Maria Alyokhina’s Riot Days bears witness to the hardships endured by those who dare oppose the ruling powers, and reminds us that music does have the power to shake up the status quo.
By Mary Karmelek
“Riot is always a thing of beauty.” – Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot
Consider the following: The Dead Kennedys calling California Governor Jerry Brown a fascist pig. The Sex Pistols mocking the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Fugazi and the Minutemen playing non-corporate venues. Bikini Kill sharing songs about rape and domestic abuse.
The tie that binds them all is music, especially punk, that incites protest and voices opposition. Coming on the heels of the protest music that flourished in the 1960s and early 1970s during antiwar mobilizations, civil rights and women’s liberation movements, punk was there to serve as a wake-up call to those lulled into complacency, believing that the tumultuous times had passed.
When people get pissed off, they often turn to music. Like a faithful pitbull, punk is always there for them. Punk began in the U.S. as a rejection of American middle-class values and in Britain as a protest against conditions of the working class, but blossomed into a celebration of anti-authoritarianism and took on an aesthetic all its own. Disaffected youth all over the world turned to punk and found the support they needed within communities they created. When punk bands first began to play, they offered hope for, and solidarity with, those that society had tossed by the wayside.
For many people, the unrest that sparked the original punk music of the 1970s and 1980s seems distant, something found in history books. Sure, corruption, injustice, racism, sexism, and abuse of power still exist in America—who can ignore the current festering sore in the White House?—but the corporate state and its media handmaidens provide enough distractions to placate the teeming masses.
In other parts of the world, however, the circumstances are not so opaque. In Russia, those voicing opposition to the government face heavy fines, and free speech has become a laughable term. And, as for feminism? Forget about it! Conditions like these beg to be challenged, especially through a genre that has a history of confronting authority.Pussy Riot formed in the wake of the 2011 Snow Revolution in Russia, a series of protests that began as a reaction to what many believed to be flawed legislative election (pre-fake Facebook political ads) and the news that Putin was running for his third term as President. Pussy Riot’s founding members, including Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (also known as Nadya Tolokno), Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina, were formerly part of an anarchist art group called Voina, which they left in 2009. Putin’s run for a third presidential term, which the women saw as evidence of a corrupt corporate political system that threatened civil and political liberties, ignited the formation of a new collective – united in a fight for LGBT rights, feminism, gender equality, and anti-authoritarian decentralized government.
Pussy Riot’s protest took the form of guerrilla performances in unsanctioned venues. Made up of a varying number of women whose identities remain hidden beneath their signature brightly-colored baklavas (for an “anti-fascist superhero” look), they drew inspiration from bands like Sham 69, the Cockney Rejects, Angelic Upstarts, Bikini Kill and the Riot Grrrl movement. Their songs often sampled tracks from these artists, with scathing lyrics full of references to current Russian politics and the country’s revolutionary past layered on top.
Pussy Riot released their first song, “Ubey seksista” (“Kill the Sexist”) in October, 2011. A month later, they staged a public performance atop scaffolding in the Moscow subway, singing “Osvobodi Bruschatku” (“Release the Cobblestones”), a song that encouraged citizens to protest upcoming parliamentary elections. They next performed in the windows of a fashion boutique and amidst luxury automobile displays, and later atop the garage outside the Moscow Detention Center. By playing in these illegal spaces, they hoped to cause a bigger disruption and draw media attention while commenting on the material greed of the elite.
That winter, protests against Putin began to number in the tens of thousands, the opposition seemed to be gaining ground. Inspired by these events and tired of watching the president try to become an emperor, Pussy Riot performed “Putin Zassal” (“Putin has Pissed Himself”) in the Red Square outside of the Kremlin.
Despite the protests, Putin was included on the final list of candidates for the 2012 election, bolstered by support from the church Patriarch. Pussy Riot’s response would be the event that put them on the world map.
According to the Russian Constitution, church and state are to remain separate. But the line of separation has become blurred under Putin’s administration, and members of Pussy Riot (many of whom are actually practicing Christians) wanted to protest what they saw as the church’s adamant support of Putin and his agenda. On February 21, 2012, less than two weeks before the presidential election, five members of Pussy Riot, including Samutsevich, Tolokonnikova, and Maria Alyokhina, gathered at Cathedral of Christ the Savior of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. They had rehearsed a six-minute performance but only managed about 40 seconds of kneeling in mock prayer, jumping around the altar, and kicking their legs in the air – all while trying to evade security guards. They were dragged out by the guards but not immediately arrested. Footage of the incident was cut with a separate performance in a different church and released with the song “Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away.”
