“Art should heal the world”: Kapkov cancels the Pussy Riot screening, while Anatoly Osmolovsky pens an open letter

Maria Alyokhina and Nadia Tolokonnikova meet with Kira and Olga, two former prisoners

Maria Alyokhina and Nadia Tolokonnikova meet with Kira and Olga, two former prisoners, December 30, 2013.

At the end of our last post, we mentioned how much we wished we could attend the screening of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, scheduled for last Sunday at Moscow’s Gogol Center. Granted, we were more interested in hearing Irina Prokhorova‘s thoughts on the subject – she was going to be the hostess – than seeing the documentary, which we would imagine is now part of the HBO On Demand shuffle.

In any case, we weren’t the only ones who were going to miss it. The screening was abruptly canceled on Saturday, when the Gogol Center administrators received a letter from the Department of Culture. (You can find the story here, and the letter below – we had to paste it in, as it has mysteriously disappeared from earlier links, including the one used by the New York Times.)

The December 27, 2013,  letter from Moscow Minister of Culture Sergey Kapkov, banning Gogol Center directors Kirill Serebrennikov and Alexei Malobrodsky. Scan reposted from Serebrennikov's Facebook account.

The December 27, 2013, letter from Moscow Minister of Culture Sergey Kapkov, banning Gogol Center directors Kirill Serebrennikov and Alexei Malobrodsky. Scan reposted from Serebrennikov’s Facebook account.

Some highlights for those of you who don’t read Russian [our translation]:

I was astonished to find out through social media about the December 29 screening <…>

I have great respect for the activities of the Nikolai V. Gogol Moscow Dramatic Theater and consider you an invaluable contribution to the development of contemporary theater, enabling the young generation to take to the stage of one of the oldest’s theaters in Moscow. However, please allow me to direct your attention to the fact that the theater led by you is a state cultural institution, working as a Charter foundation in government buildings, and financed from the municipal budget. As director of such an institution, you should recognize your responsibility to your founders, as well as to your audience.

I hold the profound conviction that a state institution of culture should not be associated with the names of individuals who incite such mixed reactions and whose activities are aimed at provoking the wider public. <…>

Respected Kirill Semyenovich, we have discussed at length about how our mission is “to heal the world,” to make it better, and not to shock the public with scandalous stories, which have no relation to art in any sense of the word. Why don’t we keep to this principle and look for out for one another?

In fairness, Kapkov has a point about state funding, but at the same time, the letter sets a dangerous precedent for what “counts” as art. On her Facebook page, Tolokonnikova lamented “the fittingly Gogolian bureaucratic mess,” pointing out that over the past two years, Pussy Riot had been told over and over again that if they had concerns, they should have voiced them in a civilized manner, rather than storming the Holy of Holies. Once freed, they attempt to do just that, to follow all the rules of “civilized” discussion, only to find themselves blocked nevertheless. “Last week I was getting notices from the Mordovian procurator Yamashkin, this week from Kapkov. It’s the same egg.” She concludes. [We have to note that “egg” pretty much means “balls” in Russian slang. Well, have to is strong, so let’s say we wanted to.]

According to the New York Times‘ account, the film’s director Maxim Pozdorovkin had threatened to show up anyway and just screen the film from his laptop. We don’t think that actually happened, but Alexander Cherapukhin’s Instagram feed does capture Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova meeting with Serebrennikov in an office at Gogol-Center at the time, apparently planning their next steps (and enjoying some Red October chocolate?)

Kirill Serebrennikov meets with Maria Alyokhina and Nadia Tolokonnikova at the Gogol-Center. Photo Alexander Cheparukhin.

Kirill Serebrennikov meets with Maria Alyokhina and Nadia Tolokonnikova at the Gogol-Center, December 29, 2013.       Photo Alexander Cheparukhin.

While we’re translating letters, artist and activist Anatoly Osmolovsky sent one of his own following the December 27 press conference. We won’t translate the entire letter (which you can find here), but we wanted to draw attention to it, especially as Osmolovsky holds a kind of guru status, especially for the generation of artists like Anya Titova and Arseny Zhilyaev. Osmolovsky’s contention is that Tolokonnikova shouldn’t shake off the Pussy Riot brand, as she resolved to do, but rather should own it to the max.    In his words, she “owes it to art.” Here are some excerpts from his argument [Again, our translation, original here.]

Pussy Riot’s press conference on “Dozhd” was an enormous disappointment for me. It was almost painful to watch.

