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Pussy Riot Remind Us That Revolution Always Begins in Culture
Vladimir Putin is right to be frightened by Pussy Riot. They are essentially a concept and you can't stop a concept
Some people have their eyes on the prize. A prize beyond medals. That prize is freedom, freedom of expression, freedom to protest. I am talking about Pussy Riot, who are drawing the eyes of the world to what is happening in Russia. Pussy Riot – crazy punks, yeah? No, they are not crazy, daft or naive. They are being tried for blasphemy in what is still, nominally, a secular state. They are highlighting what happens to any opposition to president Vladimir Putin and, indeed, they do look fabulous. If you want to see protest as art or the art of protest, look at these women and their supporters.
Described as punk inheritors of the Riot Grrrl mantle, they are so much more. They are now on trial in Moscow for a crime that took 51 seconds to commit. Please watch it on YouTube. They mimed an anti-Putin song in the main Orthodox cathedral wearing their trademark balaclavas and clashing colors. For this "hooliganism " and "religious hatred", the three women have already served five months in jail. They now face a possible seven-year sentence, in a country where fewer than 1% of cases that go to trial end in a not guilty verdict.
Pussy Riot function symbolically as the head of a protest movement in Russia that is being shut down. Bloggers have been arrested, and people are scared to express any anti-Putin sentiment. Only state-sanctioned demonstrations are allowed. The slide into dictatorship is apparent and, significantly, one of the biggest benefactors has been the church, which has performed a massive "land grab". Pussy Riot exist to draw attention to precisely what is so disturbing, a totalitarian nation where the church and state are become one. Some have warned that Russia is becoming a new entity, a Christian fundamentalist state. Members of the Orthodox church have said the separation of the secular and the spiritual is "a western idea". This what Pussy Riot are up against.
The women have been called Satanists by state prosecutors and various priests, though their supporters paint them as sweet young mothers. Doubtless they are, but they are also cleverly using long-established forms of anonymous anarchic protest. The balaclavas mean anyone can be Pussy Riot. The Guerilla Girls in the Art World did this. An anarchist "strike" once involved all of us writing with the byline Karen Eliot. Occupy does it. The dull and respectable left too often ignores the genius of these forms of dissent.
Indeed, as Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill, one of Pussy Riot's inspirations, says, these methods of protest cannot be jailed. Their name itself is to oppose the idea of the feminine as "receiving"; instead the female sex organ, they say, can "suddenly start a radical rebellion against the cultural order". These women have read everything from Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler and Rosi Braidotti. They know what they are about.
No wonder the patriarchs of Russia are worried. Pussy Riot have spread the word, and the word is that their "great leader" resembles a Gaddafi or Kim Jong-un. They have done so through a series of cunning stunts and are now recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty. Sting has worn a Pussy Riot T-shirt, though I would prefer to see all the rock stars in balaclavas and for Madonna to get one as soon as possible.
What Putin cannot stop, though, is a concept. Pussy Riot are essentially conceptual artists. This is what makes them threatening – it is not possible to imprison a concept. The celebration of rock and punk as anthemic that we saw last week was lovely, but Pussy Riot are a reminder that revolution always begins first in culture, in the radical act. In the society of the spectacle, that act – Pussy Riot's sporadic performances – get YouTube hits and retweets. In these days of Twitter shallows, remember it is the virtual world that has pushed Pussy Riot into the spotlight and in the real world they are in prison.
If ever we needed an anarcho-feminist protest, it is now. But I would say that, wouldn't I? Sure, the unimaginative can reduce this to "Punks against Putin" and say these women have no manifesto. They are up to something else altogether: making complicated points look simple. They are the opposition and they are girls with guitars and knitted hats, not men with guns. This is wonderful.
For some, anarchism has always been an inherently feminist philosophy as it opposes relationships based on power. Pussy Riot come from the country where Bakunin argued against Proudhon for the equality of women and against the authoritarian family. It is also the country of another woman who walked the walk: Emma Goldman. She saw anarchic protest as a legitimate opposition against government control. Of such protests she said: "It seems to me that these are the new forms of life, and that they will take the place of the old, not by preaching or voting, but by living them."
Pussy Riot are these new forms of life, even as they sit in a cage – an actual cage – facing these ridiculous charges because Putin is threatened. He should be. It cannot be said enough. We are all Pussy Riot.