Pussy Riot's Perky Antithesis

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MOSCOW -- If the punk band Pussy Riot has become the poster child for Russian dissent in the era of Vladimir V. Putin, then Svetlana Kuritsyna is the very antithesis: a disarmingly direct, red-cheeked, 20-year-old Putin supporter from an impoverished rural region.

Pussy Riot -- three of whose members were sentenced to prison for singing an anti-Putin song in a cathedral -- became synonymous with outlandish behavior. Ms. Kuritsyna has stood out for her very normality and has become an accidental celebrity after an innocent, and somewhat inarticulate, video interview in which she glowingly praised Mr. Putin. It quickly became an Internet meme, drawing more than two million views on YouTube and leading to the ultimate prize of the modern media age: her own reality show.

But she and Pussy Riot have one thing in common, and that is an uncanny knack for dividing Russian passions. Since Ms. Kuritsyna stumbled into the limelight, media and protest circles alike have debated both the social significance of "Sveta," and the plight of a naïve young woman thrown into a media and political circus.

She has been both mercilessly mocked for her earnestness, and held up as a provincial ideal. To some she is a stand-in for all that is wrong with Russia's ill-guided and uninformed hinterland; to others, a symbol of what they see as the wrong-headed, belittling treatment of Russian women.

It all started with a journalist for Moskovskie Novosti, a Moscow newspaper, who was reporting on Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth movement, and interviewed Ms. Kuritsyna after one of its demonstrations last December.

Her face framed by a white fake fur collar that made her look like a Russian doll, Ms. Kuritsyna said Mr. Putin's United Russia party "has made very many achievements," adding, ungrammatically in Russian: "We have started to dress more better."

In the Putin era, she said, "We have begun to sow more land -- vegetables, rye and all that." "Medicine has gotten very good," she added, and, clearly grasping for more good news, volunteered that "there are no problems with housing."

Played over and over again on the Internet, her poor Russian and her praise of the Putin era was instantly derided by liberal Russian Web commentators and the opposition that formed last winter in protest at the manipulation of parliamentary elections in favor of Mr. Putin's political allies.

But they launched her star. Ms. Kuritsyna became known simply as "Sveta from Ivanovo," a region some 250 kilometers, or 155 miles, east of Moscow that was famous in the Soviet era as the "city of brides" because of the disproportionate number of women working in its main industry, textile production.

Then, the tables turned somewhat, with Ms. Kuritsyna being championed by some intellectuals and most feminists who came to her defense.

Eventually she was rewarded for her simple loyalty to Mr. Putin with the starring role in the TV show "Luch Sveta" -- the title is a play on words with her name that means "Ray of Light" -- which premiered in late July on NTV, a television channel run by Gazprom, the state-controlled gas monopoly, and often criticized by liberals as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin and a purveyor of trash programming for the masses.

NTV made no secret of exploiting Ms. Kuritsyna's provincial roots. The show's logo depicts her as a perky village milkmaid; several episodes have focused on her ample figure and advice on exploiting it from stars of Russia's kitsch-laden pop and personality scenes.

In the first episode, Ms. Kuritsyna shrieked with delight at meeting Na-Na, a 1990s boy band whose lead members are now in their 40s. She listened intently as Bari Alibasov, the band's 65-year-old producer, ogled her body and intoned, "You have very vivid, expressive tits," adding: "In order to get ahead, you need to exploit them to the utmost."

Further episodes featured men old enough to be her grandfather commenting on her most "vivid" feature. Sergey Zverev, a prominent celebrity stylist, ordered her to jump in front of him to check the bounce of her breasts and dyed her hair blonde as part of a makeover. Pyotr Listerman, known as matchmaker to the oligarchs, tried to help her find a billionaire husband -- regarded as the ultimate dream of every girl from the impoverished provinces.

Wittingly or not, the program shed unusual public light on the plight of those regions when it showed Ms. Kuritsyna visiting her hometown of Privolzhsk, just outside Ivanovo. Her mother works as a spinning machine operator; she and others interviewed complained that their wages -- at the equivalent of $100 to $200 a month -- had long gone unpaid.

The journalist Oleg Kashin, who has gone from Kremlin apologist to a media symbol of the anti-Putin opposition after being brutally beaten by unknown assailants in 2010, condemned Ms. Kuritsyna as a cynical provincial careerist.

But Andrei Loshak, a television and magazine journalist who has criticized Mr. Putin's rule and authored hard-hitting reports about hopelessness in provincial Russia, called for sympathy.

"I remember very well the eyes of girls in small towns that we would visit with our film crew," Mr. Loshak wrote on Colta.ru, an opposition Web site. "You ask her the time or for directions. She answers something. But in her eyes you can read the plea. 'Get me out of here, take me beyond the seas. Anywhere, just as far as possible from this hopelessness."'

Some of his male colleagues, Mr. Loshak noted, exploited that despair, taking trips across Russia to combine "business with pleasure." "It's hard to accuse the girls they seduced of being sluts, or greedy," he added. "The girls are just victims of crappy circumstances."

Vera Akulova, a feminist, sees the treatment of Ms. Kuritsyna as typical.

"There is sexist commentary against any woman who becomes a notable figure in the public sphere in Russia," she said. "In the Pussy Riot trial, the physical appearance of the defendants was also discussed. Public support and attention is given to each of them based strictly on the extent to which each of them corresponds to the prevailing standard of beauty."

After gaining top viewer ratings over the slow summer period, "Luch Sveta" has since moved to a late-night slot and the segments have become even tackier. In October, Ms. Kuritsyna was seen filming a music video with a sex-film star.

Some opposition activists have held out hope that Ms. Kuritsyna's experience in Moscow and in the national spotlight will bring her into their camp. Perhaps in the first step in that direction, NTV announced in September that it was trying out Ms. Kuritsyna as its parliamentary correspondent.

In her first foray to the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, Ms. Kuritsyna took offense at opposition politician Gennady Gudkov, who was being stripped of his parliamentary seat that day by the United Russia party, for insulting her in a speech. But she accepted his apparently heartfelt apology after confronting him in a corridor.

The episode opened with her throwing a pie into the face of Yevgeny Gladin, the Moskovskie Novosti reporter who first made her famous, saying he had made her a laughingstock. Mr. Gladin walked off the show's set with the words: "Sveta, good job! You'll go far."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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