looking back on the protests and politics of the russian world cup

How did ordinary Russians feel about it? And how did Pussy Riot’s pitch invasion figure in the country’s tradition of performance protest art?

|
Jul 25 2018, 12:03am

Image via Instagram

Global sporting events are often as much about politics as the sport being played. During the just-finished Football World Cup in Russia, the country’s complex politics were seemingly out of the conversation. It was much discussed in the run up, but as soon as the football started, it fell into the background. That is, until at the 52nd minute of the final between Croatia and France, when four Pussy Riot members dressed in police uniforms ran onto the pitch. Though the performance lasted barely a minute, millions and millions of viewers got a glimpse of the bigger political landscape -- and the way art, activism and the viral nature of contemporary media could make a thought-provoking statement that spreads like wildfire.

When the four Pussy Riot members stormed onto the pitch, the cameras of the official Russian TV broadcast skilfully avoided the issue, and so did the suddenly stammering commentators. But in less than a minute, numerous photos of the performers flooded the internet. The most widely seen one depicted Veronika Nikulshina high-fiving 19-year-old French player Kylian Mbappé, the main star of the championship. The success of the French team came to symbolise a victory for immigration and diversity, and Mbappé, in one shot with a Pussy Riot activist, somehow presented a kind of unity over the oppressive conservative powers of this world. The radiant smile of Veronika looked particularly chilling considering the possible consequences of her actions, with Putin looking down from stands.

The Pussy Riot performance was titled Policeman Enters The Game, and was dedicated to Russian poet and artist Dmitri Prigov and the figure of “the heavenly policeman” he invented. The statement that Pussy Riot released shortly after expanded on the expectation and the reality when it comes to Russian police. “The heavenly policeman gently touches a flower in a field and enjoys Russian football team victories, while the earthly policeman feels indifferent to Oleg Sentsov’s [a jailed Ukrainian filmmaker and writer] hunger strike. The heavenly policeman rises as an example of the nationhood, the earthly policeman hurts everyone. The heavenly policeman protects sleeping babies, the earthly policeman persecutes political prisoners, imprisons people for reposts and likes.” At the end of the statement, Pussy Riot demanded freedom for political prisoners, an end to illegal arrests at rallies and jail sentences for reposts and likes. In the global context, these demands seem pretty self-evident, but for Russians it has much deeper meanings.

Policeman Enters The Game belongs to the long line of protest performance art in Russia. Pussy Riot can take credit for a few iconic examples from recent years. In 2012, in the guise of a balaclava-clad punk group, they performed Putin is Wetting Himself on Red Square, and a few months later Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The latter performance led to the arrest and prosecution of the three of the group’s members. But they’re not the only ones. In 2013, Petr Pavlensky nailed his scrotum to ground in Red Square. In 2010, Voina art group painted a giant dick on a bridge just opposite the Federal Security Services office in St Petersburg. In 1991 ETI (Expropriation of the Territory of Art) lay their bodies in Red Square to spell out the Russian word for “cock” to protest the Law on Morality. During the Communist era, an unofficial art exhibition at the outskirts of Moscow in 1974 was broken up by the police force with bulldozers and water cannons.

Historically, public space in Russia does not belong to the people but is always under government control. The examples of the confrontation between art and the authorities are numerous, because art is thought-provoking and dangerous, and therefore should be eliminated from the public space. But does the nature of the public space change if the whole world happens to be looking?

Talking to a few Russian friends and colleagues, I discovered that they often couldn’t quite make up their mind about the Pussy Riot performance. On the one hand, exposing the evils and injustices of the regime was clearly the right thing to do, on the other, couldn’t we, for once, just forget about politics and enjoy football, pretend like everything is fine? Maybe then everyone could finally believe that Russia is not the Evil Empire, but a country populated by normal people with normal lives?

During the World Cup month, numerous visitors from all over the world discovered Russia -- not just Moscow and St Petersburg, but cities like Samara, Rostov-on-Don, Kazan and Yekaterinburg. “I can’t believe I was afraid to come here,” was a comment I heard a few times. In the euphoric celebratory mood, all kinds of differences and preconceptions quickly went out of the window. Suddenly, Russia was open and connected to the world, with people celebrating on the street, which Nadya Tolokonnikova described in her column for i-D pretty well. “The hate for the west doesn't seem to resonate with ordinary Russians today -- certainly not as much as our government would like it to,” she added.

"It was tempting, for once, to just pretend that everything is fine; to feel human, open, equal, part of the celeration. Fine, however, doesn’t equal free -- because pretending that everything is fine is just how status quo works."

Truth is, Russians might have also discovered their own country through the foreigner’s eyes. This duality to Russian identity is not new: Russians have their own image of themselves but are also constantly aware of the way the west perceives them. It’s a spectrum that stretches from Bond villains to spies to women as sexualised objects, to the east in general, as some exotic unknowable area. So it was tempting, for once, to just pretend that everything is fine; to feel human, open, equal, part of the celebration. Fine, however, doesn’t equal free -- because pretending that everything is fine is just how status quo works.

Coming back to the figure of a policeman in the Russian psyche, I couldn’t help but remember how my friends, when we were all in our early 20s, getting ready for a party, would take some extra cash to bribe a policeman in case we got caught drinking on the street (street drinking is illegal in Russia, although the regulation wasn’t enforced during the World Cup). Police are the reason why a lot of Russians have a chronic distrust in and fear of the authorities. It’s common knowledge that the police are not only not helpful, but also potentially dangerous (and often beat up and arrest teenagers at rallies). So it was refreshing to see them transform, even if only for a month, into mythical heavenly policemen who are nice and helpful. The heavenly policeman was clearly at work when it came to the Pussy Riot jail sentence -- only 15 days for something of such big political significance.

In the end, the Russian status quo survives from habit, because it’s devastatingly easy to get used to the most terrible things. Faith in using your voice in the public space is something which doesn’t come easily. But looking at the new generation of teenage protesters, at Russian women calling out patriarchal and sexist comments in the media, and at the Pussy Riot performance during the World Cup makes one believe that things can -- and should change.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.