When is a protest not a protest? In Russia, when it’s a performance art parody of a protest. But that still didn’t stop the Russian government from overreacting.
Authoritarian governments, generally speaking, have a problem with art. Oh, they’ll use severe iconography to their advantage, but art out in the wild is raw and potentially (politically) dangerous. Authoritarian governments, generally speaking, also have a problem with protests. Protests can become movements can become revolutions. So, if you’re doing a performance art piece that looks like a protest, you have to be doubly cautious.
The monstration is not a protest, but it is supposed to look like one. Remove the “de” from a demonstration, and you’re left with a monstration. Gather together in public, march down the street, and wave signs. Except those signs are purposefully absurdist. The black and white sign in the picture above announces “Еноты тоже люди!” (in English, “raccoons are people too!”). Other signs seen at monstrations: “Death Star for rent,” “we did not watch 50 Shades,” and “for the rights of butterflies in the stomach!”
This is a beautiful piece of performance art. It bears all the hallmarks of political agitation, which makes any authoritarian very jumpy. But it’s not saying anything political. Unless you count raccoon politics. Arrest a monstrator, and you’ll have to justify exactly why their absurdity was a threat, and that makes the authorities look absurd.
The monstrations came to global attention in 2014, after the Russian annexation of Crimea. Officially, the Russian Federation was supporting a Ukrainian independence movement in the area. In reality, Russia invaded the Crimea with masked troops and took over.
In August of 2014, BBC Russia interviewed Artyom Loskutov, a performance artist and veteran of annual monstrations in Novosibirsk. Loskutov had something to say about the hypocrisy of the government position, supporting independence movements abroad but ruthlessly crushing them at home. He suggested that Siberia should march for independence.
Now, this was on the face of it an absurd proposition. Siberia had not had an independence movement in nearly a hundred years. But it just wasn’t absurd enough. The Russian government threatened to block BBC World Service’s Russian branch, sent warnings to other media outlets, and generally had a very public political freak-out.
“It’s using the rhetoric that our government and their propaganda use,” Loskutov said. “They decided to tell us how great it is when some republic moves for self-determination. Okay, well let’s apply this to other regions. Can Siberia allow itself this same rhetoric? It turns out it can’t.”Russia bans Siberia independence march
This overreaction, of course, proved Loskutov’s point extremely well.