Dynamite or détournement?

One year after Pussy Riot’s “punk rock prayer”

Figure 1: Pussy Riot performs in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow (February 21st, 2012)

I. Détournement

When members of the Russian femme-punk outfit Pussy Riot ascended the altar inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior around this time last year, few seemed to notice the physical space in which their performance was taking place.  This is perhaps understandable, after all, given the spectacle unfolding before their eyes.  Less than a minute into their gig, the band was unceremoniously carted “offstage” by officers of the Moscow militsiia.  It was an absurd scene: the frenetic punching motions of the five musicians, colorfully clad in their trademark balaclavas, clashed sharply with the sterile, Neoplatonic immobility of the gilded iconostasis and paneled Carrara marble chapel behind them.  The sole video documenting the event, which went viral almost immediately thereafter, featured a tiny Orthodox nun herding the crowd of bewildered onlookers away from the nave with far greater success than the burly cop who meanwhile attempted to assail the band.  After eluding his clutches several more times — one member even managed to kneel and cross herself before being arrested — all five were jailed and made to stand trial for “blasphemy” and “hooliganism” (an oldie-but-goodie harkening back to the days of Stalin, and before him, the tsars), of which they were eventually convicted.  A few months later, on August 17th, 2012, they were sentenced to two years in prison.

Outside Russia, news of the verdict was met with widespread uproar and scathing criticisms, roundly condemning the Putin government’s callous disregard for the most basic democratic freedoms.  These were for the most part justified, if a little poorly expressed at times.  Slavoj Žižek’s contention that “the true blasphemy [in the blasphemy allegations] is the state accusation itself” is one of his clumsier dialectical inversions to date — a category mistake, even if it’s a nice sentiment.  The few dissenting voices that warned against lending uncritical support to Pussy Riot’s shenanigans, such as Vadim Nikitin in The New York Times, may have been right in parts (especially about the hypocrisy of Western observers’ puffed-up indignation at the fact that such things “still happen”) but generally had their emphasis all wrong (Nikitin’s shocked moral and aesthetic sensibilities at some of the band’s past stunts).  These complaints were by and large drowned out, and rightly so.  Still, one year on, two of the women from Pussy Riot remain locked up, their sentences increased in both extension and duration, relocated to “far-flung prison colonies” in the Urals with a few extra months tacked onto their terms.  Little, if anything, seems to have changed in the country.  Putin’s judo death-grip on Russian political life has been decisively reasserted.  No major challenges present themselves to his continued administration.

Figure 2: Pussy Riot frontwoman Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, surrounded by police, raises her fist

Figure 2: Pussy Riot frontwoman Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, surrounded by police, raises her fist

Pussy Riot’s sad fate should call into question the prevailing political imagination of the Left, both in Russia and abroad, however.  This may seem an odd claim to make, as the general public still largely considers the band’s defiance of Putin a courageous, if not heroic, act.  As such, their high-profile performances have even been regarded in some circles as a success, despite (although precisely because of) their subsequent imprisonment.  In the final analysis, this is a consequence of decades of impotent protest politics.  For many activists today, the assurance that “action will be taken” is enough to allay any anxieties they may have that nothing can be done.  The experience of mobilization and coordinated demonstrations is a virtue unto itself, and arrest only grants false legitimacy to the idea that such pseudo-activity poses a threat to existing structures of power.  Whether or not an action contributes in a meaningful way toward its purported goal — e.g., if an anti-war march actually helps bring an end to war — the sheer fact of mass participation is (mis)taken as a sign of its success.  The experience of defeat has become so naturalized for the Left that it no longer even recognizes its defeats as such.  The most miserable failures are held up as the most shining triumphs, and no one is better off for it.

One of the more unfortunate theoretical legacies of the famous Situationist International, the French leftist tendency led by Guy Debord that exerted such influence over May 1968, was its concept of détournement.  According to its most canonical definition, détournement involves “the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble.”  The artistic (more specifically Surrealist) underpinnings of this formulation are in evidence here.  But to their credit, the Situationists understood this form of protest, with its half-ironic irreverence and spectacular deadpan, to result from a profound feeling of political helplessness — a reaction to the apparent lack of revolutionary spontaneity on the part of the masses.  “[The] combination of parody and seriousness [in détournement],” they asserted in 1959, “reflects the contradictions of an era in which we find ourselves confronted with both the urgent necessity and the near impossibility of initiating and carrying out a totally innovative collective action.”  Quite clearly, it was this same mixture of parody and seriousness that informed Pussy Riot’s “punk rock prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February last year.  Their travesty of the holy ritual was ostensibly carried out in protest against the Russian Orthodox Church’s complicity with the Putin regime.  Courtesy of The Guardian’s Carol Rumens, the lyrics to their prayer run roughly as follows:

