The punk protesters Pussy Riot have returned to the headlines in characteristically vivid style. Earlier this month saw Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina – the two members who were released from prison in December – on stage with Madonna at an Amnesty International concert in New York, before apparently being ejected from the collective for "flouting the group’s separatist feminist philosophy". However, the same duo were arrested in Sochi yesterday, charged with stealing a bag of cash from a hotel. The past few hours have seen them released from custody, but as their story continues on its dramatic course, here, in a piece from the latest issue of AnOther Magazine, we talk to the anonymous documentary makers Gogol's Wives about their film Pussy Vs Putin, which tracks the early days of the group up to the first arrests.
The opening scenes of Pussy Versus Putin provide the perfect riposte to anyone wanting to dismiss Pussy Riot as posturing girls seeking fame and notoriety. A group of young women prepare for a television performance, a rainbow flurry in bright dresses and ribbed balaclavas. They explain their name to an intrigued man with a guitar: “Riot – it’s a kind of a revolt on the street. Pussy – it’s a tender name for a girl… It’s a word play: utterly soft and rigid.” The man nods and shrugs, then a producer comes in to tell them there will be a “pro-Putin guy” appearing alongside them who will disagree with their views, so, she advises, “If you really want to get noticed on TV, simply take some ketchup and splash it when someone suppresses you.” The girls are uninterested in this bizarre shock tactic. “We’ve already been noticed,” says one. “We can express everything verbally. If those are your conditions, we’re leaving.”
The events of February 21st, 2012, are now well known. Five women from the collective entered Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and performed their punk prayer Mother of God, Drive Putin Away. This was followed by the arrests, first of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, and then Yekaterina Samutsevich. Denied bail, the three were held in prison until their trial in July, where, after nine days, they were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. A two-year sentence was handed down; Putin opined that “they got what they asked for”, and an international furore ensued, with the media, Amnesty International and musicians uniting to call for the girls’ release. A member of Putin’s own party complained that the sentence made the country “the laughing-stock of the world”. Russia did not know how to cope with these women, so released Samutsevich after two months, sent the other two to separate prison camps and hoped for calm.
Thanks to their antics and the subsequent trial, Pussy Riot is internationally known. Yet as their fame has grown, their heritage, and their ambitions have been skewed and misunderstood. Precocious and loud they may be, picturesque news fodder they clearly are, but beyond this, Pussy Riot practise a thrilling, nuanced style of youth protest that ranks reason and educated debate as highly as noise.
"Pussy Riot practise a thrilling, nuanced style of youth protest that ranks reason and educated debate as highly as noise"
It is this side of Pussy Riot that is presented in Pussy Versus Putin, an award-winning documentary created by Gogol’s Wives, an underground collective from Russia that spoke to us on condition of anonymity. Radicalised by a Russian reality they liken to the bleak visions of Bruegel, Kafka, Sorokin and their namesake, the filmmakers, armed with two small cameras, threw themselves into the heart of the Pussy Riot storm, suffering violence and frequent arrests along the way. The results are as joyfully contingent as the group’s first madcap performances. They follow the girls from punk feminist lectures in half-filled halls, through their guerrilla tour in underground stations and atop trams, where the shouts of furious drivers are drowned out in clouds of white pillow feathers and the strident chords of “Liberate the Paving Stones”; into jail cells and mere inches from the court cages at their sentencing. They move among the audiences, recording words of support, of mockery, of moral outrage.
Much has changed since the film was completed. Having maintained a scathing commentary on the state of the Russian prison system from their jail cells, a Christmas amnesty a few months shy of their projected release saw both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina freed. And many in Russia have indicated that with Pussy Riot’s release should come, as a mark of gratitude, their silence. However, Gogol’s Wives argue that this will not happen. In contact with the girls throughout their jail terms, using notes pushed under the skin of oranges, the filmmakers state that Pussy Riot itself is going through a regeneration. Where once bellowed insults and lurid clothing were their tools, now, the filmmakers say, the girls “are searching for the right image and mode to convey their fears in an understandable way to all audiences”. The documentary, which Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina will present at the Bergen International Festival in May, will surely play a part in this.
"These girls are real heroes. They have committed an act that is not in the power of any man in this country" — Gogol's Wives
Pussy Versus Putin provides a powerful sense of perspective on the whole Pussy Riot story – while it was the group’s mere moments in the cathedral that propelled them to the world stage, it was their considered, intelligent statements at their trials, and their continued engagement with their situation and that of Russia, which has cemented them as compelling voices of radicalism for now and the future. As Gogol’s Wives state, “These girls are real heroes. They have committed an act that is not in the power of any man in this country. Their fearlessness comes from their education, their reading and their craving for change.” The support of everyone from governments to Yoko Ono, Madonna and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has been gracefully received, but what is clear is that they will forge ahead with or without anyone’s approval. In Pussy Versus Putin, we see a thrilling depiction of the power of youth, a record of the beginnings of what could become one of the most important chapters of modern protest history.
Read this article and more in AnOther Magazine S/S14, out now.
Text by Tish Wrigley