Art history lecture investigates women’s rights, fashion in Russia

Assistant professor of art history and coordinator of the museum studies minor Alla Myzelev spoke about current Russia gender roles in the Berth V.B. Gallery on Wednesday Sept. 27. 

Myzelev’s lecture—part of the fall 2017 Art History Faculty Lecture Series—was aptly titled “When Balaklava Goes Orange: Pussy Riot and the Fashion of Protest.” It was a detailed study in masculinity and the conservative values of Russia, which intrigued the audience full of students and professors through its examination of modern fashion designs and Pussy Riot, a female protest punk rock group based in Moscow. 

Myzelev began her lecture with a discussion of Pussy Riot. She explained that the group is best known for busting into the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow to sing in protest of homophobia and sexism present in Orthodox Christianity, as well as the corrupt political linkage between church and state. 

Members of this group were arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for what was described by the Russian government as “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” and were assailed for bringing a “previously unspoken taboo” into focus and “[revealing] its existence.” Myzelev used this protest to pose her central question: what invisible cultural line had these women crossed during their performance?

Myzelev’s answer looked at the open distaste with which the left, right and center of the Russian political spectrum regarded the actions of Pussy Riot. Angry men on every side voiced their desires to “spank” the women and “strip them naked” or to “tar and feather” them—sexual threats that would reinstate the men’s control over these “wild” females.

Myzelev suggested that the hostility was rooted in a strong nostalgia for past values. Russian society, she claimed, wants traditional values to exist in the same way that they once did—women subordinate to men in every way and masculinity as an ideal defined by strength and power.

Myzelev highlighted Denis Simachev and Gosha Rubchinskiy, two male Russian fashion designers, as proof of the development of a softer type of masculinity in the modern age. Their designs for men effectively mix traditional Russian styles and values with newer, more Western styled clothing. 

This in and of itself is a type of protest against the rigid conception of masculinity held by conservative Russians. Even though less severe forms of masculinity exist, male dominance and traditional values do not relinquish their holds on Russian social thought.

Myzelev concluded her lecture with a discussion of the objectification and infantilization of Pussy Riot. She talked about Russian dismissal of the group’s political statements in order to keep the women in check, retaining old traditions in the name of nostalgia. In the end, it seems stable, conservative masculinity and traditional religious values were the forces that put Pussy Riot behind bars. 

The research for this lecture—and for the book Myzelev is writing—was funded by the Geneseo Presidential Fellowship, according to Myzelev.

Anyone and everyone is encouraged to attend the lectures in this series and around campus. 

“The more we get people from outside to actually talk to the professors about our research and respond to it, the better it is for developing the subject and publishing it,” Myzelev said. “I think [the lectures] are a great idea.” 

The next lecture in the fall 2017 Art History Faculty Lecture Series will be “Spray to Smoke: Frederick Law Olmsted in the Genesee Valley” by visting professor of art history Charles Burroughs on Nov. 15.u