Celebrating the great patriotic struggle ... to create twerk videos

It certainly wasn’t an incendiary Pussy Riot-style political stunt, though it did involve six young women dancing in a short YouTube video. And it’s also led to time behind bars for three of them.

Like Pussy Riot, the Novorossiysk “twerk three” were charged with “hooliganism”, though in this case the civil offence of “petty hooliganism” leading to so-called “administrative detention”. Margarita Radetskaya (the lead dancer in the video) has received 15 days’ detention, Yana Kutakova and Yekaterina Scherbedinskaya ten days. But for what? Prosecutors apparently argued their twerk video was disrespectful to the memory of those who fought in the Second World War (Russia’s Great Patriotic War, Великая Отечественная война) because it was filmed in front of the local war memorial.

Hmm. Like the Pussy Riot church video maybe not to everyone's taste, but a jailable offence?

Two things seem to be going on here. One is a mini moral panic over twerking in Russia: first the Orenburg dance school video (“Winnie Pooh and the Bees”), now the Novorossiysk twerkers. The other element is the intense politicisation in Russia of the 70th anniversary of the end of WW2, with the authorities attempting to maximise the milestone’s propaganda value at every turn.

No-one with even a passing acquaintance with World War Two history would want to deny that millions of people in the Soviet Union went through absolute hell. An unbelievable 24 million Soviets died in the war, 14% of the entire population. The suffering of people during the siege of Leningrad or in fighting the Nazis on the “Eastern Front” has become legendary. And yes, the majority of people in Russia do tend to believe that their nation’s wartime struggles were exceptional - that they sacrificed themselves to defeat Nazism. But why would a one-and-half-minute dance video challenge or upset any of that?

Is this about trying to control history? At a time of war in Ukraine and growing international ostracism (only China of the world’s major powers is attending Moscow’s 9 May WW2 anniversary celebration), Putin’s government has been playing the war-patriotism card over and over. It doesn’t want that mocked or seriously questioned.

The political exploitation of the Soviet Army’s heroism and the Motherland’s sacrifices obviously itself has a long history. Just the nature of the political exploitation has varied. So, dipping into David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb, I see that Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1985 speech to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism celebrated “the gigantic work at the front and in the rear ... led by the Party, its General Committee, and the State Defence Committee headed by the General Secretary ... Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin.” Hmm. I doubt we will hear much about the tyrannical side of Stalin or the crimes of the Soviet Communist Party during next month’s WW2 extravaganza in Moscow (or will we?).

OK, I must admit, I tend to be ill-disposed to pretty much all nationally-organised celebrations, never mind ones focused on wars. In any case, I’m pretty sure that neither Gorbachev or Putin will breathe a word about the disgusting crimes of the NKVD during the war (see Gustav Herling or Vasily Grossman on this), and nor will they mention the mass rapes carried out by the Soviet Army in Berlin in 1945. Curbing the Novorossiysk twerkers is sending out a signal. Don’t disrespect the occasion, the 70th, or the present government’s own great patriotic efforts.

But there’s so-called disrespect to the memory of those who fought in the war (can you actually be disrespectful to a memory?), and then there’s the far deeper disrespect involved in rewriting and re-shaping a national history for political ends as Soviet and post-Soviet leaders have done. The Black Sea port city of Novorossiysk was one of the USSR’s so-called “Hero” cities, so honoured because of the exceptional bravery of its Soviet sailors who in 1943 prevented the Germans using the port as a supply route.

The Novorossiysk twerkers may or may not have known this, but in either case their video has clearly been seen as an almost sacrilegious stunt. Meanwhile, reporting of the Orenburg school video has suggested that some of the outrage has centred on the fact that the dancers wore orange and black, the Ribbon of St George colours traditionally associated with military valour in Russia and currently being worn by pro-Russian militia in Ukraine. It’s virtually taboo in Russia to muck around with this imagery, even though these schoolchildren very likely chose the colours because … well, they were supposed to be bees. (It’s not just in Russia of course. Scratch the surface and I reckon you can find this mix of patriotism and taboo in numerous countries. Wasn’t that what was going on with the reporting of Charlie Gilmour’s Cenotaph flag-swinging incident, and with the outraged commentary - not to mention the 30-day prison sentence - over the “punk Winston” statue affair in 2000?).

As it happens I don’t even like twerk dancing. It’s too much like some of the less attractive Jamaican dancehall moves and the lubricious - and often sexist - gangsta rap stuff. (And it’s also pretty boring now as well. Come on everyone, as with gangnam style, let’s move on …). It evidently derives from West Africa - by way of the New Orleans “Bounce ”scene - but has been overtly sexualised (commodified?) in the process. (It’s all about cash-money, y’all).

Nevertheless, just as with Pussy Riot (whose “music” I thought utterly nondescript), I totally deplore the Russian authorities’ heavy-handed and clearly politicised response to these twerk videos. The hardline St Petersburg politician Vitaly Milonov has gloatingly praised the Novorossiysk jailings, saying “next time, excuse me, some brainless she-goat will think twice”. Maybe he was thinking of scapegoats when he said that. Because that seems to be what they are. More political victims of Russia’s increasing authoritarianism.

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