Cats Out of the Bag
Patrick Reevell interviews Russian feminist punk outfit Pussy Riot before their arrest during the Russian Presidential Elections.
“Holy Shit, Putin’s pissed himself!” Three slim figures in bright summer dresses, electric leggings and balaclavas made from fluorescent bobble-hats are alternating in prostrating themselves and jumping up and down at the altar of Moscow’s principal cathedral; in an asp, four more are furiously scratching their guitars; all of them are screaming “Holy Mother of God, chuck Putin out!”. This is Pussy Riot- the Russian feminist punk group who have launched a campaign of foul-mouthed and fluorescent-coloured actions against the regime of Vladimir Putin.
Pussy Riot are a feminist punk-protest band based in Moscow and dedicated to “preparing the Russian people for battle with a corrupt regime which is an enemy to all free people”. The group specialise in guerrilla punk concerts in provocative places- since their formation the band have sprung up atop unsuspecting buses, in boutique stores; in one memorable performance (although they’re all memorable), the band opened up on a roof overlooking a prison, doing guitar windmills and setting off flares while the inmates chanted “Go on lads!”.
The group formed in the autumn of 2011, and came to the world’s attention with their performance of “Suck it Putin!” opposite the Kremlin which became a viral hit. But the group have only really achieved serious recognition within Russia following what they call their “punk prayer service” in the church of Christ the Saviour. This action, according to Russian radio, prompted “You-Know-Who” (a.k.a. Vladimir Putin) to personally order the creation a “special interagency staff” for the apprehension of Pussy Riot. It was one week after this, that the group agreed to speak to TN2.
Pussy Riot’s members operate according to a principle of strict anonymity and agreed to be interviewed only as a collective, refusing to give any biographical information beyond their average age (25) and that their background included “art, theatre, music, rock climbing and philology”. Among their influences, the group listed Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, the Stonewall Rioters, post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak and the ancient female philosopher Hypatia, who was torn apart by fanatical Christians in the 4th Century.
“Tolerance and patience are in short supply in Russian society,” the group tells me. “We promote gender equality and LGBT rights. Our goal is political change and the development of a protest culture.” In pursuit of this “tolerance and patience”, Pussy Riot sing clever, rhyming songs with titles such as “Dicks to the Sexists”. Authorities encountering the group are usually too stunned to react at first. The band tell of one occasion where, approached by police, they screamed so hard the officers ran-off backwards.
But the group’s latest stunt was a scandal in Russia, with one opposition leader labelling it “idiotic”. The group defended their position to TN2: “If someone is offended by our actions it shows that he is not yet versed in the world of modern art, music and protest activism. If the state education system, which leaves people slow and conformist, won’t do this, then we’ll have to.”
The group applied the same logic to Putin and the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, saying the two men had reacted childishly to their “prayer service”. They also condemned the hunt for them as an “ordinary case of political persecution, which is only cloaking itself in faith and mystery so as to legitimise itself.”
Two days after we spoke to them, on the eve of the Russian presidential elections, two members of Pussy Riot were snatched by plain-clothed police as they exited the metro. Three more members were picked up on polling day. A day later, the first two members appeared before a court, revealed as Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhin, and accused of hooliganism and inciting religious hatred, a charge which could carry a 7-year prison sentence. The two women have begun a hunger-strike in protest.
The past six months have seen the largest mass protests in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, with an estimated hundred thousand people assembling in Moscow in December to protest against abuses under Putin’s rule. Despite these demonstrations and talk of a “Russian Spring”, Putin secured his return to the Kremlin comfortably, employing tricks new and old to rig a ballot that he would almost certainly have won in any case. Following the elections and the arrests, a member of Pussy Riot still at large, told me: “The elections made us vomit”.
That sentiment is shared by many Russians and 20,000 turned out the day after polling to express it. But this was small compared to earlier demonstrations and already the wind seemed to have dropped, the talk became of consolidation and patience, rather than of revolution. Putin’s words at his victory party seemed to have a disheartening finality: “We have won.”
But here enter Pussy Riot. Noise is something the band can do and in the strange, flat atmosphere of the post-election anti-climax, the band’s trial, and its free members’ calls to protest it, have crashed out to remind Russia and the world that, yes, in many ways still, “Putin Sucks!”.
Russian observers largely agree that the group has been singled out for harsh treatment as a signal to the Kremlin’s critics to expect business as usual. But in doing so, Putin has inadvertently turned the band, which previously infuriated many in the opposition, into a cause célèbre, a focal point for a movement which had appeared to be drifting.
Pussy Riot are brave and the foolhardiness of their actions is their defence. Undoubtedly, the “prayer service” was distressing for many who otherwise share the group’s goals, but the purpose of it was not to preach hate, but to dispel fear. As the group say, their aim is to create “a protest environment”, and this is achieved by showing people not to fear the State, by performing outrageous acts and getting away with it. Or, if not, then taking the consequences lightly: on the day of their arrest, Pussy Riot tweeted: “No harm done.”
Prior to their arrest, many accused the band of playing into the hands of the regime by giving it grounds for dismissing its critics as anti-social anarchists. Pussy Riot reject this, saying: “We don’t represent the whole opposition and people know this very well. But if we must now be silent and not speak out for our rights and interests, then we will never be heard. Even after a changeover in power.”
Pussy Riot were disappointed by th
e relatively small protests following the elections; they had hoped the people who attended the peaceful protests might have “grown teeth to begin demanding political change in a more aggressive key.” Many Russians appear, at the crisis, to have felt the risks too high. This is understandable. But Pussy Riot refuse to accept the arguments of stability, the argument that things could be worse. In a moment of defeat, a statement by the band, made to us before their arrest, marks Pussy Riot out as much as their multi-coloured masks:
“You need to put yourself in history’s way and now’s our time. Wait, we cannot.”