Meeting Pussy Riot

By Henry Langston

Odds are you've heard of Pussy Riot. They're an anonymous feminist punk band with openly anti-Putin lyrics who refuse to play in normal venues and seek to bring down the Russian government. They formed last September after Putin announced he'd stand again for the presidency in March 2012—a scary prospect for many since poverty, terror attacks, corruption, and the loss of civil rights have been the hallmarks of his reign at the Kremlin.

Since their formation Pussy Riot have made headlines with a series of illegal guerilla performances that included playing "Revolt in Russia" on the symbolic Red Square in January 2012. Ultimately they were arrested under Russia's strict illegal protest laws, but at the time all eight bandmates were released to fight another day.

Unfortunately that day didn't last long. On February 21 the band staged a final high-profile performance at Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral, and were arrested for charges stemming from the show a few days later, just before the March 3 election that saw Putin's return to power. This time not all of them were released: Two members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhin are still in custody and have started a hunger strike, proclaiming they won't stop until they're returned to their children. All of them face up to seven years in prison, if found guilty.

Below is an interview I did with the band in the middle of February, days before their arrest.

VICE: So what inspired you guys to start Pussy Riot?
Kot:
Pussy Riot came to action around the end of September 2011, right after Putin announced that he was planning to return as president and brutally rule Russia for at least 12 more years.

Serafima: Right, and at that point we realized that this country needs a militant, punk-feminist, street band that will rip through Moscow's streets and squares, mobilize public energy against the evil crooks of the Putinist junta and enrich the Russian cultural and political opposition with themes that are important to us: gender and LGBT rights, problems of masculine conformity, absence of a daring political message on the musical and art scenes, and the domination of males in all areas of public discourse. 

VICE: Why "Pussy Riot"?
Garadzha:
A female sex organ, which is supposed to be receiving and shapeless, suddenly starts a radical rebellion against the cultural order, which tries to constantly define it and show its appropriate place. Sexists have certain ideas about how a woman should behave, and Putin, by the way, also has a couple thoughts on how Russians should live. Fighting against all that—that's Pussy Riot.

Kot: You shouldn't have answered that question, Garadzha, because usually we don't. When cops and FSB agents interrogate us and ask, "What the hell do these English letters on your banner stand for" (we put out a banner during some of our illegal performances and hardly any of these jerks speak any foreign language)—then we usually say something like "Oh well, Mr. Secret Policeman, it's nothing special, those words just stand for "Pussycat rebellion." But, of course that's a brutal lie. In Russia you should never tell the truth to a cop or to any agent of the Putinist regime.

What are your musical influences?
Kot:
Some of us draw inspiration from classic oi!-punk bands of the early 1980s; The Angelic Upstarts, Cockney Rejects, Sham 69, and the other acts in that bunch—all those folks had incredible musical and social energy, their sound ripped though the atmosphere of their decade, stirred trouble around itself. Their vibe does really capture the essence of punk, which is aggressive protest. 

Garadzha: A lot of credit certainly goes to Bikini Kill and the bands in the Riot Grrrl act—we somehow developed what they did in the 1990s, although in an absolutely different context and with an exaggerated political stance, which leads to all of our performances being illegal—we'll never give a gig in a club or in any special musical space. That's an important principle for us.

Kot: Tobi Vail got in touch with us after reading an article in The Guardian. She said she really liked the stuff we do. It was awesome to get feedback from her. And people from Le Tigre said that the Red Square act was cool. That's inspiring to hear, because those people did influence us at some point. 

Who are your major feminist influences?
Serafima:
In feminist theory that would be De Beauvoir with the Second Sex, Dvorkin, Pankhurst with her brave suffragist actions, Firestone and her crazy reproduction theories, Millett, Braidotti's nomadic thought, Judith Butler's Artful Parody.

Garadzha: And as said before, in terms of feminist musical acts, activism, and community building we do give credit to the Riot Grrrl movement.

