Never mind Putin, here's Pussy Riot

Members of the Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot.
Monday, April 30, 2012

Pussy Riot is an anonymous Russian feminist punk band. Its anonymous members, whose identities are concealed by their costumes, formed in October last year as a feminist music collective that performs public “flash mob” gigs to protest the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The band performed a “punk prayer” at the altar of the Christ the Savior cathedral in Moscow on February 21, before being removed by security guards. The video went viral in the days that followed and a criminal investigation into Pussy Riot began. Three alleged Pussy Riot members are being held by police.

The three, Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samucevich, remain in jail awaiting trial, with a Moscow court extending their detention until June 24. This is despite the fact that a lawyer for Samucevich reported that a police investigation found the Pussy Riot performance was not a criminal act, Novinite.com said on April 26.

There is an international campaign in defence of Pussy Riot and the three arrested. In Moscow, 20 protesters were arrested on April 19 outside a courtroom ahead of an appearance by the three accused. To find out more about the case, visit www.freepussyriot.org.

Below, radical US music critic Alexander Billet looks at the rise of Pussy Riot. The article is abridged from Z Net, where it first appeared. More of Billet's articles can be found at his website Rebel Frequencies.

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On March 4, 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 Tzar.

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.

Rigging a poll is nothing new for Putin. But the punk rock feminists have, in their own words, made him piss himself. They’re a gang of anonymous trouble-makers known as Pussy Riot.

A collective of about 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 without permission, unannounced, and illegal. In other times, Russia’s admittedly cutthroat authorities might have simply ignored it as a stunt. 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 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.

Left-wing activist Ilya Boudraitskis said in a December International Viewpoint article: “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.”

In Pussy Riot’s own words, "Egyptian air is good for the lungs/Do Tahrir on Red Square!"

The new Russian protest movement, even as it ebbs and flows, has already inspired a whole host of subversive music and art.

The group have clung to their anonymity, but interviews reveal most members are participants in various social movements of the past several years ― women’s rights, LGBTI liberation, unions, 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.

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 radicalise the burgeoning democracy movement.

One member, who gave her name only as “Tyurya”, said: "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 United States 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.”

Two weeks before the election, on February 21, five Pussy Riot members, 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.

The firestorm in the Russian media was difficult to quell. Pro-government pundits and priests called the performance offensive and hateful.

Communiques from Pussy Riot responded 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 demands Pussy Riot members (all of whom escaped the Cathedral without being identified) face jail.

They got their wish. On the evening of March 3, 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 them to Pussy Riot or the events at the Cathedral.

They face up to seven years in jail on charges of “hooliganism”. Tolokonnikova and Alekhina are mothers to young children. Both have reportedly gone on hunger strike in protest.

On International Women’s Day, a picket was held outside Moscow’s police headquarters in protest. The next day, at a 15,000 strong anti-Putin protest in the city’s centre, countless homemade signs demanded the release of the two.

Moscow’s police struck back. On March 16th, they arrested Ekaterina Samutsevich, also in connection with the February 21st action.

Everything about these events 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, injustice and repression, is here to stay.

Anyone who questions that will face the inside of a jail cell.

Putin denies any direct connection with the arrest of Pussy Riot members. Those who were arrested and then released over the February 21 action, however, say interrogators told them the crackdown is coming “from the highest levels”.

This would not be a surprise. LGBTI marches have been routinely harassed and attacked by police. Pro-Putin youth groups, well organised 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 Russian state. Artists who dare to criticise the government have found themselves blackballed by Russian radio ― and their shows watched by the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Alexei Nikonov, lead singer of St. Petersburg hardcore group PTVP, said in a 2009 Guardian interview that there was heavy surveillance of the punk scene. "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 the FSB have rushed the stage to prevent PTVP playing anti-government material. Nikonov has been arrested several times.

All of this provides a poignant cultural backdrop for political development in modern Russia: That two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Russian people are still denied the most basic democratic freedoms.

For these reasons, Pussy Riot have almost become de facto mascots for the Russian arm of global revolt. Samutsevich, Alekhina and Tolokonnikova are all recognised as political prisoners by one of the country’s largest prison reform groups.

Amnesty International has announced it will review the trio’s case.

Benefit shows and support actions have been scheduled as far away as Armenia and Britain. 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 succeed, but it won't be anything like what they imagined.