The price of principles
Moscow promoter Alexander Cheparukhin dismisses media allegations and talks about what motivated international music stars to support Pussy Riot.
Published: September 19, 2012 (Issue # 1727)
SERGEY CHERNOV / SPT
Alexander Cheparukhin pictured at the recent concert in support of Pussy Riot in St. Petersburg.
Dozens of international music stars — from Madonna and Sting to Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney — expressed their support for the imprisoned women of feminist punk group Pussy Riot, who were sentenced to two years in prison for an anti-Putin performance in a Moscow church. Last week, Russian state television struck back by alleging that the artists were paid for their support.
Called “Provocateurs 2” as a follow-up to a show aired in April, the program — seemingly aimed to further demonize Pussy Riot and their supporters — contained an interview with American analyst William Dunkerley, who cited unnamed sources in British show business as saying that the London-based PR firm Bell Pottinger offered to pay up to 100,000 euros to artists for statements in support of Pussy Riot.
Aired on Rossiya 1 channel on Sept. 11, the program linked the alleged offer to Putin’s London-based arch-nemesis Boris Berezovsky, claiming that it was him as well as “certain U.S. citizens” who stood behind Pussy Riot’s performance.
“In fact, they didn’t say directly that the artists were paid,” said Alexander Cheparukhin, the Moscow promoter who did a lot to draw attention to the case and the support of international artists in the West.
“They said that some agency linked to Berezovsky ‘made an offer.’ Then they can say ‘So what, there are a lot of crazy people who could offer whatever they like.’ They deliberately talk rubbish to create some sort of information pollution that can confuse people who are used to trusting TV. Those people don’t follow in what format and what exactly is said. It isn’t a direct lie, it’s speculation. ‘There’s hearsay…’ They could end up saying that there’s hearsay that everybody is an agent of the global Jewish conspiracy.”
The program could certainly have left gullible television viewers with the impression that the musicians were paid for their support of Pussy Riot, though this was not stated overtly, but an article in Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper contained a more direct distortion of the facts. Published on Aug. 17, the day of the verdict, the article claimed that Peter Gabriel had criticized his fellow musicians as a “bunch of overpaid, uninformed musicians banging on about a part of the world they don’t really understand” and dismissed Pussy Riot as a ”punk group playing rude, subversive music in a cathedral — it has outrage, blasphemy and sacrilege all wrapped up in one fell swoop.” In reality, the Russian newspaper had cut out the first paragraph of Gabriel’s article from British newspaper The Times. In the rest of the article, the British musician mocked this pro-Kremlin view and explained why international support for Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich was important, describing the imprisoned women as “very brave young people willing to risk their freedom, along with all the accompanying threats to family, for a better, freer and more open Russia.”
“His article was very passionate, maybe the most passionate of all articles published on this subject; I even read some bits from it during the Pussy Riot support concert in St. Petersburg, and at more length at [Saturday’s March of Millions] rally in Moscow,” Cheparukhin said.
Cheparukhin, 54, is an eminent Russian music promoter and tour manager who won the WOMEX (World Music Expo) Professional Excellence Award for his efforts in promoting world music this year (he will receive it at the WOMEX awards ceremony in Thessaloniki, Greece next month).
“I am not a politician, I don’t plan to participate in political campaigns on a permanent basis, but there are certain instances when you simply can’t stand aside, when the degree of absurdity goes beyond the limit and you can’t fight the desire to do something,” Cheparukhin said.
“For the past five years I have promoted successful festivals in cooperation with the state, but I’ve always had a feeling of a poisoned background caused by the fact that it is this person who leads the country and he broadcasts definite ideas, definite values, definite attitudes to people and how everything should work. He produces a certain type of young people. Some people emerge as opposite to this image of power, but it’s clear that it influences many and creates standards of behavior that, in my view, are totally defective — the cult of strength and doublethink, which is more cynical than it was in the Soviet Union. You can’t remain silent when you feel that something dangerous to yourself or something screamingly unfair is going on,” Cheparukhin said.