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish him, we pray thee!
Congregations genuflect,
Black robes brag gilt epaulettes,
Freedom’s phantom’s gone to heaven,
Gay Pride’s chained and in detention.
KGB’s chief saint descends
To guide the punks to prison vans.
Don’t upset His Saintship, ladies,
Stick to making love and babies.
Crap, crap, this godliness crap!
Crap, crap, this holiness crap!
Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Be a feminist, we pray thee,
Be a feminist, we pray thee.

Bless our festering bastard-boss.
Let black cars parade the Cross.
The Missionary’s in class for cash.
Meet him there, and pay his stash.
Patriarch Gundy believes in Putin.
Better believe in God, you vermin!
Fight for rights, forget the rite —
Join our protest, Holy Virgin.

Figure 3: Michel Mourre and Serge Berna review their Notre-Dame mass (Easter 1950)

Figure 3: Michel Mourre and Serge Berna review their Notre-Dame mass (Easter 1950)

In the October edition of the elegant Russian e-journal Kino Art, Dmitrii Desiaterik highlights Pussy Riot’s Situationist roots.  As its title would suggest, his article Situatsiia: Riot” makes this exact point regarding the band’s frequent use of détournement in their performances.  Desiaterik traces the genealogy of their usage to the Sex Pistols’ iconic/iconoclastic anthem “God Save the Queen” (others have suggested the Ramones), and then even further to the Lettrist Michel Mourre’s notoriously blasphemous liturgy announcing the death of God at the 1950 Easter Mass, delivered in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame donning a Dominican habit (later dubbed le scandale de Notre-Dame). Mourre’s “proclamation,” co-written with his conspirator Serge Berna, bears some similarity in terms of its presentation to Pussy Riot’s “punk rock prayer” translated above.  It was perhaps couched in more Nietzschean language, but the tactical resemblance of the Lettrists’ 1950 prank to Pussy Riot’s 2012 performance should not be overlooked:

Today, Easter day of the Holy Year,
Here, under the emblem of Notre-Dame of Paris,
I accuse the universal Catholic Church of the lethal diversion of our living strength toward an empty heaven,
I accuse the Catholic Church of swindling,
I accuse the Catholic Church of infecting the world with its funereal morality,
Of being the running sore on the decomposed body of the West.
Verily I say unto you: God is dead,
We vomit the agonizing insipidity of your prayers,
For your prayers have been the greasy smoke over the battlefields of our Europe.
Go forth then into the tragic and exalting desert of a world where God is dead,
And till this earth anew with your bare hands,
With your proud hands,
With your unpraying hands.
Today Easter day of the Holy Year,
Here under the emblem of Notre-Dame of Paris,
We proclaim the death of the Christ-god, so that Man may live at last.

Like the members of Pussy Riot, the five Lettrists who took part in orchestrating the liturgy were arrested by the police (though they were by contrast rather grateful, as this kept them from being torn to pieces by an enraged mob of Catholic believers).  Either way, besides these precursors, Desiaterik sees some obvious precedent in the architect-turned-Dadaist Johannes Baader’s infiltration of a Berlin choir performance in November 1918, during which he interjected Christus ist euch Wurst [“You don’t give a damn about Christ”].  The Russian journalist explains: “The application of détournement changes the meaning of readymade cultural products entirely, most often those associated with the media or mainstream culture, by means of agitation, sabotage, spontaneous revolt, direct action, word-games with advertising clichés, and the disavowal of copyright.”  According to his interpretation, Pussy Riot’s tactical affinity to détournement attests to their broadly anti-authoritarian outlook, against both the “diffusive” spectacle experienced under capitalism as well as the “concentrated” spectacle offered up by communist regimes (following Debord).

II. Dynamite

So much for détournement.  But what, you may ask, of dynamite?

