by Eliot Borenstein
While I have never been one for fieldwork, it does occur to me that I have had several encounters with the post-Soviet police; fortunately, they were all in the 1990s, when the stakes for such incidents were relatively low. Now I see that, when I was sitting in a Moscow militia van in 1999 after failing to produce documents 100 feet from my rented apartment, I should have anticipated that 21 years later, my need for data could have been satisfied if I had just asked the right questions.
Instead, I just passed the time giving unsatisfactory answers to inquiries about my background until the cop finally asked straight out if I was Jewish. This had nothing to do with any legal jeopardy I might have been in, and admitting to being Jewish would not have gotten me into any trouble. Quite the contrary: I was usually stopped by police in their ongoing attempts to round up suspicious “people of Caucasian nationality” (“Do you ever stop blonds?” I asked once, but only after brandishing my boss-level immunity in the form of the magic American passport that I had neglected to carry the day of the police van incident). The Jewish Question (to coin a phrase) was more a matter of satisfying a mutual, if inconsequential need: his to peg my ethnicity, and mine to make him say it. After most likely missing several hints about possible bribes, I was let go, with a stern warning to carry my passport with me at all times.
All of which is to say that, in interacting with the post-Soviet militia, I never was quite sure what sort of institution I was dealing with. Were they supposed to be stopping crime, or were they the Russian equivalent of ICE, keeping the city safe from the threat of undocumented dark hair? Besides doing a poor job of ethnic profiling (they really could have learned a lot from their much more efficiently racist counterparts in the U.S.), and despite doing an even worse job at catching criminals (if the news was any indication), what were they really for?
But the police are only one half of the theme of this collection of essays; the other is prisons. Policing and prisons seem like an obvious pairing, like love and marriage (if only from a post-divorce point of view). But in terms of their symbolic resonance for the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia, they are not equal partners. As portrayed by critics and dissidents, the Soviet prison camp system was the country’s master metaphor: the USSR was one vast carceral “zone,” but with less freedom of speech. It worked well with the American Cold War metaphor of the Soviet Union as a penitentiary for “captive nations.” I bring these ideas up not to endorse them; the portion of the non-incarcerated Soviet population that saw themselves as “prisoners” was probably miniscule. The power of these metaphors did not reside in their empirical accuracy, but in their rhetorical force. From an oppositional point of view, they made intuitive sense.
But that metaphorical power rested on the dissident’s familiar distinction between the “political” criminal and the “real” criminal. Well before the Soviet Union ended, a romantic subculture surrounding the thieves’ prison life made its way outside the “zone,” particularly in the form of the blatnaya pesnia, a musical genre glorifying th life of the outlaw. By the 1990s, prison became the source of important segments of popular culture: providing slang, serving as the setting for various flavors of criminal melodrama, and inspiring fashions and behaviors among the gopniki in a rough analog to the prison/hip-hop connection.
It was only in the shift from medium- to high-Putinism that prison started once again to make inroads into the public political consciousness, thanks to high-profile cases (Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky, Pussy Riot). The post-Pussy Riot “Media Zona” project is important not just for the obvious reason (activism on behalf of the incarcerated), but also for the shear linguistic novelty of putting those two words (“Media” and “Zone”) together. As for their other activist endeavor, “Zona prava” (Zone of Law), the irony speaks for itself.
The path of the “police” from the late-Soviet to the post-Soviet is more complicated. I would like to put forward the proposition that the police as police occupied only a small corner of the country’s psychic real estate; the USSR was relatively short on police, but long on policing.
Technically, there were no police, but rather the militia. The term initially signaled a break with the Tsarist-era police, and carried a whiff of spontaneous self-organization (even if that whiff was deceptive). Favoring a military-style hierarchy to a greater extent than its Western counterparts, the militia exemplified the Soviet tendency to turn the military into the template for an unofficial Table of Ranks: you get to be a general, and you get to be a general–everyone gets to be a general!
In the (technical) absence of police, the USSR had hypertrophied police functions, shared not only by those very same military and militarized bodies (including, but not limited to, the KGB), but also Party structures, enterprises, and medical authorities. The fight against crime (as we would understand the word) was never the cornerstone. If statistics have even minimal validity, crime was not a significant, widespread problem, or at least not framed as such. Instead, these institutions policed the borders of the behaviorally and ideologically permissible. Crossing certain lines led to serious policing of the violators, but by bodies that were not, technically, police. It was not that all cops were bastards, but that all bastards were, in some way or another, cops.
Some, but not all of this changes after 1991. As crime becomes central to the news, it also colonizes popular entertainment: a perceived boom in robbers yields a similar growth in cops. The popularity of crime genres was already apparent in Soviet times, but kept under wraps by limited publication and scant imports of foreign crime film and fiction, and the ideological strictures that limited the ability to represent crime as a home-made phenomenon. Actual cops (that is, militiamen) become heroes and anti-heroes, from the early days of the television series Menty (Ulitsy razbitykh fonarei) (Cops/Broken Streetlights) (1998-2019) down to the more recent series Mazhor (inexplicably plucked out of the Russian linguistic ghetto by Netflix and renamed Silver Spoon) (2014-).
At the same time, the militia (now police) are more recognizable as a problem. It is the various divisions of the police and similar state organizations who are responsible for arresting and beating protesters, for example. The police are now more appropriate as a symbol of state repression, but they still do not have a monopoly on policing. Those same repressive functions exercised by schools, enterprises, and medical establishments still have a policing role. In the case of the first two, it is they who are still responsible for mobilizing their constituencies to vote “correctly,” for example, while medical experts continue to be called upon to declare (or try to declare) inconvenient people “unfit.” If this all sounds Foucauldian, I apologize, because I intend for it to be more along the lines of “Foucault-adjacent.” These institutions do not constitute power/knowledge, but rather enforce it. In other words, they police.
