Pussy Riot Sounded A Clarion Call in Russia — Were We Listening?

Pussy Riot
Pussy Riot

When the annals of history have been written, furiously edited, and then reedited — after the confrontations, then collusions, of vainglorious victors — three things will be remembered about feminist Russian punk-rock band ‘Pussy Riot’: 1) They had what was easily one of the top five best band names ever concocted, 2) They weren’t so much “a band” as they were a collective of some dozen-and-a-half performance artists who melded punk music with ski-mask costumes & guerilla performances to broadcast political convictions, and 3) They helped raise the slow-bubbling anger over the neo-czar-like rule of Vladimir Putin into something closer to a slow-boil, galvanizing the former Soviet-empire’s disparate youth movements to rally as one body — for the right of people to love whom they pleased, for the voice of womyn often treated as an afterthought to male concerns, and for the values of democratic due process over the increasingly paternal-fascist Putin/Russian Orthodox Church alliance — at least for the duration of the fallout from their most notorious stunt, which landed three of them in jail and butterflied Pussy Riot into an internationally-lauded symbol of feminist-flavored political resistance.

On February 12th, 2012, just a year-and-a-half after their formation — though their political predecessor and brain-trust ‘Voina’ (translation: ‘War’), a Russian performance art group of street-artists (think Banksy but in motion), which included members who would later form P.R., had been active since around 2007 — Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and two other womyn entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, where church services were not being held, changed into colorful ski masks (known as “balaclavas” in many Slavic-language societies), and began to deliver what they called a “punk-rock prayer” — imploring “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away” (also the title of the accompanying song) — to an establishment otherwise utilized for keeping submissive peoples in check (and womyn in non-threatening roles). They were protesting the upcoming re-election of Vladimir Putin, almost certain to win due to his political strong-arming and over a decade of carefully-curated image-mongering of himself as a semi-God (a page straight out of Joe Stalin’s old playbook), corroborated and exacerbated by the Orthodox Church itself often, but especially when Patriarch Kirill called Putin a “miracle from God” earlier that same day in comments made openly supporting the Czarsky’s re-election. The sight of a band of bold young womyn, wearing bright war-like masks & flailing their bodies as well as projecting their voices, must have bordered on the cathartic for observers — especially when viewed in the illumination of the long light of womyn who gave their lives trying to democratize Russia, like the politician Galina Starovoitova and the journalist Anna Politkovskaya (both murdered under mysterious circumstances by forces associated with Russian intelligence officers—Vladimir’s old job).

5 days later, the “criminal investigation” papers were filled, and less than a week after that, the ladies of P.R. who participated in the protest began to be arrested, charged with the ludicrously-labeled “crime” of “hooliganism driven by religious hatred.” After months of a highly-publicized trial, about which even a dastardly-smirking Vladimir Putin himself quipped to a “Russia Today” news camera that “although there was nothing good about what Pussy Riot did, still we should not judge them too harshly.” Wink, wink, bro. Three P.R. womyn were eventually sentenced to two years in prison, despite (or especially because of?) the full-throated support of British and American icons like Sting and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

One can read more about the history, the incident, and the subsequent trial on the Internet, but the take-away here is tremendous and two-fold: 1) In Soviet Russia — I’m sorry, I meant some shit called “The Russian Federation” — President chooses YOU! (to go to jail for hurting his feelings, that is), and 2) We in the United States take our freedoms of speech & assembly not only for granted, we squander them on talking a lot but often saying little. The U.S. is not Russia, but here too the forces of religious traditionalism hover over our rights, corporatist money endangers the power of our votes, and vituperative Supreme Court Justices have taken to toying with absolutely essential legislation like some off-kilter sentence in a personal novel. It’s inspiring that artists like Pussy Riot (and Banksy, and countless others with less fame) are willing to put their freedoms and lives in jeopardy to fight bellicose patriarchies and dictators or blood-loving corporations and military industrial complexes, and certainly big stunts like performance-bombing a symbolic landmark are responsible for shifting the social consciousness in ways that can begin to chip away at the paradigm. But when we allow the dissent to end at the symbolic act itself, the familiar first-as-tragedy-then-as-farce trajectory will curve again. True, Pussy Riot may have been speaking to Russians more than anyone, but there are lessons here for all of us. An injustice in one part of the world is an injustice everywhere; it is this mantra that will allow us to breach the next final frontier: our unnecessarily-limiting conception of the national border. We here can’t assume the responsibility of changing Russia (nor should we), but we can certainly resolve to cull from a global imagination, and we can remember—an act that has the power to save a whole people, and to give birth to a new one as well.

Let us remember then that we in the place where punk-rock and hip-hop and graffiti were invented should never get so spoiled by our comforts that we forget to stand more vociferously with freedom fighters the world over (not just in oil-rich countries with dinky militaries) who sing protest songs with lyrics inspired by our own poets — nor should we forget to sharpen the tenor & tone of our own, from time to time. TC mark

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