The heritage of protest and provocation on which Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was drawing was confirmed as soon as I saw her picture. The hair cut into a functional bob, the “No Pasaran” T-shirt with the clenched-fist logo, her leading place in a band-cum-collective called Pussy Riot — it was as if she had been plucked from the Anglo-American subculture known as riot grrrl circa 1992, and dropped into modern Russia.
This time, though, the surrounding contexts had been changed beyond recognition. As with their antecedents, Pussy Riot are young feminists with a scattershot critique of their society, but their chosen target and awful predicament place them almost in a different universe — as proved when Tolokonnikova and her two co-defendants laughed as they were given their two-year sentences. You could call such behavior “cool,” but in this instance, another word is surely required: one that mixes jaw-dropping bravery with impossible insouciance, and has — as far as I know — yet to be invented.
In the West, we seem to have forgotten that popular culture once produced people who thought it was their duty to decry some of the most ingrained aspects of their societies, and thereby become lightning-rods for dissent. However, the rise to prominence of Tolokonnikova et al proves that outside the UK and US, old ideas can assume new shapes and actually take on even greater power (and survive even an endorsement from that cause-squashing menace Madonna, which takes some doing).
To be a mohawk-wearing punk in London is to be a kitsch throwback — but in Indonesia or Burma, it can put you on the receiving end of heinous treatment from the authorities. Similarly, in London or Los Angeles, the legacy represented by Pussy Riot can perhaps only be glimpsed in an abiding strain of female fashion you can buy on any high street, whereas in Russia, it will soon be on display in a penal colony.
So, some history. Riot grrrl was the work of a handful of people in Olympia, Washington, and Washington, DC, who sought to update punk rock — and, with the US religious right in full cry and women’s rights under attack, apply its noise and fury to the politics of gender. Initially, Riot Grrrl was the title of a fanzine put together by four women who would soon form two bands, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. The former remain a byword for what followed: the aggression and power of what its makers called “boy rock” being rechannelled by proud feminists, and unapologetic celebrations of the worldview of the female adolescent (hence “grrrl”).
In the UK, the torch was carried by a mixed-gender band called Huggy Bear, who made one unimpeachably brilliant record — Her Jazz, released in 1993 — and gained brief renown for protesting on-screen against the moronic sexism of the woeful Channel 4 TV show The Word, before they quickly disappeared. For a brief moment, they had the music industry terrified that they knew the shape of the future, but had no intention of giving it away.
Obviously, compared with Pussy Riot, these people’s targets were almost comically modest and their supposed subversion often reducible to radical chic, but the lines that link the two upsurges are obvious.
Pyotr Versilov — Tolokonnikova’s husband, and thanks to his fluency in English, one of Pussy Riot’s key spokespeople — acknowledges that the collective’s name “is a reference to the riot grrrl movement that arose in the United States in the early 1990s, based on a concept of feminine strength, not weakness.”