You Don't Get Pussy Riot

by by Christina McCausland

illustration by by Diane Zhou

Chloe sevigny reading an activist’s letters to a crowd of people who describe themselves as “secretaries by day, arts activists by night” at New York City’s Ace Hotel isn’t exactly the image of political radicalism. But this scene is typical of the approach to August’s media outrage following the arrest and subsequent trial of Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova for their 40-second “flash” lip-sync performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February. The incident’s appeal to the West was evident in everything from your friends’ Facebook statuses to Madonna’s August performance in Moscow. The singer performed with the words “Pussy Riot” written on her back after speaking briefly about her endorsement of the women, who on August 17th were sentenced to two years in prison by Russian authorities. The nature of enthusiasm for this group deserves the critical backlash it has received—popular support for Pussy Riot means the watering down of a powerful political dissidence. Aside from their feminism and demands for free speech, the group also identifies as anarchists and Trotskyists, hard left politics that are probably more radical than what the attendees at the Ace Hotel reading are interested in supporting. This problem of oversimplification arises from the primary misunderstanding that the group is primarily a punk band. Though their performances are musical acts, to identify Pussy Riot—perhaps best described as an activist art collective—as a “feminist punk band” is to severely understate their actions and mission.


Several of pussy riot’s members were once part of another Russian activist art collective called Voina, a group that since 2006 has been staging what, in the context of performance art, might be called interventions or interruptions—events through which the group seeks to disrupt everyday experience in order to make its injustices or habitualizations more recognizable. These terms recall the roots of performed activism, which has historically had elements of pranksterism and incendiary confrontation in equal measure. Well-worn examples include Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Youth International Party, a 1960’s anti-war group (“Yippies”), and author of Steal This Book. He famously led his group to the gallery of the New York Stock Exchange, from which they threw both fake and real dollars onto the trading floor below, where some traders scrambled frantically to collect the money. The Situationists—a group of European revolutionaries that reached its peak in the late ‘60s—insisted on art’s power to make political statements and did so partly through their concept of détournement, which refers to turning the symbols of the system against itself, an act that is now familiar to us as culture jamming. A group of feminist artists called the Guerrilla Girls, whom Pussy Riot has been continually compared to, makes and (often illegally) posts provocative posters, stickers, and billboards to communicate the injustice they see in the mainstream art world (most famously, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”).

Voina’s stunts have ranged from street protests to vandalism, and they often tread into the realm of the absurd.  In an early Voina act, group members celebrated 2007’s International Workers’ Day by throwing stray cats over the counter at a McDonald’s in Moscow. According to members of the group, the action was meant to be a literal interruption, a way to break up the monotony of the workers’ routine day. Voina is also responsible for the well-publicized public orgy (“Fuck for the heir Puppy Bear!”) in February 2008, wherein five couples—including Tolokonnikova and her husband—had sex in a Moscow biology museum on the eve of the election of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The group’s actions tend to defy a single or clear interpretation; they insist on defining their acts as interruptions or events, as (usually) violent (not necessarily physically) confrontational moments for disrupting the day-to-day of Russian politics.

Pussy Riot, which formed in August 2011 after splitting from Voina, has taken on a narrower tactic, confining the form of their political action to unsanctioned and unannounced provocative punk performances, which are videotaped and later edited to for the Internet. In the last month, their videos have received a degree of critical attention incongruous with the seriousness of the music’s production. According to the Associated Press, critics and listeners have lambasted their six songs as “amateur, provocative, and obscene” while the A.V. club described them as an “excellent band.” Due to their punk rock sound and feminist identification, Western coverage often compares Pussy Riot to Riot grrrl, a musical debt the group acknowledges, though in an interview with Vice, group members added that their action occurs “in an absolutely different context and with an exaggerated political stance, which leads to all of the performances being illegal.” And, as Michael Idov, editor-in-chief of GQ Russia, pointed out in a New York Times op-ed, “judging [Pussy Riot’s music] on artistic merit would be like chiding the Yippies because Pigasus the Immortal, the pig they ran for president in 1968, was not a viable candidate.”


The aesthetic elements of their act do, however, demand a reading inasmuch as they are closely united with the group’s rhetoric and appeal. Their name obviously recalls Riot grrrl, as well as a sort of feminist reappropriation of the term ‘pussy’—as one of the group’s members told Vice, “a female sex organ, which is supposed to be receiving and shapeless, suddenly starts a radical rebellion against the cultural order.” Their balaclava-assured anonymity means that their slogan, “We are all Pussy Riot,” feels plausible. And choosing to communicate through music with forthrightly political lyrics (there’s little mistaking the meaning behind a song titled “Holy Mother, Drive Putin Away”) means that their performances need no interpretation; unlike Voina’s absurd excess, Pussy Riot’s act gets right to the point. And it’s not as if the apparently easy appeal of Pussy Riot is necessarily a bad thing—indeed, worldwide attention is part of the desired effect of protest. The details that make them so easily digestible are bluntly measured to do so, and it’s difficult to argue against widespread support for them, even if it is based on a cursory understanding.

Christina McCausland B’12.5 is amateur, provocative, and obscene.