by Ania Aizman
Russian anti-government protest has never been weaker. Decades of repressive policing have had the desired effect, successfully reducing the range of actions that protesters are willing to undertake. A new form of protest against Russia’s war on Ukraine, for example, consists of a lone picketer holding up a blank sheet of paper on a public street. The war has dramatically limited artistic range, and shifted the terms of public discourse away from visionary proposals such as the elimination of police. Before the war, though, artists were sounding the alarm about Putin’s expansion of policing, and resisting it through playful appropriation, by “playing the policeman,” repurposing police uniforms and weapons. This essay explores the potentialities and limitations of this artistic device.
In 2018, the estimated one billion people who tuned into the World Cup final match—the largest live audience of any single event on earth—became unsuspecting witnesses to what may well be the most-viewed direct action in history. Four members of the group Pussy Riot, disguised as police officers, snuck onto the pitch. Evading referees and security forces, they turned the tense global event, highly choreographed by the Russian state, into a live-action farce. Eventually the members of Pussy Riot were caught and dragged off the field, and into prison. But not before the striking images of cops chasing cops were broadcast by media around the world. Meanwhile, Pussy Riot’s social media accounts released a list of demands: the liberation of all Russian political prisoners, an end to false court cases against regime critics, and, striking an absurdist note, the transformation “of the earthly policeman into the heavenly policeman” (Pussy Riot).
This was an erudite allusion to the late Soviet conceptualist writer and artist Dmitry Prigov––in fact the entire action was called The Policeman Enters the Game. Up until the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine, in the 2010s, artistic representations of the police frequently cited late Soviet art in order to reflect on the ways in which Putin redeployed the police tactics of the Brezhnev era. The Brezhnev regime had indeed expanded the existing surveillance of students and members of the intelligentsia, broadly encouraging self-censorship and developing a strategy of imprisoning potential leaders before they criticized the regime in public or organized a demonstration. Thus “eliminating public acts of challenge without the use of severe force against crowds,” the Brezhnev regime sought to avoid Stalin and Khrushchev’s reputations for mass repressions (Beissinger 32). Prigov’s late 1970s poems about the “Militsaner” (Police-a-man) portrayed the Militsaner as a figure of “quasi-mythological” and “heavenly” authority, an abstract “principle of governmentality” and, simultaneously, of “earthly” mediocre, bureaucratic tastes and a penchant for casual brutality (Kukulin). Sporting a militiaman cap and reciting his poems in the tone of a pedantic Russian schoolteacher, Prigov satirized the hero of Soviet children’s books, Uncle Styopa the Policeman, popularized during the Brezhnev era (Callen). Like Uncle Styopa the Policeman, the Militsaner of Prigov’s poems is a giant who sees into the horizon––and, simultaneously, blocks it from view, denying the existence of anything beyond his authority.
Casting themselves as inheritors of Prigov, Pussy Riot also reinterpreted him: in their view, the “heavenly policeman” was useful as a concept or symbol, but his manifestation in reality, with its censorship and brutality, ought to be abolished. Unlike Prigov, they made explicit demands for the end of policing. Prigov, by contrast, hardly conducted direct political protest. On the contrary, because his performances were confined to the private apartment and the informal gallery space, they were basically compatible with Brezhnevite policies of concealing government criticism. Direct political critique was far from his goal: he declared that he wanted to “disappear” inside of authoritarian discourses rather than “rationalize” them or “extract anything real” (Shapoval 32). The scholar of Soviet art Gerald Janecek concluded that Prigov felt “genuine admiration for his policemen” and “loving nostalgia…for the culture of [his] ‘happy childhood.’” Prigov’s Soviet audiences, members of private countercultural circles, experienced the mere pleasure of laughing at Soviet bureaucratic language as politically provocative. But Prigov admitted that policemen, too, have enjoyed his work (Lipovetsky 253). By contrast, critique was explicit in Pussy Riot’s reinterpretation of the Militsaner.
Other contemporary Russian artists, too, adapted the tools of their Brezhnev-era predecessors to expose the hypocrisy of policing while simultaneously rejecting their predecessors’ ambivalent irony and political neutrality. For example, the late 2010s performance art group Party of the Dead borrowed the black-and-white, zombie aesthetic of 1980s necrorealist cinema but dispensed with the necrorealists’ reenactments of assaults and crowd fights. The 80s necrorealists had been inspired by rumors that Brezhnev and other geriatric political elites were dead or near death and that their public appearances were elaborate faked. Dressed in zombie makeup and bloody bandages, the necrorealists engaged in various forms of senseless violence, including beating an actor dressed in a police uniform, and recorded these displays in 8mm and 16mm short, silent, black-and-white films. In this way, they “did not attempt to contest the system’s representations of reality” but rather to insist on a “zone of indistinction” between conformity and resistance (Alsavi 78). The 2010s Party of the Dead, by contrast, dispensed with political indistinction. To announce their opposition to the regime, they relied text, displaying copious banners and posters, and on context, demonstrating during patriotic holidays or in the aftermath of police suppression of demonstrations. At the same time, they eschewed militancy, and, like Pussy Riot in their absurdist 2018 action, opted for multivalent expression. Party of the Dead slogans such as “The dead are for peace,” “There are more of us, dead ones,” and “The dead don’t fight” can be read variously as foreboding, mournful, or ironic (see examples in Evstropov). In all these readings, though, the Party’s artists appear to identify with the victims of state violence in a relation of solidarity, acknowledging shared vulnerability––and discursive potential. Likewise, the graffiti artist Philippenzo’s mural Kisses explored “art therapy for working through fear,” portraying a SWAT officer’s ID badge that says “KISSES” against a camouflage pattern that reveals itself as a lipstick kiss print. The work cited a famous Brezhnev-themed mural: Dmitry Vrubel’s 1990 close-up of a kiss that Brezhnev shared with GDR leader Erich Honecker in 1979. Vrubel’s title God Help Me Survive this Mortal Love suggested that the viewers ought to feel disgust at the larger-than-life image of two old men kissing on the lips. Philippenzo, by contrast, dispensed with Vrubel’s homophobic and ageist gaze, proposing abstraction.
