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(Credit: Pussy Riot)

Music

At war with Russian oppression: A brief history of Pussy Riot and Eastern punk

@TomTaylorFO

In November 2011, masked women began scurrying up a scaffold in a Moscow subway station. The shocked faces of would-be passengers looked on. They soon found themselves amid a flurry of feathers as down pillows were pulled apart by the assailants. However, this was no strange fantasy snow globe; the pounding punk music accompanying the protest made sure of that. The song, titled ‘Release the Cobblestones’, rattled around the underground. The masked band decreed: “Your ballots will be used as toilet paper by the Presidential Administration.”

Only a matter of months later, three of the women present that day were arrested and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. Two of the women would eventually serve 21 months in prison before an amnesty was approved. One of those women, Nadya Tolokonnikova recently spoke to the Guardian, saying, “If you fight with a dictator like Putin, you have to show them that you are willing to die—and I was.” The other woman, Masha Alekhina, was jailed once more back in February for “extremist propaganda”.

Now, their words of warning are all too clear, but the portents were in place a long time ago. We recently spoke with the musician and former punk subversive in the days of the Berlin Wall, Mark Reeder, and he told remarked that “music is the only thing that truly brings us together”. In dire times that might seem intangible, but his story and the message that Pussy Riot has been disseminating since their inception, is proof of the subversive force that culture can be and the role it has to play in such matters.

Formed in late 2011, the Pussy Riot collective arose in response to national politics in Russia. While the 15 members had differing ideologies, the central tenets were simple: feminism, anti-authoritarianism and opposition to Vladimir Putin’s “aggressive imperial politics”. While the liberal aims of the group proved reasonable, their means of protest were often deemed radical even in the West, which sadly drew the majority of the attention the group received as native media outlets were sceptical about covering them. However, the group themselves argued that a radical approach was the only way to garner any attention amid such an oppressive regime where stoicism has traditionally diffused any calls for progressive change.

A mark of the group’s radical approach came to the fore in January 2012. With two of their most prominent members imprisoned, the collective staged their most riotous display to that point. Eight members of the group boldly stormed onto the Lobnoye Mesto in Red Square and performed the song ‘Putin Zassal’, which translates roughly to “Putin is pissing his pants”.

While public opinion in Russia remained relatively unsympathetic towards the band, the fact that anti-Putin rallies around the time managed to attract around 100,000 protestors is a mark of the subversive force that was gathering. As the group stated: “We saw how troops were moving around Moscow, there were helicopters in the sky, the military was put on alert. The regime just wet its pants on that day. And the symbol of the regime is Putin.” This remains a symbol of hope in today’s crisis.

(Credit: Pussy Riot)

After the band continued their protests in Russia, they began to witness further authoritarian regimes come to fruition elsewhere. Thus, they entered the world of global politics in 2015 as their first single in English titled ‘I Can’t Breathe’ tackled police brutality following the death of Eric Garner. Once more, what may have seemed radical at the time held a tragic prescience in the incidents that have since followed with the death of George Floyd.

In the interim years, differing politics within the core collective and external legal fights have hindered the group. For instance, back in 2017, three band members were arrested after demonstrating outside of a Siberian prison for the release of the Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov. As Newsweek later reported: “Two members of the all-female Russian punk band Pussy Riot who allegedly disappeared on Tuesday after being harassed by police in Crimea have reappeared and are safe, according to the group’s social media pages.” They have also since been labelled foreign agents by the State.

Although imminent danger has always surrounded the group, they have continued to be a force for subversive protest even if their identity is now somewhat fractured into separate circles. As Alekhina stated upon her recent arrest following her protest of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko: “I think that after last year no one doubts that Lukashenka is a pure fascist. So, I’ll go to the detention centre with a clear conscience.”

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If these admirably bold moves seem futile on the surface when scaled against the might of military presence and brutalist regimes, the truth is that Russia has a history of the arts affecting actionable change. Back in 1978 a fateful demonstration in Tbilisi, Georgia SSR, helped to eventually topple the USSR. The Soviet powerhouse attempted to change the constitutional status of languages in Georgia to make Russian the official spoken tongue. They overplayed their hand, and even the threats that the might of the State brandished were not enough to suppress protest en masse.

The protestors were victorious, and the constitutional change was vetoed, but the Soviet leaders had a far bigger problem on their hands. They had effectively pulled a pin on a hand grenade of dissident and mobilised youth, and they were still holding it. Almost overnight, the underground expanded and where previously the subversive force of music was used subtly and tentatively, it now transmuted into an unmistakable snarl.

To get the youth back onside, a music festival was organised. During which the prime crop of underground acts were officially allowed to play. One such band were Aquarium. Their raucous on-stage actions were deemed homosexual, which was illegal and persecuted in the USSR at the time, they were banned and blacklisted. However, in an oversight that only a state power couldn’t foretell, anything that is banned in terms of arts immediately gains profound youth appeal. Blacklisted acts and western bands were now too popular to hold back.

In 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev took control, the country opened up in earnest, and the new age began. The bands that had stood defiant were finally able to make money and play freely. The continued works of Pussy Riot and other such activists offers hope that such progressive politics can one day return to the region. The situation may well be dire, but from the rubble, culture will always offer a subversive force for salvation. Currently, you can check out Tolokonnikova campaigns by visiting her independent Russian media website by clicking here.