New Design

Pussy Riot

Russian Artist Collective

Pussy Riot Photo
Started: 2011
Moscow
Main
It's not a question of courage, it's a question of your development. Everything interesting begins with conflict.
Pussy Riot

Summary of Pussy Riot

Within Pussy Riot's public and digital defiance, women in bright balaclavas stand against the dour uniformed men who encapsulate the repression that exists in Russia today. First coming to global attention as a result of their Punk Prayer at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Pussy Riot became a byword for the fearless, subversive and decidedly contemporary activist artistic practice that engaged with the prejudice and corruption of Vladimir Putin's regime, and its religious and bureaucratic enablers.

Made up predominantly of young women and their allies, Pussy Riot's interventions brought attention to the repression of women, dissidents, LGBTQIA+ people and others, and positioned several of its figures to transform harsh prison sentences into public profile and pop-cultural significance.

Accomplishments

Biography of Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot Life and Legacy

Pussy Riot are punk-influenced activists whose protests at religious, political and cultural events highlight their critique of the ruling regime in 21st Century Russia. Despite the anonymity of their multi-coloured balaclavas, several members of the group have been imprisoned, beaten and censured by Vladimir Putin's government and his supporters.

Important Art by Pussy Riot

Release the Cobblestones (2011)

Release the Cobblestones (2011)

In November 2011, Pussy Riot blasted out their stylised punk-poetry to the Russian public for the first time. Standing on scaffolding over the Moscow subway, they performed their anarchic track Release the Cobblestones, on electric guitars and vocals. Members of the group also ripped open pillows, sending feathers scattering into the air around them and onto the train tracks below. Along with their performance intervention, which echoes the Situationist movement, Pussy Riot recorded the performance and edited into a music video for the song, which they later released onto YouTube.

Pussy Riot deliberately chose November to perform their track as the anniversary of 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The political situation around them had also turned sour following what appeared to be a rigged election won by the Kremlin's United Russia Party, reinstating Putin to the position of President once again. Widespread street protests and demonstrations were staged across Russia, and Pussy Riot's angry punk protest reflected the growing frustrations of the large swathes of the Russian people.

Sampled from the Angelic Upstarts track Police Oppression, Pussy Riot's track, Release the Cobblestones calls for Russian people to protest the election by throwing cobblestones during street protests because, as they say in the song, "ballots will be used as toilet paper." In the most famous line of the song, they make reference to the uprising in Egypt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak that took place as part of the "Arab Spring" in 2011. Pussy Riot hoped to ignite a similar situation in Russia, singing "Egyptian air is healthy for your lungs/Turn red square into Tahrir." There is also an important feminist dimension to this performance, through the assertive female voices used in an oppressive context. As they argued in a public statement, "after the Arab spring Russia lacks political and sexual liberation, boldness, a feminist whip and a woman president."

The colourful balaclavas worn by Pussy Riot were inspired by the third-wave feminist artist group the Guerrilla Girls, who similarly made anonymous protests against a patriarchal system through humorous and satirical interventions in public space. But as writer Evelyn McDonnell points out, dissident artistic voices can also be traced back much further, from the 1960s and artists such as Yoko Ono to Karen Finley in the 1980s and 90s. She writes, "The torch, blazing more strongly than ever, may be passed back to where it was first lighted."

Putin Zassal (2012)

Putin Zassal (2012)

Putin Zassal, or "Putin has wet himself," was the provocative title of this performance by Pussy Riot, also released as a track in 2012. Eight members of the group gathered together and performed the anarchic song against a backdrop of smoke bombs in Russia's Red Square whilst wearing their trademark bright clothes and balaclavas. Like many of their performances this live action was also made into a YouTube video to spread their message to a wider audience.

The lyrics of the song are aimed directly at both Putin and the Orthodox church, who they saw as deeply oppressive towards women and LGBT groups. One of their most provocative lyrics simply states that "The Orthodox religion is a hardened penis / coercing its subjects to accept conformity."

Drawing from the history of female punk and art protest groups, including the Guerrilla Girls and the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s, Pussy Riot became a powerful and outspoken voice for oppressed women in Russia, and, by extension, across the world. They argued in an interview, "We somehow developed what they did in the 1990s, although in an absolutely different context and with an exaggerated political stance." There is also a distinctly ironic humour that underpins their actions, mocking the supposed conventions of well-behaved, compliant female sexuality by turning it completely on its head through lyrics, performance style and the theatricality of their clothing. One Pussy Riot member even claimed her balaclava made her feel like a superhero. Writer Valerie Sperling argues, "their series of songs, published as video clips on the web, endorsed mass protest against the Putin regime, criticised state sponsored homophobia, and praised feminism as a possible curative for Russia's many ills."

Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away (2012)

Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away (2012)

On February 21, 2012 five members of Pussy Riot entered Moscow's Russian Orthodox Cathedral, smuggling in amps and guitars. Dropping their dark winter coats, they put on bright balaclavas and jumped over the gold security rail, standing in an area in front of the altar usually reserved for men. Once there they jumped around, screaming and shouting for less than a minute before security guards seized them. The short video clip of the public intervention was edited together with footage taken in another church by the members of the group, also adding on a recorded version of the punk song, which featured provocative lyrics calling out "Punk-Prayer - mother of God, Chase Putin away!" Other lyrics attacked the church, likening it to the KGB and criticising those who subserviently accept its doctrine without question, before asking the Virgin Mary to drive out Putin and his corrupt church affiliates.

The group posted the video online on the same day, and it quickly became a viral sensation. The internet was instrumental in amplifying their message to a wide audience, and, unlike their previous interventions, which had receded into relative obscurity, as a result of the video news of their protest reached church patriarch Kirill, who informed Putin. After a brief period in hiding, three members of Pussy Riot were found and arrested - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. Charged without bail, for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," their three-month trial period sparked international debate and a media frenzy.

Political arguments ensued about the nature of their supposed crimes, and the unfairness of their convictions, but Pussy Riot had also opened up questions of the role the Orthodox Church played in modern Russia, as well as women and LGBT groups' severely limited rights under Putin's rule. In his public response, Putin essentially ignored the content of their message, instead staging Pussy Riot as terrorists who threatened the security of the church, rather than political activists. Two of the women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were charged and sent to a brutal labor camp, while the third, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was given a suspended sentence as she had young children. But the international, feminist message broadcast by Pussy Riot continued to rage on around the world, serially embarrassing the Russian Government and provoking many statements of support. The legacy of the performance endures, with writer Ione Gamble arguing that, "Their fluoro balaclavas and part-art performance, part-activist ideology inspired a generation of Tumblr-raised feminists to take their activism offline." Time Magazine counted Pussy Riot among the most influential women of the century, writing, "Pussy Riot's message of defiance still inspires young women in Russia and far beyond."

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Pussy Riot
Influenced by Artist
Open Influences
Pussy Riot
Influences on Artist
Artists
Friends
  • No image available
    The Blue Noses
  • No image available
    Alexander Brener
  • No image available
    Alexei Plutser-Sarno
Movements
  • No image available
    Post-Soviet Actionism
  • No image available
    Moscow Actionism
  • No image available
    Riot grrrl
Pussy Riot
Influenced by Artist
Artists
  • No image available
    Damir Muratov
  • No image available
    Louise Distras
  • No image available
    Gaggle
Friends
Movements
  • Punk Art
    Punk Art
  • No image available
    Protest Art
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Pussy Riot

articles
video clips

Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Lewis Church

"Pussy Riot Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments Ideas added by Lewis Church
Available from:
First published on 02 Jul 2020. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]