#riotact (Fuse magazine)


By Jessica MacCormack and Sarah Mangle


We all take part in a political performance, not in a trial.” – Violetta Volkova [1]

Pussy Riot is a feminist/punk performance art group based in Russia. They’ve played politicized punk sets in bus stops and grocery stores, and are now widely known for their performance of a “punk prayer” on 21 February 2012, in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. They performed “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” in protest of the Russian government’s relationship with the Orthodox Church. Russia’s problematic electoral process and the Putin government’s policies have inspired much recent social criticism and mobilization, with large-scale protests held in Moscow on 10 December 2011, and 6 May 2012.

Pussy Riot’s Cathedral performance, consisting of an unamplified one-song set combining a punk show and prayer, and performed by a small group of brightly dressed and masked women at the altar, lasted less than a minute. A week later, an edited video of their piece appeared on the Internet. Shortly thereafter, police arrested three of Pussy Riot’s known members, Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samucevich, who remained in pre-trial detention for six months. On 17 August 2012 they were found guilty of hooliganism [2] and sentenced to two years at a Siberian prison colony. Reflecting on what has now become an international issue, Telegraphjournalist John Lough wrote:

Pussy Riot has laid bare a structural weakness of a highly personalized political system that operates without institutional checks and balances, supported by a judiciary whose function is to turn the desires of its political masters into legal decisions. The regime’s self-protection mechanism lost control because it was unable to calibrate the consequences of its actions. [3]

Observers of this case have identified two distinct political groups within Russia who have been watching this case closely: a conservative, state-supporting group, and a radical left, pushing against Putin’s state control. [4] In North America and Europe, public outcry against the arrest of Pussy Riot has manifested throughout social media campaigns to free the band, and in public demonstrations.

The law enforces both the people in power and the modes of power itself. This flawed idea of justice (as manifest in the Western prison system, oppressive across geographical boundaries) affects all our lives, although some people are more directly affected/oppressed by it than others. In many ways the criminal justice system maintains the illusion of effectiveness because it absolves us of our responsibilities to our communities. The trial of Pussy Riot highlights some of these dynamics, but at the same time, public support for these three individuals highlights another power dynamic centred around fame and popularity.

The unequal distribution of wealth and power has rendered famous people more worthy of attention and therefore, more frequently than not, their charitable or political actions do not truly call into question their own participation in this inequality. What does it mean when we prioritize people in conflict with the law for intentionally subversive, chosen and symbolic actions (often called political prisoners) rather than people who are imprisoned due to, for example, racism and the criminalization of poverty? How do we define political engagement? Who does this definition benefit?

In August 2012, Peaches announced she is working on a music video in support of Pussy Riot. Madonna spoke out in in support of Pussy Riot and performed with the band’s name scrawled on her back. The list of famous supporters of Pussy Riot continues: Patti Smith, Kathleen Hanna, Björk, Sting, Pete Townshend, Jarvis Cocker, Neil Tennent, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Franz Ferdinand, Ad Rock, Alice Bag, Faith No More, Anti-Flag, Plastic People of the Universe, Nina Hagen, Billy Bragg, Peter Gabriel and Stephen Fry. In addition, politicians, lawyers, Amnesty International and activists have also been vocal in their support. And Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter is buzzing with critiques of the state of Russia, as well as arguments that the harsh treatment of Pussy Riot highlights the current situation of censorship and repression in Russia.

How does a human act become an icon? What underlying modes of power highlight these young women’s bravery and outspokenness over another’s lifetime of suffering? In our observation of the coverage of this case through Facebook, as well as mainstream American and European media, we became angry with and weary of the shocked descriptions of the prison treatment, as if no one had heard of such harsh conditions before.

And still, Pussy Riot’s act is necessary. Public support is desperately needed. The spaces—online or otherwise—where we share these pieces of news are spaces of recognition. If one has no first-hand experience of the injustice system, then how do you even begin to learn? That is the function of prisons: so we cannot see what silence looks like.

What would happen if Madonna and Pussy Riot’s other celebrity supporters called for the abolition of prisons? It is difficult to conceive what the specific demands would be and what would need to shift within us internally, and what it would mean to untangle ourselves from giving more attention to briefly politicized celebrities, especially when we have grown up within capitalism. Are people really more critical now of capitalism and oppression? Will we be inspired to apply a more complex analysis to the ways injustice plays out every day in our intersecting communities?

When the verdict came through that the women will each receive a two-year sentence to be served in Siberian work camps, the world/online community continued its outrage against the Russian government and church. Pussy Riot’s performances and criminalization have created a highly visible situation connected to feminist and anti-authoritarian struggles in the Occupy movement, the student-led anti-austerity movement/Loi 78 in Quebec, the decriminalization of HIV and sex-work in Canada, Ugandan pride, and many other movements from the past year—all of which have taken new forms and been revitalized through the Internet. There is so much potential to articulate dissent within these online communities, and yet we must also follow through with this dissent and collectivity in our streets and in the communities we live in, so as to denaturalize the isolating consequences of capitalism.


[1] Violetta Volkova, the lawyer defending Pussy Riot, in an interview with Kirill Martynov “Pussy Riot Would Have Been Acquitted by the Jury,” (online; accessed 14 August 2012), http://www.redpepper.org.uk/pussy-riot-would-have-been-acquitted-by-the-jury/.

[2] “On defining hooliganism itself, judge Syrova said this: ‘An act of hooliganism can be understood as being driven by acts of hatred or degradation of any given social or national or religious group. Therefore the charge of hooliganism can be sustained when a defendant has expressed open disrespect and defiance against the communally expected norms and the tastes of others.’” Shiv Malik, “Pussy Riot Jailed for Two Years,” The Guardian (online; accessed 17 August 2012),www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/aug/17/pussy-riot-trial-verdict-live/

[3] John Lough, “Pussy Riot’s Stunning Victory Over Putin Bureaucrats,” The Telegraph(online; accessed 13 August 2012), www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/vladimir-putin/9474948/Pussy-Riots-stunning-victory-over-Putins-bureaucrats.html/

[4] According to Miriam Elder’s article “Pussy Riot Trial Worse than Soviet Era,” The Guardian (online; accessed 13 August 2012), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/03/pussy-riot-trial-russia/

Jessica MacCormack currently lives in Montreal and teaches at Concordia University. From animation, video, painting and drawing to installation and intervention, her interdisciplinary practice examines the complex position of culture within neoliberal capitalism, critiquing modes of social control while exploring the potential for art to function as a site of resistance.

Sarah Mangle is from the Maritimes and currently lives in Toronto. She is currently working on a zine project with Tara-Michelle Ziniuk called “Our Date with Alison Bechdel,” and a documentary about her relationship with her lesbian homesteading aunts and the history of their life together. Sarah’s work has appeared in Make/Shift,Broken PencilLickety SplitHerizonsLip, and her zines are distroed by Doris Distro, Distro Le Pick Up, Twelveohtwo, the Anchor Archive Regional Zine Project and The Toronto Zine Library.

related subjects : 2012, activism, anti-capitalist, collaborations, criminalization, feminism, pop culture, queer, writing