As for the police/militia themselves, post-Soviet conditions require a level of visibility from them that was not as necessary under Late Socialism. The police, and particularly OMON (the Russian equivalent of SWAT) are deployed not just operationally, but operatically, that is, performatively. With a dynamic weirdly inverted later by Pussy Riot, their masked anonymity and displays of overwhelming superior force help constitute the Putinist paradigm of strength and order. And technically, the Russian police, even when local, are the ground-level instantiation of a federal authority (serving within the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD)). In the state imaginary, federal authority replicates itself anywhere and everywhere, a structure that is as much fractal as it is hierarchical.
The police function as both a symbol of state biopower and its most immediate physical manifestation. Their bodies are sacred and untouchable in a way that those of ordinary citizens are not; think of the Bolotnaya Square Trial, where no officer got in trouble for beating protesters, but protesters were prosecuted for the equivalent of hurting the cops’ fists with their faces.[i] In such an unequal contest between differently valued and empowered bodies, what kind of resistance is available?
To address this question, I want to end my talk by bringing in Actionism, and in particular, the collective known as Voina.[ii] The immediate audience for most of Voina’s actions in the Medvedev years (the feast in the subway car, the cats thrown at McDonald’s cashiers, and so on) are the by-standers: this is art that leverages physical presence and emphasizes the use of bodies in space (as they did during the Biological Museum orgy).[iii] The second, much larger audience, is on the Internet—most of what they did would have been local and ephemeral without video uploads. But there is a third audience whose role is undeniable, even if that audience is not always physically present: law enforcement.
Law enforcement, or, put more simply, the police, are always a potential restraint on their activities. In fact, I would argue that the police play the same role of productive restriction as meter and rhyme do for traditional poetry: nearly all of Voina’s performances took place within short time frames limited by the inevitable arrival of the police. Either the police’s arrival was part of the act, or a successful action relied on the complementary distribution of Actionist bodies and police bodies: it all worked out as long as they weren’t in the same place at the same time.
Voina’s last action, which now looks like a transitional, pupal stage between the larva of Voina and the butterfly of Pussy Riot, exposes the dangers in conflating the police as symbol and the police as body. “Commemorating” the new law transforming the militia into the police, “Kiss the Pig,” consisted of female members of Voina (including Nadia Tolokonnikova and Katia Samutsevich, two future Pussy Riot trial defendants) surprising female cops and kissing them on the lips without permission. Though Tolokonnikova says she wanted men involved, this was really the only arrangement unlikely to end in serious physical violence: women kissing male cops could not be sure of getting away safely, men kissing female cops would be arrested for assault, and men kissing male cops would be lucky to escape with their lives. Faced with the obvious (and in my opinion, entirely valid) criticism that what she and her colleagues were doing was a kind of sexual assault, Tolokonnikova responded that when a person puts on a cop’s uniform, they stop being a person and become only a cop.
In other words, she sees the symbolic cop as overriding the physical cop. Cops, like kings, have two bodies, but for the purposes of the action, only one of them really matters: the physical body is exploited as a weakness in the symbolic cop body. In a way, this is a brilliant reductio ad absurdum of the symbolic prominence that the police have attained under High Putinism. But it also means assenting to that very logic and deploying personal biological power in the cause of the negation of state biopower. This is a conundrum that cannot be solved, even by performance art. It is a losing proposition, transforming the political protester into something akin to an actual criminal, thereby validating the state’s framework.
When I was working on my book Pussy Riot: Speaking Punk to Power (2020), this was the only moment when I was truly disappointed in Tolokonnikova. For the most part, Actionists and the 2012 protesters had avoided the trap of binary, Manichaean thinking that caught so many Soviet-era dissidents (who, in their crusade for freedom, developed an ideologically rigid maximalism and became the mirror image of the regime they despised). The demonstrators and Actionists sidestepped this trap through absurdity, but also came close to the bodily self-sacrifice of the non-violence of Gandhi and King.
The final irony is that the Actionist who seemed to literally embody this ethos was Pavel Pavlensky, notorious, for among other things, nailing his own scrotum to the cobblestones of Red Square. But now his former partner Oksana Shalygina has written a book detailing the sadistic abuse she suffered at his hands. Shalgyina ends her interview with Wonderzine with a statement that says it all:
He was sincere in his struggle, but he was the same [repressive] authority as the one he fought against.
Power, authority, the law –they are like quicksand: the more you fight, the more you are sucked in. Or, in the words of Sonny Curtis and the Crickets: I fought the law and the law won.
Eliot Borenstein is Professor of Russian & Slavic Studies at New York University. His most recent books include Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism (winner of the 2020 Wayne S. Vucinich brook prize and the 2020 AATSEEL book prize), and Meanwhile, in Russia…: Russian Internet Memes and Viral Video (2022).
Borenstein, Eliot. 2020. Pussy Riot: Speaking Punk to Power. London: Bloomsbury.
Taratura, Iuliia. 2020 “’Eto byli ne bytovye izbieniia, a sadizm’: Oksana Shalygina o zhizni s Petrom Pavlenskim.” Wonderzine, November 2. https://www.wonderzine.com/wonderzine/life/life-interview/253377-intervyu-oksana
[i] The case refers to a protest that took place in Moscow on May 6, 2012. More than thirty protesters were charged with various offense, twelve of whom received prison sentences from two to four and a half years.
[ii] Founded in 2007, Voina was a political performance art group with branches in both Moscow and St. Petersburg.
[iii] On February 29, 2008, right before Dmitry Medvedev was elected president, 10 members of Voina protested by having sex in the Moscow Timiryazev Museum of Biology.