Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot: We intend to continue our fight

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On 17 August 2012, a Moscow district court judge found three members of the punk protest band Pussy Riot guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced them to two-year prison terms. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich had defended their performance of the punk prayer “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” at the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on 21 February 2012 as political activism not aimed at offending believers. Minutes before the court rejected that defense and delivered its ruling, a new Pussy Riot song by uncaptured band members blaring from an apartment opposite the court called on the society to fight against “Chekists.” Amnesty International has described the girls as prisoners of conscience; supporters have staged protest rallies both inside and outside Russia; and the Russian government has come under unprecedented criticism.

The story which has captured world attention began in the autumn of 2011. Several girls masked in brightly colored balaclavas began performing on top of trolley cars and on scaffolds in the Moscow Metro, singing about hardships endured by women, about toppling dictatorships in Arab countries and about proper suppression of men. Photos and video footage of those first performances were posted on the Internet. The feminist protest performers followed that by bursting into elite boutiques, bars and fashion shows with a new Pussy Riot song calling on the Russian population, especially women, to overthrow the government. The band’s next performance was staged on the roof of a jail holding detainees who had been arrested at rallies protesting the Russian Duma elections. That time around, the girls, together with the incarcerated protesters, sang about occupying city squares, disarming police and freeing political prisoners. On 20 January 2012, Pussy Riot turned Red Square into a giant stage and it was there that the girls were arrested for the first

Pussy Riot defendants Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich on trial in Moscow
time after performing their song “Putin Has Pissed Himself.”

Bursting into public places and performing impromptu concerts are not a novelty. Nor are political actions staged by musicians or ensuing arrests anything out of the ordinary. Back in the 1960s, Jefferson Airplane occupied the roof of a New York City building without a permit and entertained the gathered crowd until police arrived on the scene. In the 1970s, the Sex Pistols and their manager all landed in a London jail after hiring a boat to perform “God Save the Queen” on the river Thames in front of the Parliament building.

One can easily draw parallels between Pussy Riot and the 1990s American punk rock band Bikini Kill, famous for its political texts and radical feminism, and the feminist Riot Grrrl movement that originated within the punk rock scene. Pussy Riot, however, is not just a standard musical band; it is more of an art-partisan group with roots in Russian Actionism. It is no accident that Pussy Riot defendant Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is also one of the founders of the art group Voina [War]. To underscore that connection with the modern art movement, several years before Pussy Riot performed its punk prayer in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, one of the most prominent representatives of Russian Actionism – Alexander Brener – staged a similar performance, rushing to a church altar while screaming “Chechnya, Chechnya.”

Despite the worldwide outcry, three members of Pussy Riot are in jail today and authorities are hunting for other band members who remain at large. Tabula managed to interview the uncaptured performers.

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. My first question is: How important is the support for you expressed by people living outside Russia and what would you tell those who think that the Pussy Riot case is an internal problem of Russia?

A society of performance does not observe classical rules of dramaturgy. It does not restrict itself to time, place and action. Therefore, the external is not detached from the internal and vice versa. The “problem” has gone beyond the scale of state, outside its borders; Russian statehood (instrumentalism) has proved to be insufficient to cope with it.

The venue of protest, the church, caused irritation among a segment of the society. What would you like to tell these people?

Our blog on LiveJournal provides a full and detailed explanation of why we chose that place for our action in front of Kropotkinskatya Metro Station. We never intended to offend people, in general, any person, including believers. And we do not intend that now either. The government is sacralized and is presented as totem animals – that is what should cause true indignation of that segment of the society.

How do you explain such wide-scale mobilization of support for Pussy Riot when the detention of political activists is a common practice in Russia?

Political activists and three unusually courageous girls must be two different things, we think. The support is caused by the fact that the society is afraid of staging such actions because they are not a one-man protest or a speech at a mass rally. The form of protest is a novelty while its content, one might say, remains the same.

Such musical stars as Madonna, Björk, Sting, Paul McCartney and many others have expressed their solidarity whereas some representatives of Russian show business – for example, Pugacheva, Gazmanov, Kobzon, etcetera – have lashed out against Pussy Riot. What is the reason for that?

Unfortunately, that segment of Russian show business which you have mentioned is unknown to us. We do not know them, but can guess that we are dealing with ardent guardians of altar fire. It seems they hope that they will themselves fill in the line of totemic bestiary.

How effective are your actions? According to one opinion, they are more targeted to people living outside Russia than to Russian citizens. That relates especially to the punk prayer performed in the church. Could it be that the larger the number of foreigners expressing their solidarity with you, the more the number of Russian citizens believing in the legend about the rotten West – believing that Putin and Pugacheva defend spirituality whereas the West and Madonna attack God and religion?

Of course, one cannot have a hope of instant success. But, at the same time, everything happens in front of our eyes. Our every action is synchronized with what is happening in the country and not outside it. Some fear that the punk prayer will bear no fruit while others know that it has already brought result. The realm of our activity is our country and its problems.

In 2010, the art group Voina, one of the founders of which is Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, was awarded one of the most prestigious of all Russian awards in the sphere of modern art – the state prize “Innovation.” This year, Pussy Riot is nominated for no less prestigious an award – the Kandinsky Prize. Why were you nominated for that prize, in your view? Was that because of a political conjuncture or because you really create works of art?

We have no idea about that. We are not art critics; we just apply artistic means for our actions.

Within several days of the ruling delivered by the court against Pussy Riot, Reuters released information that the Russian police had launched a search for other members of the band who participated in the February protest at Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral. One could say that you have been declared “illegal.” Given the circumstances, what are you going to do, knowing that you could be seized at any time and share the fate of your friends? Do you think about fleeing the country?

A police officer attempting to seize a Pussy Riot supporter
Only two members of the band fled the country. But we intend to continue our fight. Escape is the last Chinese stratagem and, as commentators say, the best one. It is not too late yet for our opponents to take the opportunity of that stratagem.

What is your vision of Pussy Riot’s future? Regardless of whether or not it was planned, you are pop stars today. Pitchfork has posted your new song on its website while Playboy has invited you to pose for its photographers. What will happen next? A debut album on one of the famous labels, a concert tour – or barricades again and impromptu art actions on Moscow streets?

We are engaged only in illegal, unsanctioned performances, political activism. Participation in the capitalist system is not interesting for us; we do not recognize the “buy-sell” rule. We respect Madonna and Björk immensely, but nevertheless we cannot perform on squares offered by them. We will carry on our activity in Moscow, with the only difference now being that our protest actions must be stronger and better prepared.

According to opinion polls, the majority of Russian citizens believe that the court trial against Pussy Riot was conducted fairly. The same polls show that public opinion is not in your favor and sides with the official version. As researchers explain, the reason for that is that the majority of citizens receive information from TV channels riddled with propaganda against you and that the majority of the Russian society is conservative with values that differ from yours. Under such conditions, what makes you believe that your fight will end in success?

All that is part of a performance. We have become convinced that the “majority” is not empowered to make a decision or even to evaluate events objectively. The government continues to feed that segment with simulacra. We are willing to do something for even that one percent of people who reason and have progressive ideas.

And finally, a brief question and it would be desirable to receive an exhaustive answer to that question: What do you want?

We want people to suffer less, including from our state.

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 113, published 10 September 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

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