“It was obvious that [the Pussy Riot trial] had nothing to do with the law, that it was an utterly lawless trial, that the religious hatred motivation was dropped in in a despicable manner, that everything was turned upside down when they claimed that [Pussy Riot’s] intention was to insult believers, when it was absolutely clear that all their movements and shouting were part of filming a video. It was an exclusively anti-Putin video, exposing the alliance of the authorities and the new quasi-state, ideological and somewhat punitive institution called the Russian Orthodox Church to provide sacred support for Putin to remain in power as long as he wishes. Sort of a carte blanche for autocracy.”
Cheparukhin said he had reservations about Pussy Riot’s church performance in the beginning, along with other opposition activists who expressed doubts about it.
“But at a certain point, that attitude started to annoy me,” he said.
“After I heard what the young women said in the courtroom, when I read several reports from this obviously unlawful trial, I felt a liking for the women that I didn’t have at the beginning.
“I was impressed by them as personalities, artists and fighters and I felt uncomfortable standing aside. I realized I had resources to help them that nobody else had. Promotion has never been business for me, I got involved in it because it was interesting, so I had an informal relationship with some artists. I’ve been friends with Gabriel for a long time, because I produced some artists such as [Tuvan folk band] Huun-Huur Tu or [Russian world music singer] Inna Zhelannaya that he liked. I had a resource of influence on the Western music community that I could use.”
In fact, Gabriel — who made video statements of support for Russian protesters in March and May, was the first international rock star to lend his public support for Pussy Riot soon after the women were arrested in Moscow.
“When I was in London in mid-May, I filmed him on my iPhone, and he talked about Occupy Abai, about the shutdown of the Bolotnaya Ploshchad rally and about Pussy Riot, and I thought that maybe I could stir other artists as well,” Cheparukhin said.
According to Cheparukhin, the first prominent gesture of support was made by Faith No More, but happened without his prior knowledge. During a concert in Moscow on July 2, the band — whose Russian tour Cheparukhin managed — offered the stage to the remaining members of Pussy Riot who made a statement in support of the imprisoned women and unfolded a banner that called for people to gather at the Tagansky Court on July 4, when the trial was due to open. He admitted that at first he was even slightly annoyed with the band for not telling him about their plans, but said when the news from the trial started to arrive, he realized how grossly absurd and unfair it was.
“I was overcome with passion and became much more active,” he said.
“I wrote a very good letter to Sting and made sure it was given to him, and it seems to me that it influenced him to make a statement. I stress “it seems;” I am sure in some cases such as with McCartney, Peter Gabriel, Johnny Rotten, Peter Hammill, Billy Bragg and others, but about some I can only suggest that it influenced a person, but don’t know it 100 percent.”
Sting dismissed the charges as “spurious” in a statement on Amnesty International’s website on July 25.
Cheparukhin said he asked Sting’s concert agent, who also works for Madonna, U2, The Rolling Stones and Public Image Ltd., to forward his letter to all those artists.
“Out of those artists, Madonna and Johnny Rotten spoke up for Pussy Riot, Madonna was very active, and her actions were most resonant, while Johnny Rotten dedicated an entire concert to them at the Rebellion punk festival in Blackpool [on Aug. 3],” Cheparukhin said.
“But Bono and Jagger didn’t react. For what reason I don’t know, but I know for sure that they received the letters. I spoke to their agent once again later, and he said that he had spoken to them both personally and they should not be pressed now but should be given time to consider it.”
He also appealed to Patti Smith, whom he has brought to Russia several times, and who eventually spoke at every concert of her recent tour in support of the women, starting from a concert in Oslo on Aug. 1 where she sported a T-shirt reading “Putin has pissed himself” (after a Pussy Riot song) and said:
“Their only crime is being young, arrogant and beautiful!”
