We all have our perspectives. In London recently, I found that many of the locals had stayed up until the early hours of a wet Monday morning to watch Super Bowl 50 on television, and judging from the T-shirts being paraded around town there seems to be a particular groundswell of support among British youth for the 49ers, the Cowboys, and the Redskins, names all richly evocative of the American frontier experience.
But for the folks at my local paper, the Seattle Times, that last sobriquet is off limits. In June 2014, the Times let it be known that it was banning the name of Washington’s NFL team from its pages because it was “disparaging of Native Americans.” Meanwhile, across town in Seattle’s well-staffed Office for Civil Rights (SOCR), a fiat has emerged denouncing the term “brown bag” for its association with the “brown-bag test” popular in the 1920’s; if your flesh tone was darker than the bag you were apparently “stigmatized” and “ostracized,” although somehow this lamentable episode of American history seems to have eluded most local people, of whatever hue, until the researchers at SOCR helpfully brought it to light. From now on we must all resign ourselves to sitting down on a bench to enjoy a “portable lunch” on those all too rare sunny Seattle days, although we’ll do so with our fellow “residents,” not “citizens,” on the grounds that “the government serves everyone in the city, not just those entitled to US nationality.” The state of Washington has also voted to replace words from official records that hold “specific gender connotations,” and I confess that when I read that “freshman,” for example, is to become “first-year,” and “penmanship” will be represented by its distant cousin “handwriting,” I found perspective a struggle.
I raise all this only to note the curious discrepancy between the exquisite sensibilities displayed by our city’s cultural czars on our behalf, and the generally less inhibited message recently picked out in livid blue-and-white neon above Seattle’s Neptune Theatre. “stg presents . . . pussy riot: feminist punk and the police state . . . feb 8 7:30 pm,” it read.
Outside the theater, I mingled briefly with several burly representatives of the Seattle Police Department who were patrolling the sidewalk on the night in question. I inquired of one of the officers if they were expecting any particular trouble at a performance by a female Russian punk-rock protest group. “You tell me,” she said disdainfully. “There’s always someone who starts something.” When I asked whether she meant by that someone on stage or in the audience, she rolled her eyes and refused to say any more.
I went up to my seat in the balcony. It was a full house. My fellow audience members were predominantly female and middle-aged, though there were some younger women there, too. Many of the latter wore T-shirts customized with slogans indicating how positively they would react to the election of Bernie Sanders as president. Oddly, I could see no obvious equivalent show of support for Hillary Clinton. A woman in her 50’s sat immediately in front of me. I leaned forward to speak to her. She had wide brown eyes under a raspberry-colored crewcut, gamin, pixieish, with several vivid tattoos visible on her bare arms, a short pink skirt, army-style boots. “May I ask why you’re here?” I enquired politely. She looked at me for a second and said, “Because these women were locked up for speaking their mind, and if we don’t watch out we could have the same thing here under Trump.” A man seated next to her nodded, and then turned round to face me. “That’s right,” he said, and went on to offer a list of suggestions to avoid this state of affairs happening. In two words: Raise hell. Become involved at every political level, he said. If your child’s textbooks denigrate Native Americans, picket the school board. If your hospital won’t provide free and unlimited care to anyone who asks, organize a boycott. Fiercely defend your values, and don’t forget how McCarthy and his crew got started in the 1950’s. The man had a trim Van Dyke beard and the same kind of granny glasses John Lennon wore at the time of the Beatles’ White Album. Perhaps he had a position of some sort at the nearby University of Washington, I thought, although I never had the chance to ask. Just then the evening’s entertainment began, with a woman who introduced herself as “Mariana Markova, an anthropologist,” and went on to summarize Russia’s recent history of media censorship, rigged elections, and Church-state collusion that Pussy Riot were apparently protesting. Just as the lights went down, another young woman leaned across to inquire in a sharp tone if the notebook in my hand signified that I was there “on orders” (not exactly) the better to “take names” (hardly). It’s not true that we are becoming a less deferential society, I reflected; merely that our respect has been transferred from the old establishment to, among others, certain militant pop stars and other morally approved dissidents.
Then Ms. Markova told us that we would be shown a 45-minute documentary film by the title Pussy Vs Putin, and many in the audience cheered this news. As there were technical difficulties in getting the feature started, our host was able to give us a full synopsis of what we might eventually hope to see. There were further raucous shouts and whoops from the auditorium at each successive mention of the film’s title. Perhaps it was the word Putin they were applauding. I confess that I am one of those who has always thought that the reproductive organs should be seen and not heard, and the protracted ordeal of awaiting the opening credits of Pussy Vs Putin confirmed this. Of course, making uptight males like me wriggle and squirm in our seats may have been the whole point.
