Revolution Treehouse: Pussy Riot

Welcome to Revolution Treehouse, your corner of the Lawrentian for all things creative, outspoken and changemaking! Art of every form is an evocative and efficient vehicle for political ideas, ranging from the protest music of the Vietnam War era to the graffiti transformation of confederate monuments during summer 2020. This column aims to share great art and cool facts about important historical and contemporary social movements with the Lawrence community because knowledge and inspiration make us powerful. Welcome to Revolution Treehouse! 

There aren’t enough good things to say about the multi-talented, multi-disciplinary Russian activist group Pussy Riot. Founded in Moscow in 2011, they have had a busy ten years protesting the Russian government through their performance art and absolutely bopping feminist punk rock music. They pull no punches in their art, exposing injustice and bigotry in the Russian government; their courageous actions have struck such a nerve with the government that many members of Pussy Riot have served prison time, in an unsuccessful attempt to intimidate and suppress them.   

One of Pussy Riot’s first performances in 2011 was held next door to Moscow Detention Center No. 1, where activists who had been arrested at protests over election results were being held. In February 2012, Pussy Riot staged their own protest over Putin’s re-election, which was surrounded by electoral fraud rumors. The performance, titled “A Punk Prayer,” catapulted them to international notoriety, and got three members of the group arrested. It took place in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Moscow, where the performers donned Pussy Riot’s iconic colorful balaclavas and sang their punk prayer to the tune of “Ave Maria.” The powerful lyrics included “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!/ […] Their chief saint [Putin] is the head of the KGB/He leads a convoy of protestors to jail/So as not to insult the Holiest One [Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church]” (Tayler 2012). (KGB translates to Committee for State Security, and its primary job is to silence dissidents.)   

“A Punk Prayer” is not only a dramatized plea to the Virgin Mary to save Russia from Putin’s autocratic ambitions, but a scathing critique of the Russian Orthodox Church, “deriding popular Russian subservience to a clergy many regard as corrupt, denouncing (widespread, in Russia) conservative attitudes toward gays [and] assailing the increasingly tight relationship between church and the (constitutionally secular) state” (Tayler 2012). Indeed, band member Yekaterina Samutsevich shared that Pussy Riot held their performance at the cathedral because it had been “used openly as a flashy backdrop for the politics of the security forces” (Tayler 2012).   

However, this decision left the group vulnerable to government retribution; three performers were charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” (Tayler 2012). Samutsevich was released after months in detention, but the other two, group members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were sentenced to two years of imprisonment in Gulags, forced labor camps, hundreds of miles away from their families. Amnesty International named all three women prisoners of conscience.   

Many internationally renowned musicians joined together to call for Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova’s release, including Yoko Ono, Radiohead and The Clash. Lucy Macnamara, Communications Manager for Art for Amnesty, recalled that “[s]everal musicians have told me that if you can’t sing a protest song without fear of arrest then something is badly wrong” ( 2013).   

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were granted amnesty in December 2013, in advance of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi; there was speculation that the Kremlin wanted to avoid controversy over Russia’s human rights record going into the Olympics. Alyokhina declared “If I had a chance to turn [amnesty] down, I would have done it, no doubt about that. This is not an amnesty. This is a hoax and a PR move” (Nemtsova 2013).  

After their release, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina founded a prison reform project called ZonaPrava, which monitors human rights violations in the Russian prison system. Said Tolokonnikova, “In our country, as long as cases of prisoners’ rights’ violation take place, we are sure that there will be a need for our organization” (Gorton 2014). She also reflected that the “Russian prison system is based on breaking the human spirit. It might make people obedient but it will never make them respect the rule of law” (Roache 2017).  

On Feb. 19, 2014, Pussy Riot released a song on YouTube which grapples with similar ideas; the song is titled “Putin will teach you how to love,” and deals with repression in Putin’s Russia. The vocalist shouts “They’ll teach you to submit and cry in the camps” and “Putin will teach you to love the Motherland” (Ioffe 2014). These seemingly contrasting images of loving the Motherland and crying in a labor camp are actually one and the same in Putin’s Russia: it is through acts of violence and dehumanization that the government breaks its people’s spirits and forces ‘love’ from them.   

Pussy Riot hasn’t restricted themselves to commentary on their own government; in 2016, they joined the global discourse around the United States’ presidential election, with a song titled “Make America Great Again.” As the lyricist and vocalist, Tolokonnikova asks “What do you want your world to look like?/What do you want it to be?/Do you know that a wall has two sides?/And nobody is free?” (Pussy Riot 2016). The music video features police brutalizing Tolokonnikova, burning words such as “pervert”, “fat pig”, and “outsider” onto her skin with a branding iron. It puts the very worst hateful, closed-minded aspects of American culture on blast, so we can see how pathetic this country looks to the rest of the planet.   

More recently, members of Pussy Riot have been involved with Alexei Navalny, a Russian politician, activist, and creator of a YouTube network that functions as an independent news network for the Russian people; when Navalny was poisoned on August 20, 2020, Tolokonnikova was “one of the people who helped transfer him from Moscow on a private medical plane” (Seymour 2021). Alyokhina was arrested for attending a protest on January 23, 2021 in support of Navalny, and faces another two years in prison for charges of “violation of sanitary and epidemiological rules”; the Russian government has been using Covid-19 as a means to suppress activists, by criminalizing people for leaving their homes. Of her involvement with Navalny’s movement, Kolokonnikova states that “I want to feel safe in my own country. I don’t feel safe in Russia now. Putin controls every single thing in Russia. And I think the only way to get rid of him is to show up in the streets and refuse to leave until he’s gone” (Seymour 2021).  

Every person deserves to feel safe in their country, and every person deserves the freedom to discuss issues that are important to them. Pussy Riot’s determination to stand up for those values in the face of an authoritarian government wielding fear tactics is admirable, necessary, and energy we could all learn from.