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date: 29 February 2024

Pussy Riot and the Politics of Resistance in Contemporary Russiafree

Pussy Riot and the Politics of Resistance in Contemporary Russiafree

  • Yuliya ZabyelinaYuliya ZabyelinaDepartment of Political Science, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
  •  and Roman IvashkivRoman IvashkivSlavic Languages and Literatures, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Pussy Riot was a feminist punk-rock group based in Moscow, Russian Federation. It was founded by a group of several young women in the summer of 2011, following the announcement that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin would run for a third presidential term. Wearing colorful clothes and balaclavas, band members conducted several unsanctioned public performances, which were recorded, edited, and later distributed as music videos on the Internet. Committed to socio-political change in Russia, Pussy Riot protested against the authoritarian political regime and church-state confluence in Russia and advocated for feminism, LGBT and civil rights, and political liberties.

Pussy Riot’s most famous song, “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away,” a performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour held on February 21, 2012, provoked a scandal. Following the performance, a criminal case was opened against three Pussy Riot members, leading to arrests without bail of Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich. Supporters of Pussy Riot believed the court proceedings and the verdict discredited the Russian judicial system, as the three women were found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” While Samutsevich won her appeal, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina served 21 months of their 24-month sentence before they were granted amnesty. This case has become a landmark event in Russian politics, causing a domestic and international controversy over the issues of justice, feminism, and separation of church and state.


  • Crime, Media, and Popular Culture

Formation of the Band and Its Activities

The young women who formed Pussy Riot in 2011 as “a punk group working in the realm of media action art” (Pussy Riot LiveJournal blog), were concerned with the shrinking of freedom of speech as well as rampant political corruption and election fraud in Russia. The band protested against “the evil crooks of the Putinist junta” and strove to “enrich the Russian cultural and political opposition” by raising issues of feminism, LGBT rights, problems of conformity to traditional masculinity, absence of a daring political message on the musical and art scenes, and the domination of males in all areas of public discourse (Langston, 2012). Pussy Riot rebelled against the established socio-political, patriarchal regime. Explaining why they were personally displeased with President Putin, Pussy Riot members stated:

Currently there is an authoritarian regime in Russia, and we are clearly not satisfied with it because we are deprived of our basic right to participate in politics and to decide the fate of our country. We do not intend to beat anyone up. We employ only peaceful methods. What we sing in our songs are metaphors and artistic devices.

(Lerner & Pozdorovkin, 2013)

Insisting on spelling their band’s name in English, Pussy Riot traced its lineage to the Western tradition of female protest, specifically to the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s, which combined feminist ideology and punk aesthetics and actively engaged in political activism on issues of rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, patriarchy, and other issues of female empowerment (Dunn, 2014). In an interview, Pussy Riot members noted: “[w]e somehow developed what they did in the 1990s, although in an absolutely different context and with an exaggerated political stance, which leads to all of our performances being illegal” (Langston, 2012, n.p.).

One antecedent for Pussy Riot’s origin in Russia is the anarchist art-group Voina, founded in 2005 by Oleg Vorotnikov, a graduate of Moscow State University (MSU). Pyotr Verzilov and his wife Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a leading Pussy Riot figure, were affiliated with Voina. The group leaned towards a more radical left political agenda that embraced performative artistic forms to introduce subversive ideas into public discourse. One of Voina’s performances, featuring, among others, pregnant Tolokonnikova and her husband, was “Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear”1 (Russian: “Ебись за наследника Медвежонка‎”). During the 2008 performance, five couples were having sex in Moscow’s Timiryazev State Museum of Biology, protesting against the autocratic mechanisms of delegation of political power in Russia, particularly against Dmitry Medvedev assuming the presidency in March 2008.

Pussy Riot’s performances radically contested hegemonic socio-political discourse and adopted scandalous and unsanctioned forms of resistance. They performed in different public venues: “… in the subway, on the roof of a trolleybus, on the roof of the detention center for administrative detainees, in clothing stores, at fashion shows, and on the Lobnoye Mesto in Red Square” (Tolokonnikova, 2013a, p. 41). Elaborating on Pussy Riot’s protest principles, Tolokonnikova, in her opening court statement, emphasized the significance of space and accessibility:

We believe that our art should be accessible to everyone, therefore we perform in diverse public spaces. Pussy Riot never means to show disrespect to any viewers or witnesses of our punk concerts … The themes of our songs and performances are dictated by the present moment. We simply react to what is happening in our country, and our punk performances express the opinion of a sufficiently large number of people.

