It’s a Thursday night in the northern English city of Leeds and people are gathering outside the gay bar Queens Court for a march in support of Russian punk collective Pussy Riot. Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova are due to be sentenced the following day, the culmination of their trial on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” (For performing their 40-second, Putin-denouncing “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February, they will each receive two years in jail.) In the meantime, this solidarity march is one of many taking place around the world.
Behind a sandwich board, a man changes into a Wonder Woman suit; luminous balaclavas are surreptitiously pulled on as a police video surveillance van lingers in a side road. A woman whose face is covered by a green scarf cries: “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you masked up, darling!” to a megaphone-brandishing woman with the words “moralizing slut” written across her chest (a reference to Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who called Madonna a moralizing “slut” when she expressed support for Pussy Riot). “I know: since the fucking 90s!” laughs her friend, who turns out to be march organizer Mae Stephens.
There are less-seasoned protestors here, too, among them musicians who have been inspired by the Pussy Riot case. When the march is over and has dispersed to the pub, I ask Wakefield-born protest singer Louise Distras why the punk collective resonate with her.
“Pussy Riot have inspired me by showing how we absolutely have to speak out against media portrayals of women as subordinates,” she says, “and how it’s very important for female artists to represent other women.” For Distras, the Pussy Riot influence echoes the “riot grrrl” scene of the early 1990s, an underground feminist punk movement that originated in the US. Riot grrrl’s central message has been much debated, but can perhaps best be summed up as a mission to engender communities of supportive, creative women. Certainly, Pussy Riot’s abrasive, energetic sound has much in common with that of the original riot grrrls Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill — though Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna recently cautioned against too literal a reboot of the term. (“Who wants to restart something that’s 20 years old?” she told music website Pitchfork. “This could be a part of a lot of people starting their own fucking thing.”)
The London feminist choir Gaggle are another group who have much in common with Pussy Riot: both are shape-shifting collectives of clever women spreading messages of protest and social awareness, often while wearing brightly colored capes. I asked Gaggle’s founder, Deborah Coughlin, if she thought the trial had started something new. “Riot grrrl still exists, but it’s not the holy covenant of feminist music,” she said. “In fact if anything, I find it restrictive. It’s not fundamentally important that Pussy Riot are musicians, but it is important that we learn from their ideas. They are a living illustration of what needs to change in their country, because we can see them suffering for it.”
Leah Pritchard, singer and guitarist in the Bristol band Empty Pools, has been donating money from sales of her solo material to Pussy Riot’s legal fund via the Web site Bandcamp. (Many other musicians have been doing the same.) Over the phone, Pritchard explains how Pussy Riot are redefining the idea of “honest” artistic expression, something we take for granted in the west. She quotes from Alyokhina’s closing statement to the Moscow courtroom, which in turn quoted from the Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky: “How unfortunate is the country where simple honesty is understood, in the best case, as heroism. And in the worst case as a mental disorder.” It shows how little has changed in Russia since the early 1970s, when Bukovsky wrote this.