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Pussy Riot: the anonymous band behind the high-profile conviction (+video)

Pussy Riot – which has members beyond the three convicted – isn't your typical band that performs songs back to back in a live concert. But the group now has worldwide recognition and is expected to continue recording.

Russia's most famous punk rockers, the members of Pussy Riot, have begun serving their sentence amid continuing protests to set them free. Kelly Cobiella reports on the band that has stirred international controversy.
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Pussy Riot has everything most aspiring bands dream of: worldwide recognition, fan support from megastars like Madonna and Paul McCartney, and offers to tour and record wherever it wants, whenever it wants.

However, unlike many aspiring bands, Pussy Riot faces a major hurdle: prison.

Last week, on the day a Moscow court sentenced three women of Pussy Riot to two years in prison after being convicted of “hooliganism,” for their profane protest performance at an Orthodox cathedral this past February, the group released its newest song online. The dueling realities of pop-music promotion and courtroom reality made this group a household name, and it doesn’t appear the group’s momentum will wane anytime soon.

In fact, Pussy Riot is less a band and more an artist collective, with members numbering between 12 and 25, says Robert Lieber, an administrator of FreePussyRiot.org, a website that is advocating the group’s release in association with its legal team in Moscow. While their incarceration has made Yekaterina Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Maria Alyokhina the public faces of the group, the remaining members of Pussy Riot – whoever they are – are expected to continue recording and building worldwide fame, says Mr. Lieber, who lives in Portland, Maine.

They will do so anonymously, as they have been operating since last year. The group largely consists of Russian female university graduates in their 20s who wear brightly colored balaclavas and release songs described as “actions” to accompany guerrilla street protests. The group splintered from Voina, an underground Russian art collective with more than 60 members that is known for provocative street performances that authorities have deemed criminal.

Instead of releasing its music through traditional methods, Pussy Riot is more focused on uploading viral videos of its performances. To date, the group has released six songs.

“Putin Lights the Fires,” the song released last week, targets Russian President Vladimir Putin. The group’s previous songs have dealt with themes like homophobia, feminism, and the environment. Eight members of the group appeared in public in January, when they rushed Moscow’s Red Square to perform “Revolt in Russia, Putin Got Scared!,” another song about Mr. Putin.

The group’s anonymity “stands in a long tradition of political activism” and art, says Dieter Roelstraete, a senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. “If they weren’t anonymous, people would perhaps be inclined to put the focus on the individual achievement of the artists, but clearly they are more interested in the power of the collective. It’s much more important for them to make a statement collectively than to make a statement individually.”

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Another benefit of not having anyone know who you are: personal security. On Monday, Russian police announced they were searching for two more members of Pussy Riot believed to have played a role in the cathedral performance.

“The criminal case is ongoing, and a search is under way,” an Interior Ministry spokesman told RIA Novosti on Monday. Lieber would not specify where the remaining members are currently to protect them from arrest but says, “You can be certain they are connected to Moscow and St. Petersburg.”

Pussy Riot’s roots are in the US underground punk-rock movement from two decades ago. In an interview earlier this year with Vice magazine, the band said it was influenced by Riot Grrrl, the feminist punk-rock movement from the early 1990s that originated in the Pacific Northwest. A wave of bands like Bikini Kill, L7, The Butchies, and Bratmobile were all-women groups who spoke out against sexual assault and advocated female empowerment.

“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,” said one member, only known as Garadzha.

While political protest and rock music were synonymous early on, few radicalized groups have risked guerrilla performances to drive home their politics. The Detroit group MC5 performed outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago to protest the Vietnam War, only to be broken up by rioting. In 1977, the Sex Pistols showed up on a riverboat on the Thames outside Buckingham Palace in London to perform “God Save the Queen,” which mocked the British monarchy.

Pussy Riot is exposing people outside Russia to the “political reality” of artists in that country, says Mr. Roelstraete.

“The choice to make art [in Russia] is not as frivolous as it can be in other countries. It comes with political dangers,” he says. “Obviously they’re doing pioneering work,” he says of Pussy Riot.

Support for the group has been unanimous across the art, music, film, fashion, and theater worlds, as major and minor players in each sphere have expressed outrage, saying the Russian government is threatening personal expression.

On the commercial side, Lieber says he has been fielding offers for the band to record and tour “all the time,” but he expects nothing to happen in the near future, especially with the current police investigation.

“It is not their intention to perform their songs back to back [in a live setting like a concert],” Lieber says. “Like all performance art, [the songs] are not intended to be repeated. It was never their intention to be a traditional rock band.”

But one sure thing to happen, as early as this week, is a line of Pussy Riot merchandise on the website of Björk, the Icelandic pop star who is a supporter of the group. All proceeds will pay for the group’s legal defense, Lieber says.

The legal defense for Ms. Samutsevich, Ms. Tolokonnikova, and Ms. Alyokhina is expected to get an appeal date next week. They are prepared to take their case to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, the country’s highest court, Lieber says.

Art promoters in Western Europe and North America are probably now interested in working with Pussy Riot, but even that comes with risk, Roelstraete says.

“At this point, it’s hard to imagine how it will travel across the border,” he says. “It’s a risky proposition, not just because of overexposure, but because of the potential of Russian objection to what could be perceived as Western nosiness.”


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