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Putin vs. Pussy Riot: Art, Repression and Punk Rock Rebellion


On March 4th, a post-Stalinist, “free and democratic Russia” went to the polls. Four days later was International Women’s Day, a holiday of special significance in Russia, where on that day almost a century ago, striking women textile workers ignited the February Revolution that toppled the Czar.

 

How did Vladimir Putin celebrate this symbolic mash-up of democracy and women’s liberation? By rigging an election and locking up a group of punk rock feminists who dared to oppose him. The former is nothing new for Putin. But the latter have, in their own words, made him piss himself. They’re a gang of anonymous trouble-makers known as Pussy Riot.

 

Yes, you read that right: Pussy Riot. Anyone inspired by punk rock’s most subversive, deliciously irreverent moments will love Pussy Riot.

 

A collective of some two dozen anonymous activists from various Russian social movements, Pussy Riot stormed into international consciousness in January. Clad in absurd dresses, spandex and neon balaclavas, their guerrilla performance of their signature song in front of the Kremlin put them on the map:

 

“Rebellion in Russia – the charisma of protest

Rebellion in Russia – Putin’s pissed himself

Rebellion in Russia – we exist

Rebellion in Russia – riot riot”

 

It was unpermitted, unannounced, and illegal. In other times, Russia’s admittedly cutthroat authorities might have simply ignored it as a stunt, maybe answering it with a stern warning and a fine. Batons and handcuffs have normally been reserved for gay rights marches and union members.

 

The problem for Putin now, however, is that “rebellion in Russia” is a reality. The widespread speculations of fraud in the December’s Duma elections, and Putin’s arrogant announcement that he would run for president in March, were enough to turn the long-brewing anger in Russia into massive protests in the major cities.

 

Says left-wing activist Ilya Boudraïtskis:

 

“For the first time since the beginning of the 1990s, millions of people were engaged in live political action, which took place in the streets. In this political activity we can already observe a battle of ideas and alternatives being played out… This battle of ideas has as its backdrop a task that everyone has made theirs: the bringing down of the Putin system and the re-establishment of elementary political liberties.”

 

And with that, one can list Moscow, St. Petersburg and others with Tunis, Cairo, Athens, London and beyond in 2011’s roll call of revolt. In Pussy Riot’s own words, "Egyptian air is good for the lungs / Do Tahrir on Red Square!"  

 

Like other rebellions across the planet, the new Russian protest movement, even as it ebbs and flows, has already inspired a whole host of subversive music and art. While the group have clung fast to their anonymity, interviews have revealed that most of their members are are participants in various social movements of the past several years–women’s rights, LGBT liberation, labor, environmentalism and more. Most claim to hold various left political beliefs, and many also reveal a background steeped in Russia’s rich history of avant-garde art. 

 

That’s a history that continues to thrive today. In statements to reporters, Pussy Riot’s members have declared art and politics to be “one and the same.” Their whole aesthetic–the outlandish costumes, their abrasive version of hardcore punk–is intended by its members as a way to further radicalize the burgeoning democracy movement.

 

One member, who gave her name only as “Tyurya,” explained that "Putin and his team are behaving so rudely, and the people aren't ready to react in the same way–they want all these protests to be sanctioned… They're [the government] basically occupiers, they don't have the right to be here–why should things be agreed with them?"

 

The American riot grrl movement of the 1990s is also an obvious influence. Another member going by the name “Garazhda” put the question of protest and resistance in specifically feminist terms: "We understood that to achieve change, including in the sphere of women's rights, it's not enough to go to Putin and ask for it.” She added, “The revolution should be done by women… There’s a deep tradition in Russia of gender and revolution–we’ve had amazing women revolutionaries.”

 

Added Garazhda, “[f]or now, they don't beat us or jail us as much.” 

 

There is now an almost eerie, undeniably painful irony in this statement. Two weeks before the election, on February 21st, five Pussy Riot members (characteristically clad in their anonymous costumes), rushed the altar in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral to perform their “punk prayer” song “Holy Shit.” The symbolism was intentional. Kirill I, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been among Putin’s most vehement supporters–even claiming that Putin was “sent by God.”

 

“Our Patriarch is not ashamed of wearing watches worth $40,000,” the band said in a subsequent interview, “which is intolerable when so many families in Russia are on the edge of poverty.”

