Pussy Riot, a thoroughly modern group of punks

Pussy Riot's methods might be different from the punks of old but their ethos is the same, says Cecilia Winter.

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Pussy Riot

There is an old European saying that states that Russians are always the last to board the train. Salvador Dalí said that the Russian Revolution was the French Revolution that arrived late because of the cold. Punk was not an exception. It arrived in Moscow almost half a century after it emerged from the Thames and the Hudson to transform the musical, cultural and political scene on both sides of the Atlantic. On the desk of Russia’s strongest man, Vladimir Putin, there is a subject that worries him: Pussy Riot.

A feminist group with that name might seem okay in Manchester, Paris or Los Angeles. But in Russia, it’s more than a slight provocation. Even more so when you have a former KGB agent in the Kremlin who longs for the Soviet past, promulgates laws against homosexuals and says he “never had a bad day” because he is not a “woman”.

Although it is a collective and anyone can join, Pussy Riot respond to the names of Nadezhda Tolokónnikova (Nadya), Yekaterina Samutsévich (Katia) and María Aliójina (María), three middle-class women between 28 and 35 years old. Today they are stars of pop culture, but until two years ago they were martyrs of what many critics believed ended long ago: punk.

Between 2012 and 2014 they spent two years in prison for having “undermined the social order” —according to the Russian government— in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior of Moscow, where they launched —in a bizarre mix of Gregorian chants and industrial refrains— one of their songs. A direct critic against the conservatism of Russian society, choice lyrics include: “Virgin Mary: throw Putin out”, “The former leader of the KGB is the Saint of Russia”, “The gay movement has been chained and sent to Siberia” and “Virgin Mary became a feminist!”

Denis Bochkarev

Their interrogations and their trials were broadcast by the public television network. The Russian government intended to increase the contempt of a very conservative society against the girls. However, in the rest of the world, the situation was different. Their complaints won the support of almost all of Europe and the United States.

A month ago, Nadya was invited to the Hay Festival in Mexico to talk about culture and feminism. When asked about gender violence and femicide, she gave the following advice: “It is important to have alternative places such as shelters and workplaces that can be chosen by those who decide to leave home where they are abused. If you generate conditions to believe that you can get out of where you are and finally have a better life, like the waves, these conditions will continue to reproduce. It is important to know and share what are the legal tools they have and have lawyers who can help. ”

Last month they opened their first exhibition outside Russia: Art Riot: Post-Soviet Activism, at the Saatchi Gallery in London, where works by other Russian dissident artists are also shown. In addition, they have released a new EP XXX, in which they do not fear singing against Putin or Trump; “two lying and corrupt men who do not solve problems and who have the need to measure their penises continuously to see who has it longer “ to quote Nadya herself in an interview with a Spanish newspaper last October.

After artists like GG Allin — the dark punk figure of the United States who flagellated himself on stage and practiced coprophagia — or bands that went beyond the confines of the musical to get to the political, such as Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Specials or Dead Kennedys, there are those who see in Pussy Riot a handful of innocuous young girls who move in the sweet waters of marketing. Their constant appearances in Vice, the support they receive from Madonna, their name registered as a brand and their latest music videos that are far from DIY lead to the following question: can punk exist in the 21st century?

The band did arise for political reasons. On September 24, 2011, the international press announced that Vladimir Putin would run in the Russian presidential election the following year to be re-elected for the third time. That same night, in an attic in Moscow (where they currently reside) and angry at the idea of having the same man in power since 1999, Nadya, Katia and Maria announced to themselves that they were the Pussy Riot.

The idea of creating a feminist group was simple, very much like the “do it yourself” concept that the punks of the 70s followed. Stay out of the market, write incendiary lyrics, compose simple riffs, upload home videos to the Internet and act clandestinely in prohibited places like the Red Square, always covered by ski masks.

Amnesty International considers them “prisoners of conscience” because of “the severity of the response from the Russian authorities”, who beat them during the Winter Olympics in Sochi 2014, where they demonstrated to demand the cessation of laws against homosexuals. “Prison is not the worst place for someone who thinks,” Nadya told dozens of cameras when police arrested her in 2012.

Today, the girls appear anywhere: from New York to Moscow, either asking for the release of Ukrainian political prisoners or demonstrating against Donald Trump. However, in their own country, they are not very dear. Just six percent of the population sympathises with them, according to the Russian NGO Levada Center. But little do they care. They have said that they will not stop because they believe, like Bertolt Brecht, that art is not a mirror that reflects the world, but a hammer to give it shape. Their methods may be new but that ethos is undeniably punk.

Art Riot: Post-Soviet Activism runs at the Saatchi Gallery until December 24th. 

Featured image Igor Mukhin
Follow Cecilia Winter on Twitter

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