Why Russia Needs a Pussy Riot

This previous summer, while I was studying abroad in Ufa, Russia, Pussy Riot became the center of an international scandal. In February, the group of young women staged a rambunctious performance in one of Moscow’s most historically significant cathedrals, while clad in bright dresses and knitted balaclava masks. They danced, kicked, and threw punches in the air, “praying” for the Virgin Mary to become a feminist and chase current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin out of office. Months later, while watching the evening news, I was confronted with a completely different image of Pussy Riot. This time they were not the masked artists I had once seen performing on top of the trolleybuses in Moscow, appearing spontaneously in public like feminist superheroes – they were now handcuffed prisoners being escorted by policemen, facing prosecution for hooliganism. During the trial, the main leaders of the group sat unmasked, smiling sarcastically from their glass defendant cell.

Although Pussy Riot has always identified itself as a feminist punk band, the word “feminism” was scarcely heard amid arguments of the press and general outcry from the public. Through discussions with other 20-somethings in Russia, I discovered that some supported Pussy Riot while others were outraged and believed that the women should be sentenced to 28 years in prison. What the majority (including us Western observers) had failed to realize is that Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” was an actual prayer to end the tyranny of a misogynistic society.

In Russia, the word “feminism” is not seen as a complex set of theoretical ideas, or as a crusade that seeks to demolish certain socio-political practices. Feminism, in the minds of many, means only one thing: disgruntled women who consider themselves superior to men. When speaking with men or women about feminists, I found that it was not uncommon for many to dismiss the movement’s demands as mere publicity-seeking antics.

Feminism cannot become part of the Russian political context until the term itself is clearly understood in the minds making up Russian society. In Pussy Riot’s now infamous show trial, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the informal leader of the group, asked the prosecution’s witnesses and “victims” whether they consider the word “feminist” to be obscene. All of them responded with the same answer: yes, if invoked in a church. “For an Orthodox believer it is an insult, an obscenity,” stated the cathedral security guard Sergei Beloglazov. When Tolokonnikova asked the guard whether he knew the meaning of the word, the judge disallowed her question.

Those who possess a combative, “women vs. men” understanding of feminism will not understand why Pussy Riot’s acts are considered feminist. However, the band’s explicit aim is not to antagonize men, but to destroy binary conceptions of gender; in their own words from a published interview:

We would like to deconstruct that polarity of ‘men-women’ itself, that division of humanity according to gender into two opposite camps that dictate certain sets of interests and peculiarities. Wе consider that in every human being there is
a ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ beginning.

But how does singing to the Virgin Mary to chase Putin out of office relate to taking action against society’s normative gender arrangements? Acclaimed feminist writer Judith Butler, who like many feminists rejects the division between the private and the political, sees gender categories as roles that have been enacted throughout history to preserve hegemonic political arrangements. According to Butler, acting “feminine” or “masculine” is not intrinsic behavior; rather, such acts are performances that serve a social and political purpose.

President Vladimir Putin has built a base of supporters by playing the role of the hyper-masculine macho man capable of solving everyone’s problems. His is an image that appeals to a society with strictly defined notions of “masculine” and “feminine.” Photos of Putin hunting shirtless in the wilderness, bending frying pans with his bare hands and participating in arm-wrestling contests speak for themselves. Putin’s manliness is on display everywhere, even on the airwaves. Perhaps you may have caught yourself singing “One like Putin,” a 2002 pop song extolling Putin’s manliness. The music video features two attractive Russian women singing, “If I could only find a man like Putin”; according to the song, such a man would be “full strength,” and would not drink, offend, or run away. An even more egregious example of Putin’s traditionally masculine persona is an ad used in his political campaign for the presidential election. The video presents Putin in a sexualized context as the prophesied first lover of “virgin voters.”

During my nine months in Russia, I had to learn to abstain from speaking about feminism altogether. For the most part, the mere mention of this word triggered sighs or was met with indifference by men and women alike.

…women should not have to adapt to sexist social schemes and should not be thrown in prison for attempting to subvert patriarchal attitudes – in essence, this is Pussy Riot’s central message. The fact that this belief is an understandable and perhaps obvious one to young American women, typifies one of the social outcomes of American feminism.

For a Sarah Lawrence student who had pored over feminist texts and engaged in late-night discussions about gender issues with roommates (or any available victim in the vicinity), living in a country that adheres unquestioningly to its society’s gender roles was a constant shock. With nothing but a strained smile to shield me, I often had to stand silently and accept unsolicited comments. On one occasion, my host mother stopped me at the door and forbade me from stepping outside. “Where are you going, looking like that?” she asked disapprovingly. “You have to look nice – you are a girl!” The transgression in question was my attempt to leave for a morning class while wearing worn-out sneakers and my hair in a mess.

After several weeks in Russia, I started to adapt to these norms and even began to disregard feminist objections in order to avoid awkward situations. To a certain extent, ignoring feminism became a coping strategy for navigating the culture. Nevertheless, women should not have to accept sexist social schemes and should not be thrown into prison for attempting to subvert patriarchal attitudes – in essence, this is Pussy Riot’s central conviction. The fact that this belief is an understandable and perhaps obvious one to young American women, typifies one of the social outcomes of American feminism.

Apathy towards the feminist movement in Russia has been Pussy Riot’s main obstacle in propagating their message. Although we can point to several limits to feminism in our own United States, we can take pride in the accomplishment of feminism’s presence in American social consciousness and political discourse. Feminist arguments are not belittled and set aside, rather they are seen as legitimate demands that often translate into substantial political measures. Following his tradition of appealing to Russia’s more liberal demographics, former president Dmitry Medvedev declared that the incarceration of Pussy Riot is “unproductive” and that the women should be freed. Even if they are released, the fight will continue – not just against Putin, but also against the oppressive patriarchal attitudes that individuals such as himself promote and manipulate in their favor.

Gabriela Martinez ’12 studied Russian and Global Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, and spent her third year abroad in Yaroslavl, Russia. Having graduated last May, she participated in a Critical Language Scholarship Summer Program in Ufa, Russia. She is currently living in Puerto Rico, planning her next exile to the Motherland to work as an English teacher.

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