As we have seen, détournement and the politics of protest in general have had a spotty track record when it comes to their use by movements on the Left.  More often than not, they simply serve as a prelude to massively disproportionate retaliation by the police, in which the state steamrolls any group or individual that dares raise a hand against it.  The trouble is, it’s not clear what an alternative might look like nowadays.  The Left has gotten so used to its own powerlessness that it can scarcely remember what might be like to hold power — to seize “the commanding heights” of industrial production or wield “the state as a weapon” with which to crush outstanding class conflicts.  The specter of “totalitarianism” still looms large in the bourgeois-liberal memory of the twentieth century, sometimes with good reason (but usually not).  Either way, the Left’s allergy to the prospect of possessing power has left it hamstrung in the face of the steadily increasing onslaught by forces on the Right in recent decades.  It is therefore little wonder that the only role offered to a group like Pussy Riot by the Left would be that of political “martyrdom.”

Figure 4: A tale of two churches — The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior (1903) and its successor (2006)

Figure 4: A tale of two churches — The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior (1903) and its successor (2006)

Happily, we are afforded a reminder of what different scenarios of power have existed in the past just by glancing at the history of the site where the band’s last (and most infamous) performance took place — the mammoth Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.  The story behind this building is particularly bizarre, even by Russian standards.  The Cathedral, it turns out, is actually an almost identical reproduction of a structure that had occupied the same space over half a century earlier.  First proposed in 1817 as a monument to the nation’s victory over Napoleon’s invading Grande Armée, the competition for the building’s original design was won not long thereafter by a Swede, Karl Magnus Witberg.  After nearly ten years of fruitless attempts to get construction off the ground, Witberg was accused of embezzling funds, whereupon he was exiled to Siberia.  A new blueprint was approved by Nikolai I in 1832, but building did not commence until 1837.  From the very outset, major setbacks and complications arose.  But it would take just under fifty years of backbreaking peasant labor gathered from the countryside to complete.  The architectural historian and theorist Vladimir Paperny recalls:

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was eventually erected in 1883 — by…Konstantin Ton…on…Prechistenskaia  Embankment, in [a] style that could be roughly defined as pseudo-Russian revival.  It replaced St. Alexius Monastery, which was dismantled and moved to another location — the move that angered some believers who predicted that the site was now doomed.  The reaction of most art critics to Ton’s creation was negative: “Architects lacking inspiration and the understanding of the meaning of church building are always substituting spiritual elements with decorative ones…A typical example of such costly absurdity is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior that looks like a huge samovar around which the whole patriarchal Moscow has gathered cheerfully.”

Ton’s critics weren’t exaggerating.  The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior, as well as its latter-day replacement, is a profoundly ugly piece of architecture.  Even the most kretinous philistine and chauvinist could easily see through its shallow Slavophilic façade, its superficial adoption of traditional peasant forms, its vague use of the vernacular: the glittering gold of its onion domes perched high atop white spires and dispersed at even intervals, in a fashion almost reminiscent of minarets (if ever a Freudian slip in architecture were possible).  All that one might reasonably expect was there, of course, except everything had ballooned to frightening and elephantine proportions.  Once opened, it was the tallest Orthodox Church in the world.  But this only gave it a still more ridiculous aspect, as stylistic elements from the old wooden churches in the north here appeared on a massive scale, rendered in stone quarried and imported from Italy.  It’s a building desperately at odds with itself and its times, a concatenation of disparate influences that never quite add up.  All in all, it’s a sorry excuse for a structure — religious or otherwise.  The first piece of music performed within its walls was Chaikovskii’s 1812 Overture, a far better work than it deserved.

Figure 5: The statue of Aleksandr III, with the original Cathedral of Christ the Savior in the background

Figure 5: The statue of Aleksandr III, with the original Cathedral of Christ the Savior in the background

Outside the Cathedral, as if the whole thing were not grotesque enough, a tall statue of Aleksandr III, perhaps the most reactionary and brutally oppressive tsar of the century, was commissioned by his son Nikolai II in 1894.  Surrounded by Roman imperial eagles from every side, the monument neatly materialized the ideology of Nikolai’s recently-deceased predecessor, capturing his self-conscious atavism and firm rejection of political modernity.  Thankfully, it would not stand for long.  Only twenty or so years later, in February 1917, it all came tumbling down.  The statue was first decapitated, before being dismantled entirely.  Tsarism had been vanquished; such symbols of the old regime could not be tolerated any longer.  The giant eyesore on the Moscow skyline towering behind it remained, however, at least for the time being.  But not for long:

The idea of blowing up the “huge samovar” was first introduced in 1924 by a member of [ASNOVA, the main architectural organ of] the rationalist movement, [Viktor] Balikhin.  In a procedure that could be described as grabbing the flag from the dead enemy and running with it, Stalinism, having demolished both rationalism [ASNOVA] and constructivism [OSA], ran with the idea of demolishing the cathedral.  Numerous attempts to blow it up failed, the brickwork was exceptionally strong.  Eventually, it was cut into pieces and removed.