Undoubtedly, the Russian penitentiary system wields some truly colossal potential for “re-education.” The press conference demonstrated this in such crystal-clear form, that Putin has to be pretty satisfied. Satisfied to the extent that, seriously, why should he change it? At the very least, as far as contemporary art is concerned, it works exactly like he wants it to. 

So what did I see (and hear) in this press conference?

I saw serious, educated, charming and politically-correct human rights activists. That is to say, the new generation.

I heard the cloyingly “correct” words, lost in the general consensus of the journalist brotherhood and the “democratic” politicians.

The reader should not miss understand me, I am in no way judging neither Nadezhda, nor Maria. Two years in a Russian prison for any young person, let alone a contemporary artist – this is a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. In this text, I want to simply voice a few observations and pose a series of questions, which might possibly help Pussy Riot to make the most of their new situation.

Anatoly Osmolovsky

Anatoly Osmolovsky

From there, he begins to outline five points. We said we weren’t going to translate the whole thing, but… well, it’s a holiday, we’ve got the time and it’s some thought-provoking stuff [again, our translation here, for the purpose of this blog. Original here.]:

1. Let’s begin with the fact that mass-media celebrity (especially the explosive kind, on a super scale) is its own form of prison. Your typical prison is about dull emptiness, the fleecing of supervisors, and “stone walls,” as Alyokhina deftly put it. A mass-media prison is something else entirely. It means congratulations from Khodorkovsky, virtual farewells from Bukovsky, participation from Navalny and the attentive eye of the “partial” journalists. In a word, all the “charms” of liberal society.  And where is the place for art, for the devastating energy of release within this flood of sweet-molasses speeches? Remember, Foucault called the contemporary society of his time disciplinarian.  Today Russia is taking its first exams in this regard. In this sense, consider Putin yesterday…  When someone humiliates you, takes away your ability to speak for yourself, threatens you with death, then you must stay very, very strong, so as not to give in. But when an “observant” audience – practically your people – rattles off a pile of compliments, when they “take interest” in your plans, it’s not the club of prison executioners you’re facing, but rather the sticky network of mass media. And how can this be countered? Only by absolute coldness, as in, cold to the verge of callousness.  For this reason, I will not blame the artists at all. I am just trying to warn them.

2. At the press-conference, Tolokonnikova disowned the actions in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. One of the western journalists, looking like the boa from the book about Mowgli,  asked a “provocative” question about the action in the zoological museum [[Ed Note: This is the 2008 performance during which members of Pussy Riot – as part of Voina – held an orgy within the museum, purportedly to produce more little bears for the Big Bear, then President Medvedev (medved means “bear” in Russian.) For more on Pussy Riot’s pre-history, see here.]]  But this anchor, Nadezhda dropped from her ship. (I’ve never been much of a fan of this action, though not because it staged a group orgy, but rather because of the idiotic political slogans, which turned the action into a banal PR-stunt. And I’m sure the slogans were Plutzser-Sarno’s idea.) What can we say about all these denials, other than that they are necessary to appease the decency of the expectant audience (let’s not forget about the radical Orthodox, out for blood)?  Once in the mid-90s, Marat Gelman invited me to participate in a political campaign. In response to my puzzled question: “Marat, have you really decided to start working with art?”, he answered immediately with the important thought: “I will never forget nor discard anything that I have done. If you throw away your past, you will not succeed in your future.” For me, then a young and inexperienced artist, that answer had been completely unexpected. For this reason, my dear Pussy Riot, you owe it not to contemporary artists, but to the people who supported you in this first, most important step. You owe it to ART.  The commercially-minded, stupid system of Russian contemporary art, as we all know, is also divided into two camps. Now even if ALL the artists disowned you, you would still be obliged to art. This is your genuine DEBT. Your voices were heard for the very reason that your tools were developed in the art world. And, to speak frankly, compared to this debt, no future successes in the world of “human rights” activism can not atone. I have to say in response to Marat, this thought arose at the press conference. And one journalist with an obviously distraught face (no act, as far as I can tell) asked a question that cut close: “Would you want to be among the series of human rights organizations?” Art in its current circumstances and in its current form is a weapon. With its metaphorical might it has the power to reveal chronic wounds, not to save individual people, but to create the conditions to save us all. For this, one has to believe in art. And wasn’t it this faith that brought you to the Cathedral? In one of his lectures, the Soviet philosopher Georgy Shchedrovitsky gave an example of a moral choice: a virtuoso surgeon witnesses an act of violence. Should he jump into the fight, knowing he might risk damage to his hand (as we know that even a slight trauma can knock a surgeon out of his profession for a long time, if not forever)? And this choice is horrifying in that it is based in reality. Indeed, it is standing before you right now, full-grown.

