A still from Pussy Riot's video Police State.

The Day the Protest Died: Whatever Happened to Pussy Riot?

Three members of the rebellious collective went to prison after challenging Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, but their recent works are appallingly banal

It may not be Chlo Sevigny’s finest hour as an actor: In “Police State,” the new clip released under the name of Pussy Riot, the American actress plays a brutal policewoman who sows terror on everyone in her vicinity. All her victims wear the Pussy Riot trademark on their heads – a colorful balaclava covering their faces – and Sevigny mercilessly clubs a teddy bear in slow motion against a background of grim twilight. It is a dystopian vision of a world in which children are strapped into chairs and forced to look at a bank of TV screens broadcasting such scenes as a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and a ghostly ballerina clad in pure white dances among ruins.

Later, Sevigny violently pulls off the balaclava covering the face of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the group, and grabs the singer as if she intended to drag her bodily into “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But of course the agents of good have to win, as suggested by the rebellious gaze Tolokonnikova flashes at Officer Sevigny and, in the final shot of the clip, a line of balaclava-wearing children and their leader Tolokonnikova raise their fists in the style of “No pasarán!” The end.

This clip – which came out two weeks ago, on the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution and the first anniversary of Trump’s election as president – brings to a climax the synthetic sweetness that has been spreading under the name Pussy Riot for some time now. In the previous clip, from October 2016 and entitled “Make America Great Again,” Tolokonnikova is mocked and humiliated by officials wearing orange wigs, tortured by police wearing orange wigs and raped by jailers wearing orange wigs.

Created in 2011, Pussy Riot has indeed been etched upon the collective international memory as a rebellious organization of women who are no suckers, but the clips coming out now under their name are appallingly banal, embody political clichés and are filled with cheap, post-gulag glamor. Now, with this new number, the time has come to set things straight: Is the 2017 model of Pussy Riot indeed a group – or a one-woman band? Does any shadow of punk remain or is it going to be all pop from now on? Is this a commercialized brand of justice for the masses, or can Pussy Riot still be Pussy Riot?

“The story of Pussy Riot as it was experienced initially reached its end upon the release of Nadya [Tolokonnikova] and Masha [Maria Alyokhina] from prison,” according to another member of the group, Yekaterina Samutsevich, in a rare interview with the Russian magazine Wonderzine. Like her two colleagues, Samutsevich was also convicted in 2012 on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” but her punishment was commuted and she was released on bail after two months. Samutsevich has in recent years disappeared from the public arena and takes care to change her phone number and email address from time to time.

Indeed, an examination of what is behind the concept of Pussy Riot today, five years after they broke into public consciousness – after staging a performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior – and took root there as a symbol of courageous protest, brings up many questions about the commercialization of protest art, the mainstreaming of radical chic, the political promise inherent in current pop culture, the way society transforms persons into symbols and what happens to those symbols afterward.

Weekly 'gynecological examinations'

The Pussy Riot snowball began to roll in February of 2012, with a guerilla performance by five of its members (out of a group that numbered about 11 women in its day) in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. They offered a punk prayer to the Virgin Mary and implored her to be a feminist and to expel Putin from his position – their way of protesting the closeness between the religious elite in Russia and the then-prime minister. Several months earlier, Putin had announced that he would run for a third term as president, and the election was to take place the following month.

The law enforcement authorities’ response to the Pussy Riot action was sharp and unexpected. The women were charged with blasphemy and with offending the feelings of the faithful and harming national symbols. Ultimately three indictments were filed, against Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich. They were sentenced to two years in prisons (Alyokhina’s sentence was commuted after an appeal). The identities of two other women who participated in the action in the church have never been revealed. For its part, the church organized a mass prayer service to restore its honor, a ceremony that looked like a Russian Orthodox version of the kabbalistic pulsa denura ritual, which is intended to bring down death on an enemy of the Jewish people. And the public discussion of the Pussy Riot gesture together with its members’ trial quickly became not only an issue that shook the Russian Federation but also an unprecedented international cause celebre.

AFP

Becoming an international issue is not trivial for protest artists, including those who act in an extraordinary way like the members of Pussy Riot and rattled one of the largest states in the world, especially if they come from simple origins, are not especially well-connected and do not speak English.

Pyotr Verzilov is one of the behind-the-scenes figures in this story. At the time when the three members of the group were under arrest, before their trial began, Verzilov, who is married to Tolokonnikova, became a one-man lobby on their behalf, on the international level. He made contact with human rights organizations, politicians and such celebrities as Madonna and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whom he persuaded to express support for the women, who faced the possibility of sentences of seven years’ hard labor.