(Tolokonnikova, 2013a, pp. 41–42)

During the group’s brief career, a dozen female performers and a small group of sound and video editors released five video clips,2 which were incorporated into Pussy Riot’s debut album “Kill the Sexist” (Russian: “Убей сексиста‎”). In their first public performance in November 2011, entitled “Release the Cobblestones” (Russian: “Освободи брусчатку‎”), a group of Pussy Riot women wearing balaclavas and brightly colored tights and miniskirts—which became the band’s trademark—sang their debut song from the top of metro and trolley cars. The song was an act of performative protest against the upcoming parliamentary elections in Russia. By singing “Egyptian air is healthy for your lungs” (Russian: “Египетский воздух полезен для легких‎”), Pussy Riot performers agitated for the Red Square to turn into Tahrir Square—the location of the Egyptian riot against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

In December 2011, “Kropotkin Vodka” (Russian: “Кропоткина водка‎”) was performed in connection with the State Duma elections. Pussy Riot members contested the unfair, oppressive political regime and the dominance of the rich by sweeping through several downtown luxury shops, boutiques, and elite bars. The performance was inspired by 19th-century Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin and included staged fires and discharges of a fire extinguisher.

Another performance in December 2011 was staged atop a garage beside the Moscow Detention Center, where Pussy Riot sang “Death to Prison, Freedom to Protest” (Russian: “Смерть тюрьме, свободу протесту‎”), demanding an immediate release of anti-Putin protesters arrested one week earlier at a rally against the results of the State Duma elections.

On January, 20, 2012, Pussy Riot’s “Putin Has Pissed Himself” (Russian: “Путин зассал‎”) featured eight women performing at Lobnoye Mesto in Red Square, a stone platform situated in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral and used in czarist Russia to announce government decrees to the public. During the performance, the women ignited a smoke bomb, calling for a national uprising against the Russian authorities and against President Putin as the symbol of the oppressive regime. Whereas Pussy Riot’s previous performances did not lead to any legal repercussions for the participants, in the aftermath of the Lobnoye Mesto demonstration the performers were arrested and detained on administrative charges in accordance with Article 20(2) of the Code of Administrative Offences of the Russian Federation, “Violating the Established Procedure for Arranging or Conducting a Meeting, Rally, Demonstration, Procession or Picket.”

The following day, released with a warning after the Lobnoye Mesto event, Pussy Riot members put on their most famous performance “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away” (Russian: “Богородица, Путина прогони‎!”). It was held at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on February 21, 2012, in front of the gates to the altar, in a section reserved for priests. During the performance, Pussy Riot urged the Mother of God to become a feminist and claimed that the church’s leader, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, venerated President Vladimir Putin instead of God. As Nadezhda Tolokonnikova later explained:

In our song (…), we reflected the reaction of many Russian citizens to the patriarch’s calls for votes for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin during the presidential elections of March 4, 2012. We, like many of our fellow citizens, wrestle against the treachery, deceit, bribery, hypocrisy, greed, and lawlessness particular to the current authorities and rulers. This is why we were upset by the political initiative of the patriarch and could not fail to express that.

(Tolokonnikova, 2013a, p. 42)

The performance, lasting less than a minute, was interrupted by cathedral guards, but no immediate arrests followed. On February 21, 2012, a deputy director of the private security company “Kolokol-A” complained to the head of the Khamovniki District Police of “a violation of public order” by a group of anonymous individuals who “had been screaming loudly and had danced in ‘the premises of the cathedral,’ having thus ‘insulted the feelings of church members’” (European Court of Human Rights, 2012, n.p.). An official complaint was lodged three days later by the acting director of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral Fund. He called the performance “extremist” and asked state prosecutors to bring charges of “inciting religious hatred” (CCRF Art. 282 “Incitement of National, Racial, or Religious Enmity”) against the punk band. On February 26, 2012, following the complaint, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a 22-year-old student, artist, and mother of a three-year-old daughter; Maria Alyokhina, a 23-year-old student, poet, mother of a four-year-old son; and 29-year-old artist Yekaterina Samutsevich were put on the wanted list.