These artistic references to Brezhnev himself and the Brezhnev era responded to profound similarities in policing styles. Before the war on Ukraine, the Putin administration’s approach to policing Russian citizens was informed by Brezhnev-era preemptive censorship, in which authorities repressed potential dissent in advance, controlling domestic and international perception, partly through extensive spying. Like Brezhnev, Putin deployed censorship out of public view––in small ways (for example by denying event permits to opposition groups) as well as large ones (framing activists with drug charges, staging the seemingly random assaults or murders of independent journalists). Putin’s own professional trajectory, begun at the height of the Brezhnev “Stagnation” era, is illuminating here. A former KGB/FSB agent, he brought covert intelligence tactics to the presidency. In one memorable comment in 1999, just as he had risen to immense power from a relatively obscure position, he joked that his ascent was a secret power grab: “I would like to report that the group of FSB officers dispatched to work secretly in the federal government has been successful in its first set of assignments” (Wood).
Preemptive censorship worked relatively well during the economic growth of the 2000s but the mass protests of 2012 (themselves partly a response to a stagnating economy) shifted the regime’s approach. On one hand, it continued to conduct its business of policing outside of mainstream attention, while encouraging political apathy in the Russian public (Jones). On the other hand, it increasingly responded to oppositional demonstrations with ruthless displays of violence. In August 2019, police officers beat and mass-arrested students and minors, producing hundreds of images of police brutality. Responding to these events, the artist Artem Loskutov bought a police baton from a retired officer of the Russian National Guard, applied the colors of the Russian flag to it like toothpaste to a toothbrush, and smacked a blank canvass. He announced the invention of a new style of painting called dubinopis’ (a term that recalls the Russian word for icon-painting, ikonopis’ and literally means “police baton-writing”) and proceeded to sell countless canvasses on social media as a fundraiser for the protesters. Loskutov’s dubinopis’ implied a comparison between the protest demonstration and the blank canvas, warning the police that they, too, create interpretable images.
Loskutov’s dubinopis’ joined a genealogy of Russian artists using images of policing to enter a critical dialogue with their predecessors in anti-police art. These artists eschewed authoritarian self-representation. While “playing the policeman,” they used various forms of critical framing without reenacting violence, as in the 2011 action by Voina, in which performers forcibly kissed policewomen. They also rejected the practice of inviting violence, as in Oleg Kulik’s dog performances in the mid-1990s. Lastly, these artists criticized their artistic predecessors, the actionists and the conceptualists of the late- and post-Soviet era. They charged that the actionists conceal their authoritarianism and self-aggrandizement as art, presenting themselves as sages, martyrs, or outcasts, and leading to belated painful revelations of, for instance, reactionary attitudes––as in the support voiced by members of Voina for the annexation of Crimea or domestic violence (as in the case of Petr Pavlensky) (Gerasimenko). And they charged that the playfulness and political ambivalence of late Soviet nonconformist artists like Prigov and the necrorealists left them open for cooptation. Instead, they announced their political position and distributed images of their actions on social media to broadcast their political stance. In this way, they sought to enact a more transparent, public, and collective process of de-policing.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spurred a mass exodus of the Russian creative class, prominently represented among the nearly four million Russians who have left the country during the war. As police target even the blandest forms of political expression, such as Ukraine-themed social media posts or blue and yellow clothing, the artistic language for de-policing employed before the invasion is rendered meaningless, or transformed beyond recognition. Thus, before the war, the painter Ekaterina Muromtseva’s 2017 cycle of canvasses called More (Of/Than) Us, spoke of the shared bodily experience of Russian protesters. Stood together, as if ordered by the police to raise their arms before a pat-down (or, possibly, execution), Muromtseva’s protesters are painted with a green camouflage pattern that bleeds across their bodies, suggesting that they share wounds, or organs. In their prewar context, these images implied the solidarity and vulnerability of demonstrators––their moral high ground, if not triumph over, police violence. Viewed during the war, however, the green camo print across the bodies of the protestors acquire a different meaning, suggesting the responsibility shared by agents of state violence with those who, in resisting it, capitulate before they have won. As Russian artists grapple with the extent of their own complicity in the war––or, as the Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kakhidze put it in her recent comic, “Russian culture is looking for an alibi that it is not a killer”––the strategy of playing the policeman looks decidedly short of radical protest. A future Russian art, if it is to be oppositional, will have to speak about the crimes committed by perpetrators of war and the trauma of their victims without playing at either.
Ania Aizman is writing a book called Anarchist Currents in Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Pussy Riot. Her writing, translations, and book reviews have appeared with Columbia University Press and in Slavic and East European Journal, Slavic Review, The LA Review of Books, and The New Yorker. She is Assistant Professor of Slavic at the University of Chicago.
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