Are Pussy Riot looking for new members?
Garadzha:
Always! Pussy Riot has to keep on expanding. That's one of the reasons we choose to always wear balaclavas—new members can join the bunch and it does not really matter who takes part in the next act—there can be three of us or eight, like in our last gig on the Red Square, or even 15. Pussy Riot is a pulsating and growing body. 

Tyurya: Do you know anyone who wants to come to Moscow, play illegal concerts, and help us fight Putin and Russian chauvinists? Or maybe they could start their own local Pussy Riot, if Russia is too cold and too far.

I'd better find myself a neon balaclava then. Are you worried about police/state harassment as your profile grows?
Kot:
We have nothing to worry about, because if the repressive Putinist police crooks throw one of us in prison, five, ten, 15 more girls will put on colorful balaclavas and continue the fight against their symbols of power.

Serafima: And today, with tens of thousands of people routinely taking to the streets, the state will think twice before trying to fabricate a criminal case and putting us away. There are loads of Pussy Riot fans in Russia's protesting masses.

What was the reason behind choosing to stay anonymous?
Serafima:
Our goal is to move away from personalities and towards symbols and pure protest.

Tyurya: We often change names, balaclavas, dresses, and roles inside the groups. People drop out, new members join the group, and the lineup in each Pussy Riot's guerilla performance can be entirely different.

How do you see Russia under a new Putin-led government?
Serafima:
How did you see Libya under Gaddafi? How do you see North Korea under Kim Jong-un, the 28-year-old "Brilliant comrade"? To us, Russia under Putin, aka "the National Leader," is no different.

Tyurya: As a third-world dictatorship with all its nice and classy features: Horrible economy based on natural resources, unbelievable levels of corruption, absence of independent courts, and a dysfunctional political system. And under Putin we are up for another decade of brutal sexism and conformism as official government policies.

How do you feel about other anti-govt groups, such as Voina and Ukraine's Femen?
Tyurya:
Voina is cool, we watch them closely, we're more fond of their earlier period of 2007-2008 when they went over the top doing really crazy and symbolic actions like "Fuck for the heir Puppy Bear" on the eve of the 2008 presidential elections. Their drawing of a skull-and-bones with a green laser on Russia's parliament or their staging a ceremonial hanging of homosexuals and illegal immigrants as a gift to Moscow's mayor, this was powerful stuff.

Serafima: Our opinion on Femen is a complicated story. On one hand, they exploit a very masculine and sexist rhetoric in their protests—men want to see aggressive naked girls attacked by cops. On the other hand, their energy and the ability to keep on going no matter what, is awesome and inspiring: One day they are in Switzerland scaling the fence of the World Economic Forum and the next day they are in Moscow attacking the HQ of Russia's biggest Natural Gas producer. And even after they were tortured and humiliated by KGB agents in Belarus, they vowed to keep on fighting even harder. Energy is very important these days; Street groups in Europe and America often lack power, but these girls have really got it.

What's been your favorite gig?
Garadzha:
Aside from the Red Square, all of us are really fond of the act we did on the roof of one of the buildings of a Detention Center in Moscow, where people were arrested after the December 5 post-election protests were held. The political detainees could see us from inside their prison cells and they chanted and cheered while we sang the "Death to Prisons—Freedom to Protest" song. Prison officers and staff were running around not knowing what to do because they had no idea how to immediately take us off that roof. And they got so scared they immediately ordered a lockdown—they must've thought a siege of the Detention Centre was coming after we finished singing. That was cool. 

Do you have any plans to stage shows at public appearances by Medyved or Putin?
Tyurya:
Putin is too scared to do any real public appearances—all his "public meetings" are heavily guarded shows with Kremlin loyalists cheering and blowing kisses. But one day we'll hunt him down for sure!

Serafima: So he better leave before we catch him. Putin would never want to meet Pussy Riot face to face!

Follow Henry on Twitter: @Henry_Langston

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