Pussy Riot Rockers Challenged Putin and Changed the World

Last week, Russia sentenced three of the young women in the band Pussy Riot to two years in prison camp for “hooliganism.” The punk collective’s crime was a performance in an orthodox cathedral: 40 seconds of balaclava covered heads, fist pumps, high kicks, and shouted lyrics, “Virgin, drive away Putin! … Become a feminist!” Pussy Riot called upon the legacy of riot grrrl, an American feminist punk protest movement, to challenge the Russian government, and in doing so, they appealed to a much broader audience than just Russians. Pussy Riot's actions were well-planned and well-executed, making them a true threat to Putin. 

The trial Pussy Riot received was farcical at best. The judge dismissed any question involving art or freedom of expression in the court, and the women were convicted of charges of religious hatred, despite their obvious political intentions. While many in Russia are offended by Pussy Riot’s sacrilegious choice of venue, much of the world has responded to Russia’s complete disregard of free expression with outrage and mocking cries of “Putin is afraid of girls!”

But with all the condemnation Putin is facing, maybe he has reason to fear Pussy Riot. The perpetrators themselves seem to think so, because throughout their harsh sentencing and mock trial, the so-called “girls” of Pussy Riot were smiling.

“Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated ....The world sees Russia differently than the way Putin tries to present it,” said Yekaterina Samutsevich.

Those of us who support these activists do them a disservice when we act as if they are three naive girls who wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time. These are women with an agenda to push, who picked a fight with Putin and succeeded in getting the world’s attention.   Pussy Riot called upon the legacy of riot grrrl, an American feminist punk protest movement, to challenge the Russian government, and in doing so, they appealed to a much broader audience than just Russians. Pussy Riot's actions were well-planned and well-executed, making them a true threat to Putin.

The Russian government is not afraid of the opinions of a few “girls";  it is afraid of public discussion of opposing ideas. The government is now overreacting to what it could not stop: Pussy Riot’s church performance has opened a space for discussion that did not exist before, and the whole world is talking.

Pussy Riot owes its success to using music to relay their message. As members of the street activist group Voina, the women tried many other tactics with much less success.

Voina has political goals that veer past democracy into anarchy. They are well known in Russia for staging shocking performance art. One of the more notorious was a “theater piece” in which a group of people had sex in a natural history museum in Moscow to demonstrate how the government is screwing its people. (There is much documentation of naked and heavily pregnant member of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, having sex with her husband during this protest).

To most of the world, this performance art was far more offensive than high kicks in a church, yet it was the musical protest that elicited both the wrath of the government and a global response.

Live performances are notoriously difficult to censor, which is what makes theater and music such effective tools for speaking out against an oppressive regime. It also gives participants some wiggle room if they are pressured by the government — a curtain of aesthetics and taste to hide behind. (The label “performance art” is certainly more positive than “orgy” or “obscenity.") Voina routinely uses art tactics in their activism. But Pussy Riot used music instead of performance art, which garnered them more attention than Voina.

Music, more than any form of visual art, has the ability to create a united culture among its participants. It is Pussy Riot’s affinity with riot grrrl music that created such an impact.

Musical genres are able to create a collective identity that political groups must envy.  What political party is able to match the cultural unity of Skinheads, or Deadheads, or Goths?

A musical genre is unique in that it is open to a wide variety of interpretation, yet specific enough in aesthetics and values to unite a community. Music has the potential to reach a larger audience than, say, an anarchist theater piece might, because we don’t have to agree with such a specific form of expression or a defined political statement in order to support the overarching ideas behind it.  Music allows its audience to pick and choose the values they like

Pussy Riot has modeled themselves after the riot grrrl movement, which shares a history of aesthetics and values as strong as any genre. Riot grrrl music rose up in the early '90s in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., in reaction to the male-dominated punk music scene. It was intent on empowering women to carve out a space for themselves, where they could create and live without hesitation or fear.

Riot grrrls did so by transgressing the boundaries of what was considered “acceptable” for women to do. They lent a voice to issues that concerned women, like sexual assault or social expectation, and had a huge impact on the accepted role of women in the world beyond their punk rock scene

By aligning themselves with this genre, Pussy Riot is able to communicate that they too feel strongly about the values that the riot grrrl movement espoused. Had they connected themselves to folk singers, they might be perceived as looking for a peaceful or private existence within Russia. But with the weight of the riot grrrl movement behind it, their performance was much more politically aggressive.

Just an image of Pussy Riot, throwing themselves around the stage in their brightly colored dresses and tights, faces covered in balaclavas, communicates to the world that they are feminists, they believe in shock value, they are anti-establishment, and they are pro-individual empowerment. If you know about riot grrrl, you don’t even need to hear the music itself to understand a good part of their message. In choosing the riot grrrl aesthetic, they said, “This is not just about me, this is about us.”

And people all over the world who identify with the riot grrrl scene were suddenly emotionally involved, even people who have no idea what is going on in Russia. Many of the most vocal supporters of Pussy Riot are former riot grrrls or inheritors of the movement. Kathleen Hanna is running protests here in New York, Tobi Vail published an early letter of support, and Peaches more recently released a music video called “Free Pussy Riot” with quite a few famous guests. 

The Pussy Riot performance was successful on a level that Voina has not been, because riot grrrl music helped them tap into a system of communication and support that they couldn’t have created alone. I myself am a perfect example —I am no expert in Russian politics, but the musician and feminist in me are completely disgusted with Putin, with his administration, with such a complicit court system, and with the media’s portrayal of Pussy Riot as sexy victims or naïve housewives.

So maybe Russia is not overreacting as much as it seems; maybe the threat is real. It is difficult for us to see how things like social networking, personal identity, and ideological opposition can could pose any danger when they are not currently issues that raise eyebrows here in the US; but that does not make them inconsequential fears in Russia.  Putin’s adversaries are women who have succeeded in creating a support network for themselves, in carving out a space for discussion of their politics in a society that tolerates no opposing views, and in getting the world’s attention and support.

Pussy Riot got what they wanted, and to be fair to them we should recognize that they got it through campaigning for their cause with strategy and courage. Putin is not cracking down on an unruly outburst from a few rude little girls; he is contending with effective activists who finally hit on the communicative power of music.

*** 

“I would like to note that our trial stands as a very eloquent confirmation of the fact that we need the support of thousands of individuals from all over the world in order to prove the obvious: that the three of us are not guilty. We are not guilty; the whole world says so.”

-Maria Alyokhina, closing statement

 The Guardian created a montage of Pussy Riot’s new single:


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Kate Peoples

Kate Peoples is a California transplant living in Brooklyn, where she is an active writer and musician. She has a degree in vocal performance and is interested in writing about new music and art and the people who make it.

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