Cheparukhin also appealed to McCartney, despite the fact that Putin had conducted a personal tour for the ex-Beatle around the Kremlin and that McCartney performed “Hey Jude” for his host during his 2003 visit to Moscow.
The promoter also ignored some British music industry professionals who tried to discourage him, saying that the musician was too “bourgeois” and would probably speak on behalf of seals or vegetarianism, but not Pussy Riot.
“It was the most overwhelming moment,” Cheparukhin said.
“Everybody — both famous musicians and managers — were telling me that it was impossible, unrealistic, ‘don’t even try.’ I wrote a letter to him and got a letter [to Pussy Riot] from him in an hour, I was simply stunned. First his manager wrote that the message had been forwarded but he probably wouldn’t read it because he was on vacation, but an hour passed and all of a sudden there was a letter.”
In his message and on his website, McCartney expressed his support for the imprisoned women on Aug. 18, the day after the verdict. “I hope you can stay strong and believe that I and many others like me who believe in free speech will do everything in our power to support you and the idea of artistic freedom,” he wrote.
Cheparukhin said that McCartney’s move was received with gratitude not only by Pussy Riot and their supporters but by the British music community too.
“What followed then was that I received several letters saying ‘Sasha, you have no idea what you’ve done; you’ve improved McCartney’s image for England,’” he said.
“’We didn’t even think he was capable of such things,’ ‘I am happy to have been wrong,’ ‘I am happy to have made a mistake,’ people wrote to me. He had somehow damaged his reputation over his divorce with Heather [Mills], and it had become the done thing among British musicians and their managers to speak about him almost contemptuously. I’m happy that I managed not only to wake him up, but also to improve the British attitude toward him.”
As a music professional, Cheparukhin dismissed widespread criticism of Pussy Riot’s songs as substandard, saying such judgments were “provincial.”
“When I posted a link to the song ‘Putin Lights the Bonfires (of the Revolution)’ released on the day of the verdict I posted a link to it on Facebook and wrote, rather insultingly, ‘Listen and envy, you stars of shit rock,’ and that post of mine was ‘liked’ by many outstanding classical and academic musicians and more advanced rock musicians,” he said.
“These guys have a high opinion of Pussy Riot as musicians and as contemporary artists, which can be evaluated by its result and public effect. And the effect is quite evident; they opened this abscess, it was surgery, they provided the lens that allowed people to see much more clearly what is happening in our society.
“Moreover, a lot of Western musicians like their music, too. For instance, Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand said he liked the music, that it’s high-energy and passionate. Honestly, [music journalist and activist] Artyom Troitsky and me agree on one thing. On the day of the verdict I got the record that was given away outside the court and listened to it about 20 times in a row.
“Later I spoke to Troitsky, who was on a lecture tour in the U.S. that day, and he told me that he had downloaded the song and also listened to it 20 times!”
Cheparukhin said he liked the “rage, desperation, challenge and crossing every border” in Pussy Riot’s songs.
“Everything that was tongue-and-cheek and understated in the protest movement’s slogans was fully stated and expressed openly in these performances by Pussy Riot,” he said.
“Not only in the church performances, but also in the Red Square performance and this song that was recorded by the other women from the group and that was scheduled to be released on the day of the verdict. In the reaction of some Russian musicians, who are doomed to remain provincial and never to become part of international culture, one can see envy, jealousy and fear.
“That’s the main difference between Russian musicians and Western ones. Because for Western artists, Pussy Riot are fellow musicians, even if they don’t play the guitar like Jimmy Page.”
Judging by the pro-Kremlin media, the support for Pussy Riot by international artists was noticed by the Russian authorities — and annoyed them.
“I never thought about what effect it would have, it can’t be excluded that it would anger them,” Cheparukhin said.
“But I understood that it was what the women themselves were asking for. They asked for such letters to be sent to them. In the end, even moral support for people who have been thrown in prison illegally is a result. And it was important for Russians to see how progressive Western artists view the issue.”