What does Pussy Riot hope to achieve? A revolution in Russia.

So spoke Nadya Tolokonnikova, a member of the contentious Russian punk band, formed in 2011. Pussy Riot is a collective of approximately 11 women; they use music to raise political questions about power and governance.

In late 2011, Pussy Riot began to protest publicly. They staged performances criticising Putin in the build up to his re-election on 4th March 2012. It culminated in their act on 21st February 2012, Mother of God, Drive Putin Away. Five Pussy Riot members entered Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Church, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. They danced around the altar, singing and shouting against corruption. Lyrics veered from the politically overt – ‘The head of the KGB, their chief saint/ Leads protesters to prison under escort’ to an outright plea ‘Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist… Put Putin away, put Putin away.’

The ensuing weeks ignited a global debate. On 26th February 2012, a criminal case was opened against the group members who had participated in the Cathedral performance. On 3rd March (the day before Putin’s re-election) Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova were arrested on charges of hooliganism. Two weeks later, Yekaterina Samutsevich, previously questioned as a witness, was also arrested and charged. Amnesty International named them prisoners of conscience and launched an international campaign.

The pre-trial period was mired with allegations of the exaggerated charges, with political and religious figures clashing over appropriate levels of punishment. Despite Putin’s claims that he didn’t “think they should be judged so harshly”, many saw the situation as a show-trial about the consequences of dissent in Putin’s Russia.

Because all you can deprive me of is “so-called” freedom. This is the only kind that exists in Russia. But nobody can take away my inner freedom […] This freedom goes on living with every person who is not indifferent – Maria Alyokhina

The three charged band members used their closing statements at trial to condemn the corruption and hypocrisy of Putin’s government, as they saw it. Samutsevich lambasted the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the government – both headed by former KGB colleagues.

This is a trial of the entire political system of the Russian Federation, which, to its great misfortune, enjoys quoting its own cruelty toward the individual, its indifference toward human honor and dignity, repeating all of the worst moments of Russian history. – Nadya Tolokonnikova 

Tolokonnikova echoed her collaborators’ criticism of state-run media and emphasised her hope that Pussy Riot were contributing to its demise – that ‘Russia does not condemn us, and with each passing day, more and more people believe in us and that we should be free’.

The defendants spoke about religion, quoting from the Bible, and stressing that their acts were not anti-religious, but against the corruption that had penetrated Russian religious practices. Tolokonnikova claimed that the ‘so-called leading figures of our state stand in the Cathedral with righteous faces on, but, in their cunning, their sin is greater than our own.’

Pussy Riot were each sentenced to two years in a penal colony, although only Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina ended up serving their time.

While Tolokonnikova was detained, she struck up a correspondence with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. They discussed communism, capitalism and dissent. The philosopher felt that the world’s reaction was ambiguous towards Pussy Riot because they ‘made visible the hidden continuity between Stalinism and contemporary global capitalism.’ They considered the problems of global capitalism, arguing that power is in the hands of the few while the majority are excluded from knowledge and thus decision-making influence.

The very existence of Pussy Riot tells thousands that opportunist cynicism is not the only option, that we are not totally disoriented, that there still is a common cause worth fighting for. – Slavoj Žižek

Tolokonnikova noted the hypocrisy of Europe and the US for displaying an ‘exaggerated loyalty’ towards countries that flagrantly abuse the rights of their citizens in pursuit of capitalist interests: ‘It betrays the desire to protect the political and economic status quo and the division of labour that lies at the heart of the world economic system.’

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were released as part of a general amnesty in December 2013. Since then, they and other members of Pussy Riot have continued to challenge autocracy, whether about Putin, patriarchy or global capitalism. Despite various internal disputes, they are still active and in February 2016, released their latest song, ‘Prison is a Weapon’.

Pussy Riot’s continued activism – even in the face of gruelling prison sentences – shows their determination to attain freedom. Alyokhina highlighted this at trial: ‘I became fundamentally convinced of the priority of inner freedom as the foundation for taking action.’ The connection between an individual’s critical thinking and wider social action are well demonstrated in their campaigns. Whatever the cause close to each of us, Pussy Riot surely urge us to jolt ourselves out of passivity and inaction.


References include: (2012) ‘Pussy Riot Closing Statements.’ https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/pussy-riot-closing-statements/ Web. 10 April 2016 and The Guardian (2013) ‘Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot’s prison letters to Slavoj Žižek.’ http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/nov/15/pussy-riot-nadezhda-tolokonnikova-slavoj-zizek Web. 10 April 2016. Article ©The Heroine Collective 2015 – Present, All Rights Reserved.
Miranda Bain

Written by Miranda Bain

Miranda is a recent graduate in History of Art and finds the world so generally interesting she is finding it tricky to specialise. She has been helping the founding phase of the Women’s Equality Party and has just started working for a human rights organisation. Along with feminism, she is passionate about imagination, open-mindedness and chocolate cake.
Igor Mukhin

Image by Igor Mukhin

Игорь Мухин at Russian Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)