August 21, 2015

This collection about Russia, which was smuggled into Estonia, describes absurdity

I was involved in one of the events in the history of this collection. The book was published in Tartu because the compilers could not find a willing publisher in Russia in 2014. The Estonian Literary Museum came to the rescue; and we were sitting at a bar in Tartu one November night, waiting for a phone call. In fact, the compilers drove to Tartu, hid a number of copies of the book between children’s things in their car and then smuggled them into Russia. Once they had crossed the border, they called us. I began to draw parallels between this and the stories I had read as a child about heroic Bolsheviks who similarly smuggled forbidden literature into Russia.

At any other time, this collection would have been nothing more than an interesting analytical document about the spontaneous protests that emerged in various Russian towns in 2011 under the slogan “fight for fair elections!”, and continued well into the following year in the light of events. As mentioned in the foreword, the purpose of the book is “to demonstrate which social, folkloric and linguistic phenomena caused these events … [and] which cultural mechanisms [were] topical during the meetings”. The authors—more precisely the 25 of them—primarily focus on the wording of the banners, the demographics of the protests, and their social dynamics.
During these protests, a phenomenon now called “monstration” fully developed in Russia—it is a carnival-like performance art event with absurd slogans and costumes. As the protests evolved, banners with real political messages—such as demands for reform or the resignation of the president or prime minister—were increasingly replaced with absurd slogans. Now, people came along with fun slogans such as “I’m looking for a wife”, “We dress a lot warmer now” or “Merry Go Round”.
The early chapters of the book analyse the demography of the demonstrations. It is said that, as time passed, the anti-government protests involved an ever-wider demographic. While male students made up most of the participants in the first major demonstrations, within a week, many women had joined them. The average age of the demonstrators also changed, as more elderly and young people began to take part.
People interested in Russia’s modern protest culture should be even more fascinated by the (hidden) political content of the demonstrations. Maria Ahmetova dedicates an entire chapter to the word banderologi, which in English (“banderlog”) was originally coined by Rudyard Kipling for the tribe of apes in Mowgli, but is now used to denote any chattering group. Putin used the word to describe the protesters on a TV show. The protesters seized the opportunity, and brought cartoon-themed posters and costumes to subsequent demonstrations. The fun images also feature a snake as part of the protests’ attributes. Mihhail Matlin, meanwhile, writes about the use of the word prezik (a slang term for a preservative, as well as the president). Penguins, hamsters and other animals are also mentioned. One entire chapter talks about the official state media’s response to the politically absurd.
This collection is not intended only for a small clique. A “monstration” was dispersed using water cannon in Novosibirsk this spring. This book is certainly helpful for gaining some insight into the playful dynamics of the anti-government movement and for understanding the origins of the inspiration for the visualisation of resistance. It is available at the Estonian Literary Museum.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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