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A Year Of Cultural Warfare, From Pussy Riot To 'Mizulina's List'


Pussy Riot (left) and Ksenia Sobchak (combo photo)

Pussy Riot (left) and Ksenia Sobchak (combo photo)

As far as signs of the times or cultural markers of an age go, the spectacle of Ksenia Sobchak being interviewed by Yulia Taratuta on the Dozhd-TV on August 8 was pure gold.

I'd heard about it. Read about it. Seen tweets about it. But nothing prepared me for actually watching it, which I finally got around to doing this week.

Over the course of a nine-minute interview ostensibly about current affairs -- and specifically about State Duma Deputy Yelena Mizulina's slander case against Sobchak and others -- the phrase "oral sex" was used no less than 22 times. In case you're wondering, that's about once every 25 seconds.

These were questions like this gem from Taratuta: "So how long did you and the investigators discuss oral sex?" Sobchak's answer: "My interrogation lasted about an hour and 40 minutes and about one hour was devoted to the topic of oral sex."

There was this zinger from Sobchak: "I am ready to say to Yelena Mizulina that if you are, in fact, in favor of oral sex and I'm in favor of it, too, then let's all be in favor of it so there will be something to unite everybody, including those who sit in the State Duma."

And this classic: "Frankly, my husband and I just had our first night together since my interrogation and we are thinking of filing our own countersuit against Mizulina for ruining our private life. The phrase 'oral sex' is now so firmly associated in our minds with Mizulina now that we no longer feel like having it anymore."

WATCH: Ksenia Sobchak interviewed on Dozhd-TV (in Russian)


Oy vey! What will we tell the children? But this is what Russia's public discourse has come to.

Mizulina, of course, is the primary author of the so-called "gay-propaganda" law, passed by the Duma and signed by President Vladimir Putin, that prohibits the promotion of "nontraditional sexual relations" to minors.

The controversial lawmaker's crusade for what she considers "traditional values" has led Sobchak and others to wonder -- in the media, on blogs, and on Twitter -- whether she is bent on banning oral sex in Russia.

Mizulina, in turn, has since called on prosecutors to open a criminal slander suit against Sobchak and several others -- including former Deputy Prime Minister Alfred Kokh -- for making the suggestion. Sobchak has dubbed those facing the charges "Mizulina's List."

Thus, the bizarre interrogation Sobchak described in her X-rated -- and highly entertaining -- interview on Dozhd-TV.

It's fitting that this whole wacky, absurd, hilarious -- but at the same time, disturbing -- kerfuffle over "Mizulina's List" comes just as we approach the one-year anniversary of the Pussy Riot verdict on August 17.

When members of the feminist punk-rock collective were tried, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison for performing a two-minute "punk prayer" in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, it kicked off a Kremlin-sponsored cultural war that rages to this day -- and has culminated in the pornographic public discourse we are now witnessing.

Rattled by the protest movement and the loss of support among the urban middle class, Team Putin decided to turn to the most conservative elements in society -- traditional Orthodox Christians, the working and rural classes -- to shore up its base. In doing so, the Kremlin appealed to their deepest cultural anxieties and prejudices.

And Pussy Riot -- which, in the regime's eyes, epitomized the spoiled and ungrateful rich kids in the capital who fueled the protest movement -- gave the Kremlin a perfect foil and a perfect opportunity to change the conversation.

In the wake of the Pussy Riot trial came the so-called "blasphemy law" making it a crime to insult someone's religious (read Orthodox) sensibilities, the "gay-propaganda" law allegedly protecting minors from corrupting influences, and a wave of often violent homophobia.

In the year since the verdict, Putin -- with the help of surrogates like Mizulina -- has been able to argue that he stands for the salt-of-the-earth Russian heartland and their "traditional values" against all those touchy-feely cosmopolitan urban sissies and their feminist and gay-loving ways.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Putin is hardly the first -- and won't be the last -- embattled leader to deploy such tactics.

Was it successful? It did alter the national conversation to a degree. And as a wedge issue, the regime's gay baiting worked to unite the Kremlin's conservative supporters and divide the opposition, most of which is still clearly uncomfortable championing LGBT rights.

But as political commentator Masha Lipman wrote recently in "The New Yorker" magazine, the apparent social conservatism of the Russian heartland is a complex beast.

"The country may appear to be fairly conservative, if one looks at its widespread homophobia or public condemnation of irreverence toward Russian Orthodox Church. Yet when it comes to other social habits, such as divorce, abortion, or birth rate, the picture is very different...

"Premarital sex and single motherhood are fairly common...And while a large majority of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, the proportion of those attending services or observing religious rituals in Russia is not dissimilar from many European countries."

The Kremlin has been playing with symbols, albeit ones with potent cultural and emotional punch. Team Putin has managed to shore up its hard-core support, drive a wedge through society, and buy itself some time.

But such tactics tend to have diminishing returns over time. When you scratch the surface, those once potent symbols are often exposed as empty vessels.

Like, for example, when somebody like Ksenia Sobchak comes along and points out in graphic detail what banning the propagation of "nontraditional sexual relations" might actually entail.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical podcast on August 16 for a discussion of the one-year anniversary of the Pussy Riot verdict -- and the cultural warfare that followed it.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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