Dynamite enters the stage of world history.  Here Paperny innocently neglects to mention the even broader political base that supported Balikhin’s motion to dynamite the Cathedral.  The measure had previously been the brainchild of Leonid Krasin, a longtime Bolshevik and Soviet diplomat, whose formal training had been as an engineer.  Beyond Krasin and the modernists, however, many of his comrades within the party were supportive of the idea.  Officially-sanctioned state antireligious campaigns had been launched as early as 1921, and an antireligious commission for militant atheist education and propaganda was signed into existence by Trotsky in 1922.  Headed up by Emel’ian Iaroslavskii, founder of the Union of the Militant Godless, the commission fully backed this proposal.  And thus, in an orderly — even dispassionate — manner, teams of appraisers excavated the Cathedral for anything of value, and then promptly proceeded to blow it to smithereens.  This was not carried out as an act of protest, a first raised against a reactionary regime.  It was, rather, calmly executed by trained professionals working to advance the aims of a revolutionary state.

Figure 6: The demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (1931), w/ Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite: Pursuit of the Evil God

What separates the “blasphemous” act of Pussy Riot in the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 2012 from the organized demolition of the whole wretched structure by Soviet engineers in 1931? The answer should be blindingly obvious — the Left in power.  Whereas the former act merely upset some nuns, clergymen, and the few parishioners who were in attendance, resulting in draconian sentences for the band members involved, the latter effectively removed what had been a living monument to the autocratic tsarist state and its traditional ally, the clerical establishment.  There were no legal repercussions whatsoever for the engineers who rigged the dynamite, as it had been the state itself that had set them to this task.  Had the cathedral not gone up in smoke, the Soviets’ response would not have been a sigh of relief, but rather that of Marvin the Martian: “Where’s the kaboom?”

Figure 7: Left — Winning proposal for the Palace of the Soviets, 1933: Iofan, Shchuko, Gel’freikh, (Stalin?); Top Right — Le Corbusier’s losing entry, 1932; Bottom Right — Hannes Meyer’s losing entry, 1932.

Figure 7: Left — Winning proposal for the Palace of the Soviets, 1933: Iofan, Shchuko, Gel’freikh, (Stalin?); Top Right — Le Corbusier’s losing entry, 1932; Bottom Right — Hannes Meyer’s losing entry, 1932.

III. Denouement

The subsequent history of the site is no less weird or dramatic than what has been covered so far.  Its political implications are perhaps a bit more harrowing, however.  A brief sketch will serve to bring us full circle, right up to Pussy Riot’s performance of last year.  For just as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior had required the destruction of a preexisting convent in order to be built, so the cursed cathedral had to be detonated in order to make way for a new and more glorious structure.  The immediate pretext for dynamiting the building was to allow room for the construction of the most terrifying and ambitious architectural feat to date (perhaps ever) — the Palace of the Soviets.  At the time, the architectural avant-garde held enormous sway within the discourse of architecture and city planning.  The Palace was expected by many observers to herald the pinnacle, not only of Soviet building practice, but international modernism itself.  As we will see, things didn’t pan out quite the way they had envisioned.  Returning to Paperny’s narrative:

On July 18th, 1931, newspapers published an announcement for an upcoming architectural competition for the Palace of the Soviets to be built on the site of the demolished Cathedral.  The following fall 160 entries, including 24 from abroad, were displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow…One of the foreign entries belonged to Le Corbusier, and, quite predictably, it was rejected.  When Le Corbusier finally saw the winning project, he was appalled: “It is hard to accept the fact that they will actually erect that odd thing which recently has flooded all the journals.”  Addressing the First Congress of Soviet Architects in 1937, Frank Lloyd Wright was very blunt about the “falsity” of the winning project of the Palace of the Soviets: “This structure — only proposed I hope — is good if we take it for a modern version of Saint George destroying the dragon.”

