In an interview published by Vice magazine five months ago, a Pussy Riot member who identified herself as Garadzha said that “a lot of credit certainly goes to Bikini Kill and the bands in the riot grrrl act [sic] — we somehow developed what they did in the 1990s, although in an absolutely different context and with an exaggerated political stance.”
Listen to the new Pussy Riot song they have titled Putin Lights Up the Fires. All screeched vocals and granite-hard guitar, it is a product of exactly the same aesthetic.
However, such comparisons shrink next to a much more powerful point. Like the original proponents of riot grrrl, only a thousand times more so, Pussy Riot are an object lesson in what cultural provocation can do, while orthodox politics and protest too often remain impotent — a point always lost on those who would restrict dissent to the usual staid norms.
On Friday’s BBC Radio 4 Today program last week, the historian Robert Service played his part to perfection, pompously advising the BBC to “get some sense of proportion.”
On he grumped: “There are really serious critics of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin in Russia who deserve our attention much more than these three misguided young feminist rock musicians who have desecrated a cathedral.”
That may be so, but history suggests that it is the allegedly “misguided” who often make the biggest waves. There were critics of former French president Charles de Gaulle’s France who may have had a greater claim to serious attention than the Enrages of May 1968, and republicans who had a more coherent take on the toxicity of 1977’s jubilee celebrations in the UK than the Sex Pistols, who so gloriously spoiled the celebrations with a single titled God Save the Queen. However, in both cases, it took the daring and creativity of cultural outsiders to crystallize the sense that their societies were not just hopelessly conflicted, but in no shape to go on as they were.
Politics is about increment and compromise; in the cultural sphere, you are free to be as exacting and impossibilist as you please, and thereby say and do things that the moment actually demands. And look what can happen: As the aftershocks of the Pussy Riot case ripple on, even some of Putin’s allies do not know where to look.
“Our image in the eyes of the world is getting closer to a medieval dictatorship, though we are not that,” one of the president’s loudest media cheerleaders says: The mask that covers power at its most cynical looks to have slipped, at least.
What does all this tell us? That the Anglo-American world still sleeps, having sent forth cultural archetypes that have exploded all over the world. That in some places, culture actually still matters.
And that in the macho dystopia of Putin’s Russia, where everything cultural is political and vice versa, three remarkable women have gone to prison to prove it.