When the film got under way it continued the night’s theme of celebrating female empowerment (the subtitles told us so), with many striking images of young women behaving uninhibitedly on the streets of Moscow. One segment documented an impromptu musical performance on top of a bus, interrupted by a heavyset, unamused driver who, having a schedule to keep, climbed up and threw the offending guitars and other equipment onto the street. There were many unappreciative jeers at this from those watching in the theater. Clearly there could be no presumption of the audience’s sympathies for the ordinary Russian working-class commuter. From there things seemed to move inexorably to the famous scene where “the girls” (as they were rather incongruously called) went on to hijack a service in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior by jumping up in front of the altar and chanting, “Shit, shit, the Lord is shit!” among other epithets. The women were apparently under the impression that they could shirk off what they called “2,000 years of religious oppression” by hitching up their skirts and shouting the word f— at the tops of their voices. If so, they found an unusually receptive audience in Seattle, which we’re told boasts not only some of the lowest church-membership rates, but also the highest number of declared atheists, of any city in America. “F— you and all you Orthodoxes,” one of the protesters yelled in the film, as an elderly nun came forward to remonstrate with her. The roar this time from the theater audience was truly deafening; the gutsy young rebel had clearly struck the most responsive possible chord.
On that note, two members of Pussy Riot—Ksenia Zhivago and Maria Alyo khina—were among us in the flesh. They looked like rather intense college undergraduates, but perhaps this lack of obvious congeniality was really a form of shyness. Mariana Markova interviewed the two women, with the help of tour promoter Aleksandr Cheparukhin, who occasionally translated. All four sat on stools. There was a great deal more said about the terrible excesses of the Church, and how no young person was safe these days with a priest, and there were shouts of approval at each fresh denunciation. One of the great things about anticlericalism, I find, is that it has a built-in safety valve for the believer; just when you’re thinking, well, yes, some of that behavior in those old orphanages wasn’t very good, something happens to remind you how self-righteous and unprincipled so many of the Pussy Riot school are, how vile and sad the world they inhabit is. At one point Maria Alyokhina eschewed the services of the translator and told the crowd that they were “f—ing cool,” and that by contrast President Putin and his friends the “Orthodoxes” (as traditional believers were called) were complete “f—ers,” weren’t they? The crowd gave her another sustained ovation. There was a generous minimum f— quota around the room that night, but even so the members of Pussy Riot seemed to be aiming for a world record, inserting it into the most banal sentences to the point where, for the first time, the word appeared to have reached the end of its usefulness—drained of all possible passion, let alone the power to shock, it merely punctuated their speech like a hiccup.
After recounting their harrowing ordeal at the hands of the Church-state complex, Pussy Riot went on to tell us about conditions in a typical Russian prison. Actually, before that there was a good deal more about the role of the Leader of United Russia, and alternating prime minister and state president, Vladimir Putin—or “Satan,” as he was called for short—in personally interfering in the women’s case. There was a widespread consensus on that point. One does not have to believe that the members of Pussy Riot are collectively the greatest detective since Sherlock Holmes to accept that the office of the head of state may have made representations to that of the prosecuting authority involved, and that a sentence of two years does indeed seem harsh for what was essentially a juvenile prank. Those are the breaks in Russia. Somehow I was reminded of my own childhood in the Soviet Union, and more particularly our old family friend Gerald Brooke, an English exchange teacher who was picked up on the streets of Moscow in 1965 and given five years’ hard labor for having distributed a few satirical leaflets. Anyway, Maria Alyokhina confirmed that her time in custody had been disagreeable: prey to sexually sadistic (female) guards, she had been denied both congenial work facilities and access to her preferred vegetarian meals. “For hours a day, we sewed police uniforms without any celery,” Alyokhina recalled. “Sometimes, I just told them to f— off,” she added, to another round of sustained applause. (Driving home that night, I wondered if I might have misheard celery for salary.) To be fair, Alyokhina also told us about the scores of ordinary little women (her phrase) she met in prison, and how many of these individuals were incarcerated simply because they had been abused by their husbands or boyfriends and had decided to stop it—“to kill them,” she elaborated. The crowd gave her another raucous ovation. There was one fundamental difference, I thought, between Alyokhina’s remarks and every other speech we hear from the representatives of the Gender Resources and Victims Outreach departments of our esteemed Seattle city government. The latter claim to be open and direct, but their primary purpose is to temporize. Examined in retrospect, they turn out to be little more than a list of empty slogans and exhortations to women to be “patient” and “respectful of the law” while society continues transforming the male of the species from his traditional role as a predatory thug into something more akin to an honorary girlfriend with added procreative abilities if required. Alyokhina’s speech was not open to that imputation. She wanted all signs of male aggression “amputated,” she informed us, and I confess I stirred in my seat as I considered the various associations the word brought to mind.
Space prohibits a full discussion of the specifically musical component of the Pussy Riot brand. As a rule (and I speak as one partial to a good pop tune), it seems to me to have been designed to bring us closer to the end of civilized life on earth. After talking some more about the many man-made barriers that exist to female self-expression, and how Russian society as a whole remains dominated by an unpalatable alliance of repressive politicians and morally uptight clergy, Alyokhina offered some candid advice: “If you don’t keep an eye on your democracy, you could have the same.”
After that, there was nothing more to be said. The truly tumultuous standing ovation that followed concluded the night’s entertainment.