Constantine Pleshakov teaches at the Five-College Consortium in Massachusetts. In 2012, The Princeton Review named him one of the 300 best college professors in the United States. He’s the author of many books, including There Is No Freedom Without Bread!: 1989 and the Civil War That Brought Down Communism, Stalin’s Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of World War II on the Eastern Front and with Vladislav Zubok, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev. His newest book is The Crimean Nexus: Putin’s War and the Clash of Civilizations published by Yale University Press.
Sparklehorse, “Piano Fire,” It’s a Wonderful Life, 2001.
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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: 2,581
By Sean — 10 years ago
If Putin was an American politician, what would he be? He is conservative, deeply religious, a patriot, and strong partisan for Russian traditions.
Given this, I doubt we would have seen Putin strutting about on the DNC’s American Idol-esque stage, swearing his undying, almost cultic allegiance to Barak Obama. It’s more likely we would find him preparing to jet to St. Paul to rouse the base in support of McCain. For some, Putin’s Republican affinities are all too clear: Putin is a closet neocon and the his real intent of his interview with CNN was to cast a veiled vote for John McCain.
It is this last point that I find interesting. Mostly because the big question has been what Putin was thinking when he asserted that the US might be behind the Georgian War. Bad information? Kooky conspiracy thinking. An age old Russian paranoia? Or was he somehow trapped in the simulacra of his own state media machine where the lines between reality and virtual are erased? An affirmative to the last question wouldn’t surprise me. I’ve witnessed this discursive circle in Soviet archival documents. The central and local Soviet leadership often referenced the press in internal reports. When I do come across this phenomena, I always ask: Don’t they know that the media is controlled? They can’t actually think the press is some reflection of reality? If the documents are any answer, they do and continue to do so. And this belief is not as simple as them “believing their own bullshit.” That is clear. Nor is such a belief unique to Russia. The real question is how and why this happens My short answer is that Putin & Co. are locked in their own rhetoric. There is no outside discourse with enough truth value to break the logic of their dominant discourse. Their belief, rhetoric, and power to control the parameters of acceptable speech reinforces themselves in a dizzying circle signification.
Some, however, are suggesting there is something more sinister at work in Putin’s allegations. Namely, that it is the way that Putin meddles in American elections. This is the thesis of Ilya Milshtein’s article “Coercion to McCain” (Russian verison). As Milshtein writes,
One way or another, our national leader has “voted” for the republicans for at least four years already.
In the fall of 2004, the Russian president sternly spoke out against democrat John Kerry. Literally equating the liberal candidate to Al-Qaeda, Putin said that a defeat of Bush would be “a grandiose victory for international terrorism.” He repeated this thought he had grown fond of at the moment when America was counting the votes collected by the contenders. If George wins, Putin said, this would mean that “the American public did not allow itself to be frightened, and made a wise choice.”
As you know, the American public lived up to his expectation.
Was Putin’s assertion of American meddling in Georgia, though couched in “hypothesis” and “ifs” a similar gesture? Maybe.
Every word here is worth its weight in gold, and each is clear as crystal.
It is hard to accept that Putin, one of the most informed people on the planet, doesn’t know something. And who could strive for “escalation” and win percents over it? Only McCain, which some of our political figures and experts have already spoken out about –as a rule, those who welcome the coming cold war epoch with a joyous song.
Now Putin has joined with them. Taking into account past experience, Vladimir Vladimirovich today acts from the opposite side. It’s as if, in Ukraine four years ago, he had recruited the local people into the ranks of the “Orangists” and twice congratulated Yushchenko with a glorious victory. He accuses the republicans of initiating the war in the Caucasus, knowing full well, that the majority of Americans won’t believe him. Instead, they’ll clearly adopt it: this unpleasant Russian is against our John. That’s why many of those who waver between McCain and Obama, will now vote for the republican candidate. Simply because Putin alluded to him with disapproval.
The time at hand is completely different, after all. It is a very cold time, forcing Americans, with a sigh, to remember the late Ronald Reagan, with his firmness in leading the operation which today can be called “coercion into perestroika.” It is exactly McCain who is conducting his electoral campaign with Reagan’s name on his lips.
In a word, just a couple more of these interviews on American TV channels, and our cunning premier will celebrate a victory with the republicans. Why they are so dear to him is uncertain. But one wants to believe, that coming into power, John McCain won’t forget the efforts of his Russian partner in the cold war, and will reward him with some kind of secret decoration.
The impact of Putin’s “vote” will be revealed in this week’s Republican National Convention. After all the Republican heat on Russia is going up. Dick Cheney was dispatched to Georgia to send Russia a message. Cindy McCain was sent to do some refugee PR. Some are already suggesting that Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin has national security experience just because her state, Alaska, is close to Russia. So maybe Russia will be something the Republicans bang on this week. We shall see.
To think I was half joking when I wrote, “If McCain wins in November he should send Medvedev and Putin a box of chocolates in gratitude.” Maybe I was on to something . . .Post Views: 1,214