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The arrest and trial of three members of Pussy Riot, the Russian riot grrrl band and art collective, has captured worldwide attention. Imprisoned after their impromptu February 21, 2012, performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, the case has shined a light on Russia’s struggling democracy and conservative gender politics. But what about the piece itself? We risk ignoring an important lesson if we gloss over Mother of God, Drive Putin Out as work of art.
A YouTube video of the blasphemous performance begins with three members of Pussy Riot—Maria Alehina, Ekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova—dressed in colorful tunics, tights, and balaclavas. Commandeering the altar and resembling petite luchadores, the trio kneels, crosses themselves, and mock prays while the soundtrack recites a slew of epithets:
“Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit!” / “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist” / “Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin/Bitch, better believe in God instead” / “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away/Рut Putin away, put Putin away”
The 1:53 long video ends with the group being pushed out of the cathedral. The performance was brief and silly, but ignited an international controversy. The timing was pivotal, capitalizing on discontent and political frustration in advance of Vladimir Putin’s inevitable comeback; the performance took place less than two weeks before Putin’s well-orchestrated presidential election, which saw him rise to power again after a four-year hibernation as Prime Minister.
UPDATE: Days later, the trio was arrested. They have been in jail ever since, and were sentenced to two years of prison on August 16, 2012.
Days later, the trio was arrested and they have been in jail ever since, with a verdict due today, at 3 pm Moscow time.
Alehina, Samutsevich, and Tolokonnikova do not fit the usual profile of national security threats. They are not former KGB agents; they are not Mohawk toting anarchists; they are not Chechen terrorists. They are young women wearing pink, green, and baby blue; two are mothers of small children. From Potemkin to Beslan, this is not what security threats have looked like.
It is not simply that these are women—Russia has had plenty of female activists. Pussy Riot directly confronts the austere nature of politics. Most disobediently, these particular women appear to be having fun, offering an alternative to bureaucracies, NGOs, legal briefs, ad hoc committees, and pedagogical lectures. Like the punks from whom they draw inspiration, Pussy Riot opts to play the political game with their own rules. This defiance may be more offensive to the state than uttering a few sacrileges.
In her autobiography, anarchist and fellow Russian feminist Emma Goldman provides insight into the importance of this approach to politics. As a youth, a boy told Goldman that dancing was not appropriate for an agitator. Goldman recalls in Living My Life that she did not believe that a cause that stood for beauty and freedom should deny her life and joy. Furious, she told the boy that their cause could not expect her “to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister.” “If it meant that,” she continued, “I did not want it.” Eighty years since Goldman wrote this passage, it has been condensed into the apocryphal yet pithy quote, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
Pussy Riot has created a revolution that embraces joy. Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova’s husband and a spokesperson for the group, explained the rationale behind Pussy Riot’s tactics: “These actions provide visual language for public protest in Russia. So people see that political issues can be raised in a variety of very different ways… Everyone has to do politics. This is the main issue. And everyone has to do politics in the way that is closest to you.” Pussy Riot’s approach acknowledges that politics (and protest) should be as dynamic and multifaceted as life itself. Their struggle would be immediately compromised if their tactics required self-denial.
Just prior to her fellow band members’ arrests, “Garadzha” explained the name Pussy Riot: “A female sex organ, which is supposed to be receiving and shapeless, suddenly starts a radical rebellion against the cultural order, which tries to constantly define it and show its appropriate place.” This name takes two things women are often forced to sacrifice—their biology and their agency—and foregrounds their importance to the group’s political existence, and it does so with a playful smirk.
The flipside of this mirthful embrace of femininity might be Cyndi Lauper’s pronouncement that “girls just want to have fun.” With all due respect, girls want a lot more than that. Many of them also seem to want careers, education, control of their bodies, political power, economic equity, and the ability to express themselves, among other desires that are less conducive to chart topping lyricism. Pussy Riot, like young Goldman, has found a way tap into their humanity and femininity without foreclosing on the possibility of a deep, political life. Somewhere between puritan radicalism and Cyndi Lauper, Pussy Riot has staked its claim.
Watching Mother of God, Drive Putin Out, it is as if Pussy Riot says, “You oppress me, and yet I smile.” An amazing thing about all governments and regimes is that they are, in some ways, illusions. They are very complex illusions, with guns and bombs, but they only exist and hold power so long as enough people think they do. Putin, like all emperors, is naked. Pussy Riot bypasses the system that gives him legitimacy and demonstrates its frailty. They do not do this by cordially disagreeing with his politics; they do it by living an alternative. It is unlikely that Alehina, Samutsevich, and Tolokonnikova are smiling in their jail cells, but like the illusions of democracy or autocracy, reality can be less important than impression. The Russian people have seen them smile. They have seen it millions of times, and they have read about it and talked about it. The entire nation is now aware of an alternative form of politics. Some people despise it, but others are learning from it and participating. Pussy Riot’s gesture is small, but it is necessary. It is the amalgam of these small gestures that can, should enough of them arise, change policy and culture.
The complexities of realpolitik can make it difficult to believe that a bunch of punks in pink can challenge a nuclear superpower. But the Russian government offers all the evidence needed: states do not make political prisoners of those whom they do not see as threats. Prime Minister and former President Dmitry Medvedev recently doubled down on the case against Pussy Riot: “In some countries the responsibility for such actions would have been much more strict.” The subtext: We’d kill them if we could get away with it.
This may seem outlandish and bombastic to those who live free of punk rock persecution. As Jessica Bruder of the New York Times recently wrote, “the idea that music can help change things, rather than just sell expensive coats, isn’t very popular here right now.” The lack of American prison cells filled with famous punks is a testament to this. Over the last three decades, punk, like other subcultures, has been integrated into mainstream society. Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin teaches evolutionary biology at UCLA and Cornell, Patti Smith recently appeared in an episode of Law & Order, and even Chumbawamba put out a record with a multinational conglomerate. But as Bruder reminds her readers, this is not the case everywhere. In Indonesia, sixty punks were recently sent to reeducation camps; emo kids in Iraq are being murdered, following an interior ministry statement equating emo to devil worship; and in Iran, playing rock music is punishable by flogging. These subcultures are threats not just because they offer alternatives, but because they live them. The hard work and ostracization of punks past in the United States allows the current generation to inhabit whatever claim to society’s mainstream they have. Still, in the United States there are those that are murdered, arrested, or driven to suicide for asserting alternative ways of living, especially in insecure realm of gender and sexual politics.
Pussy Riot’s message to the oligarchs is simple: no matter how much democracy is eroded, they will always have their humanity, femininity, and agency. Recent events in the Arab world illustrate what happens when malcontents decide to stop accepting the illusions they are presented with. As messy and violent as the Arab Spring has been, breakdowns of illusions have been very real for Ben Ali, Gaddafi, Mubarak, and Saleh. For Pussy Riot, regardless of today’s verdict, their political embrace of play attacks these illusions in their own country. For Putin, play is realpolitik.
Matthew Harrison Tedford is a senior editor and a contributing writer for Art Practical. His work also appears in the Huffington Post, the Oakland Standard, and Poor Taste Magazine, among other publications.