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.”
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.