin, is rumored to resign in the coming days. Whether they will be investigated too remains to be seen.
The purge of Luzhkov’s people is heating up. And with that the survivors in the zero sum game begin another trot around the board.
Image: RIA Novosti
By Sean — 2 years ago
Guest: Brigid O’Keeffe on New Soviet Gypsies: Nationality, Performance, and Selfhood in the Early Soviet Union.
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.