In turn, the three women did not disappoint: They embarked on a hunger strike while under arrest, gave sassy answers to the prosecutors and the judge during the trial, persisted in making political arguments instead of toadying in fear, and sometimes even rolled their eyes during prosecution testimony. Verzilov, incidentally, was “fired” by Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina after the media began describing him as the band’s “producer,” and he did not hasten to correct the journalists. “The only person who has the right to represent the group is a woman with a balaclava,” the two wrote in a letter from jail in October of 2012.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP

Thus, after their show trial came to an end, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were sent off to two years of forced labor in a nightmarish penal colony located in the frozen expanses of Russia. They continued their protest there, too – they launched another hunger strike, sued authorities for violating prisoners’ rights and fought a Sisyphean and highly publicized war for survival in appalling psycological and physical conditions that included weekly “gynecological examinations,” solitary confinement and incitement of other prisoners against them. In the meantime, women around the world dressed in Pussy Riot masks, held demonstrations of support outside of Russian embassies. Pussy Riot became firmly established in the public mind as an international symbol of girl power, punk and determined protest.

“There is no doubt that Pussy Riot has become a symbol of female courage in the face of the regime,” says Svetlana Ringold, curator of the exhibition “Dangerous Art,” now on at the Haifa Museum of Art, which contains many references to Pussy Riot and its work. “The fact that even after they served out their prison sentence they are still expressing their opinions in a direct and even blunt way about what is happening in Putin’s Russia and about chauvinism elicits support and respect for their courage. Their performance in the church was an act that combined naiveté and courage. The reality has proven that Russia’s totalitarian past has returned, and leaps back into view when artists try to question or protest the regime’s hegemony and to employ freedom of expression. Even if Nadya Tolokonnikova is now going in a more pop direction that is aimed at the taste of the American market, she is maintaining the provocative and daring tone that characterized Pussy Riot’s activity.”

An anthem to the vagina

Upon Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s release, at the end of 2013, the confusing chapter in the Pussy Riot story began. The two declared in a press conference that they were no longer members of the group and that it was their intention to act for the rights of female and male prisoners. At the same time, however, they appeared at a number of charity events and festivals in various countries under the name Pussy Riot, under Verzilov’s management, for which they received vast sums of money (by Russian standards). With other members of the collective they also turned up in an appearance-action at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, held in Russia in February 2014 (which were apparently the reason for their early release, along with other political prisoners). In the documentation of the event it appears that police are striking them with whips, as they respond with screams of pain, even as they continue singing the words they had written especially for the event: “Putin will teach you to love the homeland.”

David Goldman/AP

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s release from prison was accompanied by a public letter from the group’s other members, in which they declared that while they were pleased with the release, to their regret the two “had been so swept up by the problems in the prisons that they had completely forgotten our group’s aspirations and ideals – feminism, separatist opposition and a war on authoritarianism and cults of personality, all the things that led to their unjust imprisonment.”

The group members tried to describe the situation accurately and to separate the two from the Pussy Riot artistic collective, writing that “we are anti-capitalists – we do not charge money from people who watch our art, our videos are freely available on the internet, our audience is made up of passersby. Our appearances are always illegal.”

A short while later they declared that Pussy Riot was dead, after having tried in vain for several weeks to make contact with Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina to prevent them from releasing songs under that name.

As fighters for human rights who were reborn in the tortures of the Russian penal colonies, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina (together with Verzilov) launched two projects: a support network for political prisoners and an alternative news and information portal. Quickly, though, the two returned to artistic activity and released the bleak song “I Can’t Breathe,” which was written in the wake of the July 2014 death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York police during his violent arrest on suspicion of selling cigarettes without a tax stamp on them. The song came out under the name Pussy Riot and was dedicated to everyone who suffers from state terror, from the United States to Russia and all around the world, as they declared on YouTube.

This song, which was described as Pussy Riot’s first song in English, but had nothing to do with the original Muscovite group that claimed ownership of the name, became the last collaboration between Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina. Tolokonnikova went to England to take part in an exhibition by grafitti artist Banksy. It was there that she wrote and recorded the next song that was released under the name of Pussy Riot. This is a song in the dance genre, a kind of attempt at a street anthem made up entirely of political slogans from demonstrations, such as “Fuck the police, like we are in Greece” and “Refugees in, Nazis out.” In the clip that accompanies the song she is filmed inside a cage that is surrounded by policemen who are cruelly pushing back demonstrators.

Early in 2016, Tolokonnikova returned to Russia and recorded the song “Chaika” (“Seagull”), which is about corruption of senior people in the regime. Despite its complex content, the clip that accompanies the song is also simplistic and includes what has become Tolokonnikova’s only world of imagery under the name Pussy Riot – uniforms, torture, relations between men in uniform and those who encounter their arbitrary and brutal authority.

Tolokonnikova began working on her next songs in the United States, where she went in 2016, after having had difficulty making music in Russia, “because people get in real big trouble after they start working with me,” as she told the music magazine Pitchfork in an interview published in October of that year.