Prosecution and Conviction

On March 3, 2012, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were arrested, and a criminal case was opened on charges of aggravated offence of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred (CCRF Art. 213[2]). Samutsevich, who was initially questioned as a witness in the case, was arrested on the same charges on March 16, 2012. Despite their family circumstances (Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova had children), vulnerable health (caused by hunger strikes while in custody), and approval of pre-trial release by the State Duma Presidential Council on Human Rights, the detained women were held without bail. The court cited a long list of precluding circumstances to deny them bail, such as the gravity of the charges, lack of permanent legal sources of income, Tolokonnikova’s possible escape to Canada,3 and the incomplete status of investigation of the remaining band members (European Court of Human Rights, 2012). In a pre-trial hearing on 20 July 2012, the Khamovnicheskiy District Court approved the prosecutor’s request for further extension of detention, “finding that the circumstances which had initially called for their remand had not changed.” This decision led to the three defendants’ remaining in custody at a pre-trial detention facility until January 12, 2013.

On August 17, 2012, the final hearing of the Khamovnicheskiy District Court found the three women guilty as charged and sentenced them to two years in a penal colony. Marina Syrova, the judge presiding over the Pussy Riot case (1-170/12), stated that the defendants conspired to commit an act hooliganism that constituted “a gross violation of public order, expressing clear disrespect to society and motivated by religious hatred and enmity on grounds of hatred towards a social group” (Khamovnicheskiy District Court, 2012). The judge also held that the defendants’ choice of venue and their “apparent disregard for the Cathedral’s rules had demonstrated their hostility towards the feelings of Orthodox believers,” and that “the religious feelings of those present in the cathedral had therefore been offended.”

Testimonies given by cathedral employees, guards, and churchgoers, and material evidence, such as the video of the performance on February 21, 2012, were used to justify the court’s verdict. The prosecutor requested that the video of the performance and other Pussy Riot’s video recordings be declared “extremist” and be subject to removal from the Internet (European Court of Human Rights, 2012, n.p.). The video in question, however, was not the original performance but an edited compilation that was uploaded on their blog and reposted by many web sources. On November 29, 2012, the court concluded that “free access to video materials of an extremist nature may assist in the incitement of hatred and animosity on national and religious grounds” and accepted the prosecutor’s request. In her opening statement, however, Alyokhina stated that the “performance aimed to attract the attention of the Russian clergy and the rector of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Patriarch Kirill,” but “never had any religious hatred of Orthodox Christianity” (Alyokhina, 2013, p. 38). Tolokonnikova pointed out that “our ethical mistake was that we brought our newly developed genre—the unexpected political punk performance—to the cathedral. We did not think that our actions might offend some” (Tolokonnikova, 2013a, p. 43).

The incrimination of Pussy Riot performers triggered mixed reactions in Russia. While some Russians felt the Pussy Riot members were treated too harshly, others approved of the court’s verdict and agreed that the band had committed a gross offence to the Orthodox faith. According to the polls conducted by the Levada Center, of those following the case, 56% of Russians considered a prison sentence appropriate. Only 26% saw it as an unnecessary punishment (Levada-Center, 2013, n.p.). In April 2012, Russian Public Opinion Research Center presented data on how Russians assessed the “punk prayer,” according to which 86% of Russians believed that Pussy Riot should be punished, but only 10% supported a prison term as the most proper punishment (Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 2012, n.p.).

Pussy Riot’s trial ignited a heated discussion over the issues of justice, feminism, and the separation of church and state. In June 2012, when Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich were facing a potential maximum seven-year prison term, 203 members of Russian intelligentsia, including producers, actors, writers, publishers, musicians, and painters, signed a petition, insisting that criminal charges be replaced with administrative responsibility. A well-crafted and well-argued appeal, this petition nonetheless opened with a caveat that the signatories had different views of the moral and ethical side of Pussy Riot’s performance.

Russian opposition leader and lawyer Alexei Navalny suggested that the Pussy Riot case was “a political show trial. As an Orthodox Christian, I can only see this as a repugnant, downright heathen act of revenge. It is carried out in the name of Christianity, but the girls did not desecrate any icons and they did not destroy anything. It reminds me of the Inquisition during the Middle Ages” (Schepp, 2012, n.p.). Navalny also pointed out that Pussy Riot achieved unprecedented notoriety largely due to the firm position taken by Russian authorities in clamping down on minor displays of dissent, and their attempt to hide the conflict between the government and the opposition behind a discussion of the Russian Orthodox Church and religious hatred. As Tolokonnikova said in her closing courtroom statement, “[b]y and large, the three members of Pussy Riot are not the ones on trial here. If we were, this event would hardly be so significant. This is a trial of the entire political system of the Russian Federation” (Tolokonnikova, 2013b, p. 91). In response to such criticism, the official position of the Russian government, as reflected in Foreign Ministry Spokesman’s communication with the press, suggests the following:

We are convinced that the neglect of moral norms common to all world religions is destructive, and we try not only to comply with international law but also with traditional values. With regard to “non-traditional values,” they should be allowed only in those occasions where they do not conflict with law and morality.

(Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2012)

The image of three young women opposed to a corrupt system of justice and an oppressive patriarchal regime became crystallized for many in the West. In a press statement, Jean-Claude Mignon, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe, criticized the court’s verdict in the Pussy Riot trial for imposition of disproportionate punishment. He also called for Russian courts to review the conviction, “taking full account of our standards in this field, such as those set forth in the European Convention on Human Rights” (Council of Europe, 2012). Amnesty International (2012) called for the immediate and unconditional release of the three young women, criticizing the Russian government for their failure to recognize the right to freedom of expression and other rights guaranteed in international human rights law. Human Rights Watch (HRW) questioned the detention of criminally charged punk band members: “[t]here is no basic human right to barge into a church to make a political statement, jump around near the altar, and shout obscenities. But there is most certainly the right not to lose your liberty for doing so, even if the act is offensive” (Denber, 2012, n.p.).

Clashes of opinions over the Pussy Riot case did not stop even after the Moscow City Court replaced the punishment for Samutsevich with a conditional sentence in October 2012 and eventually—after they had served 21 months—authorized amnesty and release from penal colonies for Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova in December 2013.

Release from Prison and Further Activities

As the Russian Government responded to the provocative but non-violent performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour with an unexpected and unprecedented determination to punish a small group of activists, the women found themselves in dismal penal colonies. The misery of Russian prisons was immediately recognized by them as part of their fight for civil and political rights protection in Russia. Tolokonnikova served most of her sentence in a Mordovian prison (IK-14) and went on a hunger strike twice, protesting against the exploitative and humiliating conditions and demanding to be transferred to another correctional facility. While in prison, she repeatedly complained about unhealthy conditions, a complete absence of privacy, and a brutal social hierarchy in which younger or more vulnerable inmates are subjected to harassment and abuse. In a letter from prison, she wrote about slavery-like conditions established in IK-14:

My brigade in the sewing shop works 16 to 17 hours a day. From 7.30 a.m. to 12.30 a.m. At best, we get four hours of sleep a night. We have a day off once every month and a half. We work almost every Sunday. Prisoners submit petitions to work on weekends “out of [their] own desire.” In actuality, there is, of course, no desire to speak of. These petitions are written on the orders of the administration and under pressure from the prisoners that help enforce it.

(The Guardian, 2013, n.p.)

When Tolokonnikova was eventually moved to another prison in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia, she promised to deal with the situation in the Mordovian prison upon her release. Meanwhile, the deputy head of the IK-14 correctional colony, Yuriy Kupriyanov, sued Tolokonnikova for libel. Norilsk City Court, however, refused to rule in favor of the claim on grounds of insufficient evidence and inflicted damages (Vedomosti, 2014).

In connection with their experiences in prison colonies, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina launched the non-governmental organization “Zona Prava,” dedicated to advocacy of prisoners’ rights. This NGO is supported by the Cinema for Peace initiative that accompanied Pussy Riot’s tour in the United States in April 2014. Zona Prava offers legal assistance to inmates in filing suits against jail and prison administrations, or, when necessary, in taking legal action at the European Court of Human Rights.

Following their release from prison, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina separated from the band and launched a broader human rights campaign, in which they requested the United Nations to pressure the Russian government to enforce international laws on human rights and torture, in keeping with the minimum standards set by UN protocols and the European Convention on Human Rights. In an attempt to mobilize a new generation of activists to stand together in solidarity for freedom of expression, gender equality, and civil and political liberties, the women called for wider public support at a press conference held before the Amnesty Concert at New York City’s Barclays Center on February 5, 2014:

Anybody can be Pussy Riot, you just need to put on a mask and stage an active protest of something in your particular country, wherever that may be, that you consider unjust. And we’re not here as the leaders of Pussy Riot or determining what Pussy Riot is and what it does or what it says. We are just two individuals that spent two years in jail for taking part in a Pussy Riot protest action.

(Kedmey, 2014, n.p.)

Despite personal disagreements and quarrels among Pussy Riot members that ultimately led to the group’s official disintegration, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina remain active both in Russia and internationally by contributing to difference causes, participating in meetings, and giving interviews and speeches. In 2015, they recorded their first song in English, titled “I Can’t Breathe,” an allusion to Eric Garner’s last words when he died in a police chokehold, in New York City in July 2014. They also produced a video clip “Refugees In,” addressing the refugee crisis in Europe.

