Moscow martyrs: Why Pussy Riot are now more relevant than ever

PUBLISHED: 15:42 14 August 2017 | UPDATED: 15:42 14 August 2017

(Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)

2013 Getty Images

A new theatre production telling the story of the arrest and imprisonment of feminist collective Pussy Riot shows why they are more relevant now than ever.

Yekaterina Samutsevich (L), Maria Alyokhina (C) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (R) sit in a glass-walled cage during a court hearing in Moscow on August 17, 2012.Yekaterina Samutsevich (L), Maria Alyokhina (C) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (R) sit in a glass-walled cage during a court hearing in Moscow on August 17, 2012.

Pussy Riot are quickly remembered for the global notoriety earned in 2012 for their spasmodic, energised dancing in front of the altar at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

The details of their subsequent arrest and imprisonment are perhaps a little more fuzzily recalled, but what may be recollected are the opacity of the Russian penal system and the harshness of the sentence that followed. Now, the full story is being told as part of an immersive theatrical performance, Inside Pussy Riot, which is due to tour the UK. The Kickstarter-funded project involves a collaboration between Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and London-based theatre company Les Enfants Terribles and will depict those events of 2012.

It was shortly before polling day in the presidential election that year when five members of the feminist collective entered the Moscow cathedral clad in primary-coloured balaclavas, jumping, kicking and punching the air while performing their song Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away. The incident was a protest against Vladimir Putin – who was standing for his third term as president after four years as prime minister – and the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for him. The song alleges ties between the church and the KGB and also includes the lines “shit, shit, the Lord’s shit” and “virgin birth-giver of god, become a feminist!”.

Three of Pussy Riot’s participating members – Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich – were arrested and subsequently convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. They were sentenced to two years in prison in a labour colony. Samutsevich was released early on appeal after serving one year, while the sentences for Alyokhina’s and Tolokonnikova (both of whom had young children) were upheld. They were granted amnesty late in 2013 (the collective cited the release as a publicity move to assuage criticism of Russia’s human rights record ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics held in Sochi a few months later). By then, though, they had succeeded in making Russia’s gender politics – and Putin’s rule, more generally – a trans-global concern.

The fact that those concerns have grown exponentially ever since make the new production particularly timely – as has the arrest this week of two bandmembers (Alyokhina and Olga Borisova) for a protest in Yakutsk, eastern Siberia, against the imprisonment of film-maker Oleg Sentsov. That said, the production places the collective’s story very much in the feminist tradition, making sure the focus remains on these roots, rather than be lost in the wider anti-Putin dissent that is now so current.

Caroline Kaltefleiter, a professor at the State University of New York, is a an expert in Riot Grrrl, the counter-cultural feminist activist movement which emerged during the 1990s, in America’s Pacific Northwest; she views Pussy Riot as an extension of this movement.

“As an original Riot Grrrl, I see Pussy Riot as a continuation,” she says. I don’t like the ‘wave’ metaphor [referring to the division of western feminism into first, second, third and fourth wave feminism]. I see it as a continuum.”

Kaltefleiter feels it is important to contextualise Pussy Riot accurately – as a collective. “The mainstream media wants to see Pussy Riot as a band; only focussing on the three women [Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich]. Similar to in the Riot Grrl movement, the media was only focussed on, say, Kathleen Hanna [singer, artist and activist member of Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill]. But the meaning of Pussy Riot goes far beyond the outpour of outrage caused by their arrest.

“People tend to associate Pussy Riot and Riot Grrrl as being solely interested in reproductive rights, LGBQT issues, body image... but both movement are very focussed on economics. Their radicalness comes down to the politics of everyday life.”

Inside Pussy Riot is described as “immersive political theatre”. Les Enfants Terribles, the co-collaborators of the performance, specialise in such productions: a type of performance in which the audience are part of the story, often physically involved in the drama. Kaltefleiter views the participatory nature of the performance as a perpetuation of the anarchist spirit of Pussy Riot; relevant at a moment in which feminism is increasingly co-opted by high street brands (Primark are currently selling a T-shirt with the text “my feminist slogan T-shirt”).

“They’re disrupting,” Kaltefleiter says. “They’re intervening. And they’re pulling the audience along.”

Olivia Graham, Michelle Houlston and Aoife Robinson make up the Liverpool-based feminist collective Grrrl Power. Like Pussy Riot, their collective takes inspiration from the Riot Grrrl movement – as their name alludes. Houlston describes their work as focussed around gender inequality in contemporary art, literature and music. “We’re working at a grass root level in the city we love,” she says. “The world over has often left women out of its creative scene.”

Graham tells me she has learned the power and the privilege of protest from Pussy Riot. “I’d considered [protest) the obligation of those around me... to fight for gender equality,” she says. “What I learnt from Pussy Riot was, my ability to protest was a privilege. I wasn’t going to be faced with systematic failure. My ability to protest was relatively safe, secure and a privilege.”

Graham, however, is concerned the mass support for Pussy Riot may have been due to the abstracted nature of Russian politics from a Western perspective: a distancing that made engaging with the issues Pussy Riot stood for safe somehow. A remove, that as Russia’s influence on Western politics grows, is progressively less felt.

“My worry is the support of Pussy Riot was accessible because it wasn’t on people’s doorsteps. We owe our support no matter how difficult the conversation or actions.”

Pussy Riot may well be more relevant than ever.

Lara Williams is a freelance journalist and author who writes for the Guardian, Vice and the Times Literary Supplement

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