 

The performance at the Cathedral was, once again, shocking, profane, and unavoidable in the media. Their song implored the Virgin Mary to “drive Putin out,” and repeated the phrase “Jesus fucking Christ” several times. 

 

Needless to say, the firestorm in the Russian media was difficult to quell. Pro-government pundits and priests alike called the performance offensive and hateful. Communiques from Pussy Riot claimed that some of their own members are observant Orthodox Christians, and found it much more blasphemous that many in the church have such close ties to Putin. None of this mattered to the growing chorus of denunciation, which was now demanding that Pussy Riot (all of whom escaped the Cathedral without being identified) face jail time.

 

They got their wish. On the evening of March 3rd, police arrested six alleged members of Pussy Riot for suspected involvement in the Cathedral action. Four were released, but two, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, remain in jail. Moscow Police have yet to release any definitive proof connecting either with of them Pussy Riot or the events at the Cathedral. Both have been denied bail, and will be detained until at least April 24th, when their trial starts. 

 

Consequences of being found guilty are potentially severe. Alekhina and Tolokonnikova face up to seven years in jail on charges of “hooliganism.” The women are both mothers to young children, and have been subjected to abhorrent prison conditions. Both have reportedly gone on hunger strike in protest.

 

Tolokonnikova and Alekhina aren’t the only ones who have been protesting their arrest and treatment. On International Women’s Day, a picket was held outside Moscow’s police headquarters. The next day, at a 15,000 strong anti-Putin protest in the city’s center, countless homemade signs demanded the release of the two women.

 

Never one to miss an opportunity for repression, Moscow’s police struck back. On March 16th, they arrested Ekaterina Samutsevich, also in connection with the February 21st action. Like Alekhina and Tolokonnikova, she will remain in prison until at least April 24th.

 

Everything about these events–the arrests, the provision of shoddy evidence at best, the refusal of Moscow’s authorities to show even the slightest leniency–amounts to nothing less than a witch-hunt. All of it sends a clear message to the democracy movement: that Putin’s regime, with its corruption, its injustice and repression, is here to stay. Anyone who questions that will face the inside of a jail cell.

 

Putin of course denies any direct connection with the arrest of Pussy Riot members. Those who were released after the initial wave, however, claim interrogators informed them that the crackdown is coming “from the highest levels.” 

 

This would not be a surprise. Putin and his United Russia party have been accused time and again of strong-arm tactics going well beyond vote rigging. LGBT marches have been routinely harassed and attacked by police. Pro-Putin youth groups, well organized and well-funded, have been implicated in often gruesome violence against well-known opposition figures.

 

Nor are Pussy Riot the first punks to face the wrath of the modern Russian state. Artists who dare to criticize the government have found themselves not only blackballed by Russian radio, but have had their shows watched by the Federal Security Service (FSB).

 

Alexei Nikonov, lead singer of St. Petersburg hardcore group PTVP, said in a 2009 interview there is such heavy surveillance of the punk scene that he and others like him have simply gotten used to it. "We accept the fact that they come to 'watch' us.,” says Nikonov. “Just like I've come to accept that my internet activity may be watched. They used to follow me in cars.” Nikonov also claims that the FSB have, more than once, rushed the stage to prevent PTVP playing any anti-government material, and Nikonov himself has been arrested several times.

 

All of this provides poignant cultural backdrop for the political and of modern Russia: That two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Russian people are still denied the most basic democratic freedoms. And while they are hardly the only mobilized people in this position (protesters in Egypt, Syria and even the United States arguably face comparable repression), they are no less deserving of solidarity.

 

For these reasons, Pussy Riot have almost become de facto mascots for the Russian arm of global revolt. Samutsevich, Alekhina and Tolokonnikova are all recognized as political prisoners by one of the country’s largest prison reform groups. Amnesty International has announced they will review the trio’s case. 

 

Benefit shows and support actions have been scheduled as far away as Armenia and England. A “Free Pussy Riot!” website has been set up, and a day of global solidarity has been called for April 21st. And of course, within Russia itself, the movement for real democracy continues to evolve and grow.

 

Putin’s minions have obviously set out to make an example out of these bold, brash punks. They may yet succeed, but it won't be anything like what they imagined. 

 

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a founding member of Punks Against Apartheid and an organizer with the Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective. Reach him at [email protected].

 

Special thanks to Jeff Skinner for his assistance with translation on this article.  

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