Riots of Passage

0 Comments 20 July 2015

Backed by a bold lineage of old rockers and punk icons, Pussy Riot represent a hell of a lot more than adolescent rebellion.

The feminist collective were catapulted into global prominence by 2012 demonstrations in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, seeking to protest Russia’s prejudiced political system and draw international attention to the plight of ostracised populations throughout the country. In the past three years, the political pranksters have established themselves as one of the most dangerous threats to Putin’s discriminatory regime. And after being assaulted, bugged, imprisoned and publicly horsewhipped by state authorities, fiercely vocal activists Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina have nothing left to lose.

Perhaps that’s why, while subjected to austere legal constraints and inescapable public scrutiny, the pair are still up to their usual political mischief. Since being released from a two-year prison sentence just last year, ordered for the notorious Moscow church demonstration, the pair have achieved some remarkable feats.

Collectively titled ‘Pussy Riot,’ – as is the name of their political punk rock band – Nadya and Masha have conducted an in-depth interview regarding the continuing status of the Cold War, released a music video criticising American police brutality, wrestled an AK-47 wielding Russian militant from a military truck into a rainbow balaclava, drove a tank onto a Glastonbury stage to protest Putin’s regime, and made a rather stirring appearance on Netflix’s House of Cards.

And it’s only June.

The seemingly invincible nature of this collective has proven immensely frustrating to the Russian Government. While the state’s political system has made a name for itself for its notorious human rights record, political protest in the area usually exhibits itself in trivial demonstrations and online tiffs against policies. Pussy Riot has seemingly materialised from a pandemonium of extrajudicial official brutality, detainment and human rights abuse, drawing global attention to a stark reality of modern Russian society.

Despite their internationally-revered brand, Nadya and Masha don’t exactly appear to be a pair of jailbird revolutionists at first sight. Masha and Nadya can typically be found living “kind of normal lives,” as they told Channel 4 news in an early 2015 interview, seemingly unblemished by police brutality or extensive extrajudicial detainment. The feminist collective are identifiable by their daring make-up style, vividly dyed hair and excruciatingly trendy outfits. At first sight, they might even seem little more than two icons of their local punk rock scene. Except Nadya and Masha aren’t two All-American teens from the 90s, and their band wasn’t started in basement to pursue some adolescent thirst for rebellion.

Despite being a somewhat Americanised form of protest, in the heart of post-Soviet Russia, Pussy Riot is as far away from ‘All-American’ as a diet soda. With punk-rock just as prevalent in the Eastern state as alcohol-free vodka and gay pride parades, Pussy Riot has established itself as a pretty niche musical duo. But despite their inconspicuous genre, the pair of political musicians have faced some severe legal restraints, and been subjected to full-force brutality of their country’s political authorities. Not only were they beaten with horsewhips outside the Sochi Winter Olympics and jailed after Moscow demonstrations, but their homes, telephones, neighbours and favourite coffee joints are all bugged by government agencies. So why, exactly, has this unusual musical duo been thrown so forcefully into the crosshairs of its government?

Disillusioned with the widespread human rights injustices in their homeland, Nadya and Masha got their start in music staging minor flash protests in Moscow. These didn’t have much of an impact on Russian political systems, let alone the sheer majority of Russian society aligned with Putin’s ideology. But instead of developing their fiery protest into any form of violence, Pussy Riot just amped up the volume. Through fast-paced punk rock, the band has incited a climate shift to combat entrenched stifling of human rights. This oppression isn’t a new dilemma on the world stage – it’s one that’s been building incrementally since Putin’s re-election in 1999 and his infusing of repressive ideologies in the nation, manifesting in 5,100 extrajudicial arrests of protesters and activists. And it doesn’t look to be slowing down.

For this reason, a newer, louder and angstier form of upheaval has risen from the state’s societal disarray, a rebellious movement aiming to challenge the Russia’s uneasy relationship with UDHR-assured freedom of expression. While this feminist collective of rule-breakers might seem to be the lone force in pursuit of this scattered social upheaval, they are rousing a revolution sought out by a conglomeration of left-wing protesters in the country. Muffled only briefly by police brutality and detention, Pussy Riot’s contagious rebellion and catchy tunes have swerved international attention towards Russia’s injustices and the frustration of its citizens.

To understand just why Pussy Riot have made such an impact in the wider political arena, we’ve got to delve further back into the influence of noisy music in shifting political tides. Pussy Riot have emerged as a part of a radical shift in attitudes – perhaps triggered by rock’n’roll protest movement to the Vietnam war – towards the brutality of the American government. The children of this post-Vietnam-era cynicism adapted their governmental outrage into the 1990’s punk rock movement, opening up a new forum for political cynics. Music was no longer about culture and entertainment, rather, it was an outlet for governmental skepticism that quickly carried popular cynicism onto the world stage. Celebrated musical ensembles using their platforms as soap boxes, perhaps epitomised by the raw angst of Nirvana that criticised American patriotism and xenophobia, and Kurt Kobain’s induction as a pioneer for a grunge political revolution. The conception of the punk rock scene marked a turning point in this dichotomy of music and politics, with bands such as Green Day spearheading a drive for education and criticism of its overwhelming audience.

So where does Pussy Riot come into all of this? Taking after their punk rock forefathers, the Russian feminist collective have established their dissidence through their music as much as their mayhem. Nadya and Masha aren’t just a spontaneous success in terms of global politics – rather, they’re backed by fifty years of the evolution of music into the political realm. The sheer impact of their voices further encapsulates the brutally underestimated power of punk rock – that the musical subculture does hold a unique influence across world governmental systems. Perhaps, as suggested by Pussy Riot and its progenitors, music can work not only to inspire political criticism in its fanbases, but to change the way culture itself operates.

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