Rock ’n’ Revolt! Pussy Riot & Moscow Theater vs. The Russian Status Quo

Poster for Tom Stoppard's "Rock'n'Roll"

Poster for Tom Stoppard’s “Rock’n’Roll” recently staged by Moscow’s Russian Academic Youth Theatre. (Photo by Author)

In their outlandishly psychedelic costumes, the band members played their hearts out, dancing and shouting obscenities even as armed policemen tried to disperse their throng of devoted fans.  Arrested by the government for free expression under the pretense of “hooliganism,” they went on to completely transform the world of international human rights.

This is not Pussy Riot, Moscow’s feminist punk rock group that had three of its members arrested in 2012 after performing in the city’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior.  It’s a group that rocked Eastern Europe nearly forty years earlier: Czechoslovakia’s the Plastic People of the Universe. The arrest of nineteen Plastics members and followers in 1976 led directly to the formation of Charter 77, a civic initiative that became a rallying cry for human rights activists worldwide.  With the help of Czech dissident Václav Havel, the playwright turned activist who eventually became Czechoslovakia’s first democratic president, the Plastics became an international cause célèbre much like Pussy Riot today.

Upon seeing Rock ’n’ Roll, Tom Stoppard’s play about the Plastics,performed in Russian at Moscow’s Russian Academic Youth Theatre (RAMT), the parallels between the Plastics and Pussy Riot became increasingly apt.  Modern Moscow is a far cry from Prague after Soviet troops invaded in August 1968: advertisements for American movies and Aerosmith concerts are splashed across billboards along Moscow’s Tverskaya Ulitsa, whereas Czech dissidents could barely smuggle Beatles albums into Prague.  But while watching Stoppard’s characters confronting issues of government control, freedom of expression, and the power of art as dissent, one gets the strong sense of history repeating itself.

This is a city where President Putin just placed a blanket ban on the use of certain swear words in theater and film; where the Moscow Art Theatre fights government-backed lawsuits for its use of child actors in The Pillowman and its depiction of a crucifixion in an adaptation of An Ideal Husband; and where “Victory Day” on May 9, meant to honor the end of World War II, becomes an excuse for lauding neo-Sovietism and nationalist zeal, complete with tanks rolling down the streets.  Russian artists cannot shake the lingering threat of artistic censorship: the city and state governments provide almost all funding for the major Moscow theater houses, and, as Kirill Serebrennikov (director of the controversial Pillowman) described in a post online, this support comes with strings attached. “We thought that somewhere—in the theatre, in the “trendy” cafes, at home, or at the computer—there was still a little free air,” he wrote, “[but] the ‘overwhelming majority’ got the air, and it—this majority—orders a government for itself, and the government orders the music to amuse and delight this majority.”1

In this increasingly fraught atmosphere, RAMT’s production of Rock ’n’ Roll receives its electrifying drive from some of its least outwardly political scenes.  In English-language productions, the relationship between Jan, a reluctant Czech dissident, and his former mentor, Cambridge professor and card-carrying Communist Max Morrow, has traditionally carried the most dramatic bite.  When Rufus Sewell and Brian Cox originated the roles at London’s Royal Court, subsequently reprising them on Broadway, their arguments about communism versus capitalism sped along at a searing clip, leaving the audience breathless in their wake.

While those scenes are still compelling at RAMT, the emotional core of the play has shifted to the conversations between Jan and his Czech friend Ferda, an ardent government protester.  Ferda wants Jan to sign petitions and act out against the government, but Jan just wants to play Ferda his records: contraband albums by the Velvet Underground, the Beach Boys, and Syd Barrett, along with, of course, rough live recordings of the Plastics, taken from underground performances in Prague.  As Jan gushes to Ferda about the relative merits of Syd Barrett’s performances with and without Pink Floyd, the Western band names pop out of Jan’s Russian dialogue more jarringly than they ever could in an English-language production.  In so doing, these scenes highlight the sheer risk of bringing foreign music into a place where all vestiges of Western culture are banned—and, by extension, how Jan’s push for artistic freedom is more political than he is initially willing to admit.

We’re putting ourselves on the line for a society where the Plastics can play their music,” Ferda argues to Jan, and, as the Soviet government cracks down against the Plastics and their followers, Jan ultimately agrees.  Upon returning to his ransacked apartment at the end of Act I—his records have been destroyed by the police, smashed heartlessly against every surface—Jan agrees to sign Charter 77, putting his name alongside political dissidents like Havel to protest the Czech government’s human rights violations.

