May Day might not be as big of a celebration in 21st century Russia as it was in the Soviet Union, but it is still a day for demonstrations and marches. This May 1, along with photographs of political signs urging to Free Navalny! [ru] and accounts of arrests at political rallies [ru], RuNet was flooded with reports of a different kind. The photographs stand out from a sea of red (Communist) or blue (United Russia) flags — an odd slogan here, a carnival mask there. These are participants in “Monstration” (the word comes from “demonstration” with the “de-” removed, rather than “monster”), a quirky celebration of absurdity brought to you courtesy of Siberia.
This year was the tenth anniversary of Monstration. Founded in Novosibirsk by the artist Artyom Loskutov, and always held on May 1, it quickly caught on in other Russian cities, as well as the Ukraine. The idea is simple — a public art performance in the form of a political march, with absurd posters and costumes used by participants to express themselves. As one Omsk blogger described it in his report [ru] from the event:
Монстрация — это пародия на традиционную демонстрацию с абсурдными требованиями и плакатами, где каждый участник заявляет то, о чём хочет.
A Monstration is a parody of a traditional demonstration, with absurd demands and slogans, where every participant says what he wants.
Although it has been adopted by other cities, Monstration still remains a largely Siberian, and specifically Novosibirsk, endeavor. This year it took place in Omsk, Tyumen, Khabarovsk, and Novosibirsk (all Siberian cities), as well as Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterinburg, Yaroslavl, and five cities in the Ukraine and Moldova. Attendance is telling — this year Novosibirsk drew a crowd of over two thousand [ru] (as it has for the last four years), while Krasnoyarsk had around 40 participants [ru], and Omsk does not look to have broken [ru] the several dozen barrier. Even Moscow's rally in 2011 only had 200 in attendance. Curiously, Yekaterinburg's first attempt at a Monstration this year was a major success — the citizen journalism portal Ridus reports [ru] that there were over 1000 marchers.
Monstration is all about funny slogans, and the slogans are funny. The one above reads “Россия без Агутина” (“Russia without Agutin”) referring to the cheesy 90′s era pop singer Leonid Agutin [ru], and plays on the fact that the name rhymes with Putin. Although this slogan could be construed as marginally political, most aren't — for example monstrators at the Krasnoyarsk event chanted “Хей, хей, хей, к нам едет Саша Грей” (“Hey, hey, hey, who's coming to town, Sasha Grey”), namechecking the famous retired porn-star who for some inexplicable reason is immensely popular in Russia. (The fascination with Grey's upcoming visit to Russia led the poet and journalist Ivan Davydov to joke on his blog [ru]:
Национальная идея начинает постепенно вырисовываться: всей страной влезть в желтую Ладу-Калину, и овладеть решительно Сашей Грей. Как Америкой, ненавидимой и вожделенной. Желательно – на фоне ковра.
A national idea is slowly emerging: the whole country wants to get into a yellow Lada-Kalina [ru], and to decisively “take” Sasha Grey. Like America, hated and coveted. Preferably with a wall carpet [ru] in the background.)
Other examples of slogans from this year included [ru]:
Вперёд в тёмное прошлое!
Forward into the dark past! [A play on the old "bright future" canard.]
Виктор Цой предупреждает — автобусы убивают!
Victor Tsoi warns — buses kill! [The famous rock star died when his car collided with a bus]
Хватит выкладывать еду в Инстаграм
Stop posting food in Instagram
Я живу с циничным сусликом
I live with a cynical gopher
Although it is technically not a “flashmob,” the Monstration phenomenon probably would not exist without the internet. The events in the various cities were organized through the monstration.ru [ru] blog, which posted the time and place of the meetups, as well as city-specific [ru] pages [ru] on the social network VKontakte [ru]. The pages also noted whether the event was coordinated with the respective city governments. The importance of the Internet also goes for the slogans and posters. There are several online repositories of past Monstration slogans — the biggest one [ru] lists them by year and city, presumably for those people too lazy to come up with their own. And sure enough, the “Russia without Agutin” slogan already appeared once in Novosibirsk, 2011.
Because Monstrations are consciously apolitical, attempts by political groups to hijack the movement are usually met with hostility. For example, after members of the opposition tried to associate themselves with Moscow's Monstration in 2012, Loskutov reportedly forswore any future Monstrations in Moscow. Of course, the fact that these events take place on a day that is consummately political, just adds to the absurdity, and makes for some ironic opinions [ru], like this gripe from one Monstration attendee:
Не понравилось, что коммунисты вышли с коммунистическими плакатами. Извините, что это, блядь, такое? [...] Зачем вы вечно лезете даже туда, где вам нет места?
I didn't like the fact that the communists came with communist posters. Sorry, but what the f*ck is that? [...] Why are you constantly trying to infiltrate even where there is no place for you?