Le Corbusier and other members of the CIAM wrote a letter to Stalin lobbying him to intervene in order to “stop this sensational challenge to the public from being executed.” Stalin, as it turned out, was the last person they should have asked.  As architectural historian Dmitrii Khmel’nitskii recently discovered, the whole design belonged to Stalin himself.  None of the official authors, says Khmel’nitskii, — Iofan, Shchuko, or Gel’freikh — was capable of such “clear spatial idea, vigor, strength, dynamism, and at the same time such powerful barbarism, such neophyte courage in dealing with form, function and surface.”  If we are to believe Khmel’nitskii, then Stalin appears to have been a greater modernist than Le Corbusier, Wright, [Moisei] Ginzburg, or [Aleksandr] Vesnin.  His barbarian creation did not imitate any known style of the past, his Palace was to surpass the Empire State Building by a few feet, he did not collaborate, he worked incognito…, he disregarded community life, and was not interested in people.  Moreover, his structure was supposed to be age-resistant: “Centuries will not leave their mark on it,” wrote Nikolai Atarov, official historian of the Palace.  “We will build it so that it will stand without aging, forever.”

Figure 8: Le Corbusier’s provocative Plan Voisin for Paris (1925).  The island is clearly that upon which the  Cathedral of Notre-Dame rests, and the embankment across from it the location of the Louvre.

Figure 8: Le Corbusier’s provocative Plan Voisin for Paris (1925), with the island of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the Louvre embankment

Incidentally, this was not the first time Le Corbusier aspired to build upon the ashes of a famous cathedral.  Had his earlier Plan Voisin for Paris (1925) been approved by the French government, it would have required the demolition of the Louvre, Notre-Dame Cathedral, the whole shebang — to be replaced by his “Cartesian towers” along a roughly orthogonal plan (see above).  Of course, this plan was mostly intended as a provocation, but with Le Corbusier one never really knew what he might do if given the opportunity.  If it had gone through, however, it would have made Michel Mourre’s blasphemous Easter détournement quite superfluous.  Likewise, had the deathblow dealt to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior by the Soviets proved a lasting one, Pussy Riot’s détournement of their “punk rock prayer” would not have been necessary either.  But alas, somewhere along the line the cathedral was “resurrected,” just like its namesake.  The Palace of the Soviets never came to pass, and the godly (godawful) samovar reappeared.  How did this happen, though? What went wrong?

Figure 9: Vapor rises off the pool “Moscow” in wintertime during the 1980s.

Figure 9: Vapor rises off the pool “Moscow” in wintertime during the 1980s.

When continuing the Palace turned out to be unfeasible following the conclusion of World War II, construction was brought to a halt.  After Stalin’s death in 1954 Khrushchev, who’d never been a fan of the design to begin with, decided to install the world’s largest open-air pool in its stead.  The pool “Moscow,” as it came to be known, was opened to the public in 1960.  To be sure, a functional pool was of far greater use to Soviet citizens than the unbuilt nightmare that was the Palace.  But the pool, as soon became apparent, would have its own torrid history.  In order to keep the water warm enough (it was maintained at 80° Fahrenheit) for swimming during the winter months, the pool had to be artificially heated.  As a result, steam would skim off the surface of the pool, creating a dense fog, before it’d waft away into the Moscow sky.  This provided perfect cover for a string of gruesome (but apparently unrelated) murders that took place until its closing in 1994.  Not long before, a different sort of “revolution” had gripped the nation.  This time it wasn’t the statue of Tsar Aleksandr III that was torn down — it was Lenin who had been knocked off his pedestal.

Figure 10: A woman sits atop a felled statue of Lenin, 1991.

Figure 10: A woman sits atop a felled statue of Lenin, 1991.

It’s a commonplace that “what goes up, must come down,” as the saying runs.  What’s less known is the that what comes down, sometimes goes back up.  In 1991 Soviet communism stood in ruins.  So it wasn’t long before the question of what to do with the space nearby the Kremlin was back on the table.  After some brief deliberation, the decision was made to shut down the pool and build a replica of the old Cathedral of Christ the Savior that the Bolsheviks had dynamited.  Within four years it had been restored, completing in aesthetic form the “Restoration” that’d already been enacted politically.  And thus the stage was set for the members of Pussy Riot to perform their “punk rock prayer” last year.  Their short set failed to leave so much as a dent in the hideous building’s interior, however — and for that, they were inevitably given two years.  But can we really hope for anything else so long as the Left is without power?

Free Pussy Riot! And blow it up again!

Or, better: (re)create the conditions under which such a decision again becomes available, where “action” isn’t just some futile gesture of defiance in the face of overwhelming odds, but the pitiless application of revolutionary force routing the last holdouts of reaction.

2 thoughts on “Dynamite or détournement?

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