She began working with producer Dave Sitek, and by that October, she issued the song “Straight Outta Vagina,” whose clip depicts, among other things, a girl in a balaclava taking communion, with the wafer resembling an Ecstasy pill illustrated with an image of female genitalia on it, and a group of attractive men in high heels and skirts, as a kind of utopian vision of some unclear branch of the gender discourse. In the clip for the song “Organs,” which she released at the same time, Tolokonnikova sits in a bathtub of blood, meant as a metaphor for the year 2014, in which she was released from prison straight into the circumstances of the occupation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia and the start of the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

‘Tortures of fame and money’

Many people are not impressed with this artistic activity. “Regrettably, everything Pussy Riot is doing these days is glamorous and shocking pop,” says, for example, artist and philologist Alexei Plutser-Sarno, a leader of the Voina (War) art group, out of which Pussy Riot emerged about a decade ago.

Plutser-Sarno, who now lives in a West Bank settlement he prefers not to identify, arrived in Israel in 2010 after fleeing from standing trial for one of Voina’s activities. “Nadya and Masha did not withstand the tortures of fame and money. They abandoned street art and began to film commercial clips. And when street art goes out into the commercial market, that means its spiritual and intellectual death. They became a brand and this has no connection to contemporary art that is relevant to anything,” he argues.

Olivier Fitoussi

In fact, looking at Pussy Riot’s previous art outside the Western contexts, through which it is usually categorized as protest art or punk, it can be seen primarily as post-Soviet Actionism: disturbing performance art that takes place by surprise in the public space in order to reflect to the public a social or political reality and to protest against that reality. This is the scene in which Plutser-Sarno was one of the most influential figures.

“Nadya Tolokonnikova came to Voina in 2007 together with a lot of other activists who took part in our actions,” he relates. “Katya Samutsevich and Masha Alyokhina joined in 2008.”

The group released a clip they called “Punk Performance in a Courtroom,” in which they were seen breaking into the trial of the protest artist Andrei Yerofeyev to perform.

“We followed them with interest when they decided to form a group of their own that would do variations on this punk concert in all kinds of places," says Plutser-Sarno. "From a conceptual point of view, that is how the Pussy Riot group was born."

“In their day, they hopped around with guitars on the roof of a streetcar, inside a boutique and on a subway train, but that didn’t elicit any reaction,” he continues. “Finally they chose the right place, and the shit began to flow like water. The disproportionate reaction of the church and the state, which revealed their beastly and diabolical faces to the whole world, made the Pussy Riot action great and this cannot be taken away from them, because in Actionism the trail that the action leaves behind is what is important. Their imprisonment by the regime inscribed them in the pages of the history of art. Regrettably, however, the things they are doing today are totally uninteresting.”

Possibly the reason for Tolokonnikova’s embarrassing pop career is that the Actionism from which she came gets lost in translation from one genre to another. Each of the simplistic images she has created could have been shocking had it been presented in the public space. When these images are presented in the framework of the American pop industry, the levels of significance that characterize Actionism disappear, including the direct connection with the audience, the element of surprise and the fact that the action is performed one time only, as opposed to a filmed and edited image. In pop, it turns out, none of these work as well.

Alex Brenner/AP

Moreover, apart from the gaping abyss between the Pussy Riot of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the Pussy Riot of YouTube during the past two years with respect to the complexity of the contents and the modes of action, the fact that escapes many people these days is that Pussy Riot is no longer a group, nor even a duo – but rather Tolokonnikova alone, her having taken on the name of the group. It seems that the perception of her projects as Pussy Riot actions is not an error on the part of the media but rather stems from deception on her part. Very often she speaks in the plural “we” about the songs she is releasing and the women with balaclavas on their heads who participate in the numbers create an illusion of a group.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are indeed doing similar things these days, but separately. Not long ago Alyokhina’s book “Riot Days” was published (in English) by Metropolitan/Holt Books, and Tolokonnikova has published her correspondence from prison with Slavoj iek. Both of them are involved in theater: Alyokhina is playing herself in the play “Burning Doors” at the Belarus Free Theater, which is about political prisoners and is on a world tour with it; in the near future Tolokonnikova will be putting on an interactive play in English in England and the U.S., that will make palpable for the audience the experience of imprisonment in a Russian penal colony. However, only Tolokonnikova is carrying on with her musical career at the moment.

These days, Tolokonnikova is living mainly in New York, though she has declared that she does not have a permanent address there, while Verzilov is spending most of his time in Moscow. However, the two of them frequently star in each other’s Instagram posts. And Alyokhina’s name has recently been linked to a scandal, after it was revealed that she has been romantically linked to the leader of one of the extreme fascist groups in Russia, which attacks members of the LGBT community.

As for Tolokonnikova, the dishonesty that has characterized her musical career in recent years is subverting the credibility of her work and perhaps is even making it into a protest cliché. She does, after all, speak in the name of a collective to which she does not belong, donning and removing masks in reference to something that was, but no longer exists. It is true that artists change, but Tolokonnikova seems to be treading water. Integrity, when all is said and done, is the greatest strength of a protest artist, especially after she has been a political prisoner and is trying to maintain that fighting image as a pop diva as well.

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