The performance resulted in charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” against Tolokinnikova, and Alyokhina. They became fugitives from the law, avoiding police while staying in Moscow. They were finally arrested March 3, along with Samutsevich, and held in pretrial detention for over four months. In protest, they staged a hunger strike. The lengthy detainment was seen as an excess show of power by the state and the women were labeled as “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International.
The trial finally began at the end of July and was covered internationally, allowing the world a look inside the strict policing of anti-government activity in Russia. The women pleaded not guilty, saying they had not meant to be offensive but were simply protesting the fusion of the Orthodox church with the government. Ultimately the women’s acts were seen as blasphemous, “inciting hatred” against the church, and led to a sentence of seven years of imprisonment in a penal colony.
Alyokhina’s recently released memoir Riot Days details the early days of Pussy Riot and the two years she spent in penal colonies in Nizhny Novgorod and the Perm region near the Ural mountains. A mixture of diary entries, court exposition, sketches, and song lyrics, the book reads like poetry and a punk manifesto.
Recalling the days after the “Punk Prayer” performance, she emphasizes the group’s desire to stay and fight for a future in Moscow that they believed in rather than emigrate or capitulate. “In our story,” Alyokhina writes, “personal choices are political.”
During the trial, Samutsevich, Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina were forced to sit in a bulletproof plexiglass cube, handcuffed and surrounded by police. The chapter in Riot Days about the court proceedings reads almost like scenes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where logic has no place in a trial that seems has been decided beforehand. Take for example, the testimony of a candle-tender who was in the church during the performance:
She said she entered the church, began to wipe off the candle holders and saw ‘some kind of activity.’
‘What kind of activity?’ the prosecutor asks.
‘Leaping and hopping around—clearly planned leaping and hopping,’ the candle-tender said.
This offended her greatly, as a result of which she had suffered terribly and was still suffering, even now. She said: ‘Yes, it is a crime.’
Lawyer for the defense: ‘Have you seen a doctor?’
‘The divine energy of the holy spirit is stronger than any doctor,’ the candle-tender said.
‘Why hasn’t the divine energy of the holy spirit healed you?’
‘Strike the question,’ the judge said.
Alyokhina’s first prison camp in Perm (near Siberia) was within eyeshot of the infamous gulags of the Stalin era, and indeed her experiences seem more fitting for that time period. Once again, it was a case of those in power abusing their position to exploit those below them—and Alyokhina decided it was time to protest once more. Using her own political celebrity and legal resources, she exposed the unacceptable conditions of the penal colony—including stealing of prisoner’s wages, unnecessary cavity searches, and manure-filled work rooms. In a statement to the court, she wrote, “I came to the court for all those who have no rights, for all those who have no voice, for those who are deprived by their voices by those who have the power to do so.” As a result, the conditions of the camp were improved, wages were repaid, waste was removed and the inmates received new mattresses.
After bringing too much attention to Perm, Alyokhina was transferred to a labor camp near Nizhny Novgorod in July of 2013. That same summer, Putin passed a bill imposing jail time on anyone who offends religious believers—widely thought to be a response to “Punk Prayer” and Pussy Riot.
Both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were released from prison as part of a larger amnesty granted by Putin in December 2013 which freed 50 prisoners, just ahead of the Sochi Olympics (though Putin made a point of calling their acts “disgraceful”). Since her release, Alyokhina has continued her political activism. She and other members of Pussy Riot were beaten by patrolling forces after a performance at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. That same year, she was co-winner, with Tolokonnikova, of the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought. This past October, Alyokhina performed in the refugee-led Belarus Free Theater production of the play Burning Doors, a piece about the lives of artists living under the oppression of a dictator. Tolokonnikova has been busy discussing the dangers of Putin and Trump and continues to create art and music.
Riot Days bears witness to the hardships endured by those who dare oppose the ruling powers, and reminds us that music does have the power to shake up the status quo. Even if Putin is in power, Pussy Riot has forever left a mark on his presidency. They may have been arrested on charges of “hooliganism,” but hooligan is just another word for punk. And punk is just another word for protest.
On a final note, Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova offers a guide for taking the fight to Trump (and Putin).