3. Personally, I believe that to step back from the “brand” of Pussy Riot is a colossal mistake. Of course, any commercial history, especially those connected to the system of what we call “brands,” has an unpleasant odor about it. But what’s even more unpleasant and, really downright ugly, is if some asshole receives money for this. We live in the capitalist jungle, and under these conditions, commercial “justice” is not the worst instrument to fix up into a more decent state. What it all comes down to is that the capitalization of a brand can provide you with a degree of independence, and it would be up to you to decide how best to you. Or would you prefer to rely on donors? That’s definitely a thousand times worse.

4. And now a few words about the human rights advocacy. Here we find so many things knotted up together, an amalgam of prejudice and false benevolence, compounded from the flip side of the Atlanticist conspiracy theories and the machinations of the CIA, to the point where I don’t count on much understanding here. But to stay silent would be to be dishonest. The infinitely wise French philosophers have devoted hundreds of skeptical pages to this topic, having themselves organized the human rights Group d’Information sur les Prisons. There is no doubt that they seek a decent (or at least bearable) life for prisoners out of charity. But what does a human rights advocates actually do? Paperwork. They send papers from one place to the next. And yes, as a result of some of this paper, they sometimes see a result (and in this case, it’s still only at the whim of the authority.)  But the real problem is how to break through this machine of paperwork. And this is not a job for the human rights advocates, but for the government. This is, of course, a metaphor. We’re talking about how to rid this bureaucracy from all corners of  our life, but for that, we need a CELEBRATION. And only a celebration. That is, the kind of form of protest and opposition that would be something absolutely DIFFERENT from that used by our opponents.  I fear that human rights advocacy cannot help us at all with this. In short, don’t go out into power’s home field. Politicians will use you and then slam on your breaks (which they’ve already started to do.) Don’t leave the art world – it is strength, not weakness. We must set the most challenging and even impossible tasks, and only then will we start to see a more or less acceptable outcome. Do we really want democracy? We will achieve it, but if only we leave the tip edged with anarchy! We need to heed the lesson of the Bolsheviks. They created their empire on their world ambitions alone. This empire of theirs was only an unfortunate interim stage. But without ambitions of a global revolution, this empire also wouldn’t have lasted a year. The same can be said of contemporary Western democracy. Its foundations were in the revolutionary artistic movements of the 60s. Everything is from this! Dear Pussy Riot, you know this is the case! What rights did the LGBT community have in the 60s? At that time, in the USA, African Americans were directed to separate bathrooms and assigned seats in the bus! You think it was human rights advocates who did away with this discrimination? No. It was Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, but also even Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys, together with the young generation of the time. This is what today’s Russia lacks! Not the “system” of politicians and human rights advocates, the names of which I won’t write again. But you could move the politicians who are saddling the protest of our young Russians.

5. Without a doubt, we are standing on the brink of radical change. Even Lenin, from what I recall, said that Russia lags behind the West by fifty years. If you subtract 50 years from 2013, you get 1963. We have five years to go. That’s not a lot, but it’s enough. Of course, any comparison has its shortcomings, and literal ones all the moreso. But something tells me that Lenin was right. Putin with his goons and priests will certainly help us all. Not only will they compare him to De Gaulle! Leave the full to pray to his god while he cracks his own forehead! The good old Russian proverb describes its future perfectly. A few of the particularly rabid liberals in the years of the “sovereign democracy” wanted to overturn the epoch before its seventeenth year. As it happened, they created the conditions for its imminent return. And this means our “seventeenth year” is still before us. Thank God, that he didn’t succeed to the end, that we can hope that the new “seventeenth” is not so bloody. It’s a different time, a different country, different principles of battle. We will leave the authorities their apparatus of violence, our “seventeenth” will be a celebration.

To close this letter, I wanted to say a few words of gratitude for all the heroic steps you’ve taken, for your unparalleled endurance through the process, and for not letting prison break you.

All success,
А. Osmolovsky
December 28, 2013

So far we haven’t heard many reactions to Osmolovsky’s statement, so we’re interested to hear yours? Again, find the original here.

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