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Prison For Pushkin: Russians Turn To The Classics To Condemn A Modern Crackdown

Popular rapper Oxxxymiron takes part in Get Jailed For A Text, an event he organized in support of Russians sentenced to prison in the wake of protests that swept the capital this summer.
Popular rapper Oxxxymiron takes part in Get Jailed For A Text, an event he organized in support of Russians sentenced to prison in the wake of protests that swept the capital this summer.

MOSCOW -- It was a very Russian form of protest.

Dozens gathered in a Moscow venue, and thousands before smartphone and laptop screens, to hear prominent actors, musicians, and other cultural figures read parts of literary classics from Russian and foreign authors and historical thinkers.

Across from them sat a woman obscured in darkness, pronouncing indictments against the readers and punishing them with fines and jail sentences for insurrectionary speech.

As the pretend convictions rolled in, accompanied by eerie music played by an orchestra flanking the stage, it slowly transformed from a brightly lit bedroom into a dark, barren prison cell.

Far from a celebration of Russia's rich cultural heritage, the performance on September 19 -- titled Get Jailed For A Text and organized by popular rapper Oxxxymiron -- was the latest in a series of public events held amid a groundswell of support for Russians sentenced to prison in the wake of protests that swept the capital this summer.

The criminal trials, attended by hundreds of friends, colleagues, journalists, and rights activists, form part of what is now known as the Moscow Case - the latest campaign of alleged repression against an opposition movement neutered with the help of Russia's courts.

In the title of the performance, the word "text" meant not a text message as in an SMS -- something Russians have also been jailed for in recent years -- but the literary kind.

"Russia was doomed by an inert, opportunistic government which flew in the face of people's wishes, hopes and needs," went an extract that one actor read from Ivan Bunin's 1918 book Cursed Days. "Revolution was thus inevitable."

Four years in prison under Article 280 of Russia's Criminal Code, the "judge" declared: public calls for extremism.

"So great are the disorder, brutality, arbitrariness, and corruption of the Russian court and the Russian police," read another, from Aleksandr Herzen's 1856 memoir My Past And Thoughts, "that a simple man brought to trial fears not the punishment of the court but the trial itself."

Five years in prison under article 282: inciting hatred and enmity, and debasing human dignity.

Others received four-year prison terms for reciting Ode To Freedom by Russia's national bard Aleksandr Pushkin; for Gandhi's Non-Violence In Peace And War, a text written after World War II; or for lines from Letter To Botkin by Vissarion Belinsky.

All of the charges came from Russia's current Criminal Code. They included extremism, propaganda of terrorism, attempts to overthrow the constitutional order, and inciting violence against a social group.

Art Imitates Life

While all the cases were invented for artistic purposes, some of the convictions -- as well as the performance itself -- made art appear to imitate life.

The 79 performers involved in the show sat behind a wooden desk in a simple bedroom. On the wall behind them hung the 18th-century Gadsden Flag, which depicts a coiled snake and the words "Don't Tread On Me" and is today a symbol for many libertarians. It is the flag which hung in the bedroom of Russian student Yegor Zhukov, visible in the videos he posted to his popular YouTube channel until his arrest on August 1 on charges of inciting mass unrest.

In fact, the entire on-stage bedroom was a copy of the room to which Zhukov returned a month later, this time under house arrest. Minutes into the September 19 show, which was streamed live on YouTube, balaclava-clad men enter and remove the flag from the wall, perhaps evoking scenes from the raid that Zhukov's apartment was subjected to during his arrest.

Zhukov's trial elicited a public campaign in his support and mobilized part of Moscow's student body to gather signatures calling for his release. But it was the conviction this week of 23-year-old actor Pavel Ustinov, who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for dislocating the shoulder of a police officer despite video evidence to the contrary, that appears to have most directly inspired the performance.

In a reversal by Russian authorities, a court released Ustinov from jail on September 20 pending a ruling on an expected appeal of his conviction. He and Zhukov were among the many defendants whom Oxxxymiron cited as he came back on stage after the marathon reading session to issue an appeal to the audience and those watching online on computers and phones.

Russian rapper Oxxxymiron (file photo)
Russian rapper Oxxxymiron (file photo)

"The law cannot be applied selectively. Neither can solidarity," he said. Citing Ustinov's case, which elicited outrage beyond the world of Russian theater, he continued: "Other, less public defendants in the Moscow Case have already been given terms. And before the uproar over Ustinov had begun, almost no one had paid attention."

Oxxxymiron ended by calling on people to take to social media to share literary texts that might be judged seditious under what he called the "absurd" laws of today. Many have done so.

"The Moscow Case is truly our common case, and how we live in the years to come depends on its outcome," the rapper said.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.