“Hey, it’s only rock ’n’ roll,” Jan replies when Ferda offers to make tapes to replace his smashed records—but then, in the RAMT production, Jan and Ferda freeze in place, the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” starts blaring, and the two men dance with every ounce of energy they can muster, using upturned lamps as air guitars and kicking away record fragments in their frenzied enthusiasm.  As the music courses through their bodies, the audience sees how rock ’n’ roll isn’t just entertainment for them: it’s their way of expressing themselves and feeling whole in a world where the government lurks at every turn, and nothing can fully repress their fervor.

Like the character of Jan, the Plastics were adamantly apolitical when they began performing.  “Rock ’n’ roll wasn’t just music to us,” explained Plastics founder Milan Hlavsa, “It was kind of life itself.”  Those who were lucky enough to catch a Plastics concert during this period were given “a small desert in a hostile ocean which may at any time blow a storm and wipe it off the face of the earth,” recalled Ivan Kyncl, a student in Prague at the time. But in a nation where all individualism was suppressed, the Plastics’ self-expression made them an automatic anti-government threat.  Once the Plastics were swept into the political fray, Havel used the band’s innocence to turn them into wronged Everymen.  With his rallying cry that “a threat to the freedom of these young [performers] was a threat to the freedom of us all,” Havel convinced intellectuals and youths alike to back the band.

Conversely, Pussy Riot’s members have always been activists first, musicians second. Its performances are arguably more flash mobs than concerts: its Moscow debut was staged on a scaffold in the subway, where band members tore apart down pillows and threw feathers onto passengers below.  As the band gained momentum, its members became more daring: a month after the subway performance, they played a song titled “Death to Prison, Freedom to Protest” beside a Russian prison.  Thanks to social media, viral videos, and the modern twenty-four-hour news cycle, these shows were transmitted worldwide, and Pussy Riot’s story has been irrepressible.  While the Plastics had to rely on petitions and word-of-mouth, Pussy Riot’s story has blown up everywhere: Madonna sported “Free Pussy Riot” on her bare back to show solidarity in concerts, the band’s neon balaclavas inspired a new grunge fashion trend, and a documentary about the band’s experience was short listed for a 2014 Academy Award.

A screening of that same documentary at Moscow’s Gogol Center—a daring, but city-funded, venue led by Kirill Serebrennikov that has received its share of government ire—in December 2013, however, was cancelled by the Russian government at the last minute.  Moscow’s Department of Culture argued in a letter, which was subsequently leaked by Serebrennikov online, that the role of art “is to save the world, make it better, not to inflame the public with scandalous stories that have no cultural merit.”2 In so doing, they arguably fanned the flame, bringing Pussy Riot’s story to greater prominence through attempting to suppress it.  But they also impressed upon the world that these fights aren’t finished: Rock ’n’ Roll isn’t a period piece, and having it play in Russia at all is, in itself, a radical act.

In totalitarian regimes worldwide, and particularly in the former Soviet Union, art has, and will continue to, save the world through offering its performers and its followers an outlet for self-expression against all odds.  In a country where the current Ukrainian violence looms large—and where Putin sets off fireworks from the Kremlin to celebrate the annexation of Crimea, thumbing his nose at foreigners—this type of self-expression is more vital than ever.  “I call on all people for whom the concepts of honesty and freedom are alive, for whom the worth and right of an artist to create and speak freely are important, to rally round and oppose the coming gloom—in word, in action, in art, whatever you can do,” wrote Serebrennikov in response to the cancelled Pussy Riot screening, and it is with bands like Pussy Riot, performances like Rock ’n’ Roll, and venues like the Gogol Center that this type of expression will persevere and succeed.

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Julia Bumke is currently in residence at Russia’s Moscow Art Theatre, as part of a master’s in Dramaturgy at Harvard’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training.  Her article Rock ’n’ Revolution: How the Prague Spring’s Cultural Liberalism Transformed Czech Human Rights appeared in The Yale Historical Review.

  1. “Kirill Serebrennikov on the Banning of “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer’ (Facebook),” trans. Sarah Hurst, Rights in Russia; 30 December 2013, http://www.rightsinrussia.info/russian-media/Facebook. []
  2. “Head of Moscow Department of Culture to Kirill Serebrennikov,” trans. Sarah Hurst, Rights in Russia: http://www.rightsinrussia.info/russian-media/lettertoserebrennikov []

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