Pussy Riot and the Russian Orthodox Church

One of the most important factors behind the magnitude of the effects of Pussy Riot’s performance of the song “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away,” the severity of punishment by state prosecution, and the concomitant domestic and international uproar lies in its blistering, uncompromising attack against the alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the state, or more specifically, between President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow. In comparison, the Kremlin’s response to previous—many would argue, much more impudent—actions, organized both by Pussy Riot and especially by its predecessor group Voina, targeting the political symbols of the regime in general and insulting President Putin personally, was almost absent. However, an open affront against the institution that underpins the state’s ideology and serves as the state’s strategic partner in securing social consolidation and the population’s unwavering support of the authorities could not have gone unnoticed. The fact that the event was held in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a venue deliberately chosen for the performance and deemed by most Russians to be one of the most sacred cornerstones of Russian Orthodoxy, only exacerbated the backlash against Pussy Riot, and led to the criminal conviction of “hooliganism based on religious hatred.”

Throughout the trial, Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich, reiterated that the intent of their performance was not to attack the Orthodox faith (in contrast to the church as an institution) or to insult the feelings of Orthodox believers. In their appeal statements (Pussy Riot, 2013a), Alyokhina and Samutsevich insisted, respectively: “Dear believers, we did not want to insult you. We never had such intentions. We went to the cathedral to voice our protest against the merging of religious elites with the political elites of our country” (p. 117) and “[i]f we unwittingly hurt any of believers by our actions, then we apologize for that. The idea of our action was political, not religious” (p. 118).

The political nature of the protest was also clearly articulated in a joint statement by Pussy Riot on March 23, 2012, which specifically explained the rationale behind the performance, calling it “a political gesture to address the problem of Putin government’s merger with the Russian Orthodox Church.” According to band members,

Patriarch Kirill has repeatedly evangelized on behalf of the political figure of Putin—clearly no saint—and continues to urge his parishioners not to participate in protest rallies. A joint political action carried out by governmental authorities and the Orthodox Church before the elections for the State Duma, the “Two Day’s Wait for the Belt of the Virgin,” was aimed at portraying an image of apolitical Orthodox citizens. This outrages us no less than the violation of the elections of the Duma. Therefore, we have introduced a new element to our performance—a prayer … In this statement, we respond to the political activity of the faithful, and counter the Patriarch Gundayay’s4 effort to distort the truth.

(Pussy Riot, 2013c, p. 15)

Patriarch Kirill denounced Pussy Riot’s performance as sacrilege. Addressing the faithful after the liturgy on March 24, 2012, he stated that the holiness of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour had been desecrated, adding that his heart was wrenched with pain and bitterness because of attempts by some, calling themselves Orthodox believers, to justify Pussy Riot’s blasphemy. The Patriarch called upon the parishioners not to remain indifferent and to pray for the country and the people “for we have no future if we mock our holy shrines and if this mockery burdens our souls by being presented as some sort of valour, expression of political protest, as some appropriate action or an innocuous joke” (ROC, 2012, n.p.). Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, chairman of the Synodal Department for the Cooperation of Church and Society of the Moscow Patriarchate, expressed hope that the court’s decision would ensure such behavior never happens again (Vzglyad, 2012, n.p.).

Although, according to Article 14(1) of the Russian Constitution, the Russian Federation is a secular state, the language employed by prosecution during the trial drew heavily on religious rhetoric. In an attempt to justify the incitement of the religious hatred conviction, the focus centered on faith and on believers’ offended feelings. The prosecutor’s statement reads:

These actions constituted felony hooliganism. They caused profound insult and humiliation to the faithful. They shouted out curse words that constituted blasphemy. Rules of conduct are determined by the Orthodox tradition and spiritual customs … As the Russian Orthodox Church has decreed, blasphemy is one of the most severe crimes [in contrast to sins]. The accused acted in such a manner as to maximize pain caused to Orthodox believers. They claim not to have read the cathedral’s rules. But those rules should have been obvious to them! They have mocked and challenged Orthodox Christiandom by exerting negative psychoemotional influence on a group of believers. They have violated the rights of the Russian Orthodox Church … They have also attracted the attention of larger society, thereby increasing the impact of their crime.

(Pussy Riot, 2013b, p. 53)

President Putin first commented on Pussy Riot’s performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour during his visit to London on August 2, 2012. Speculating on potential responses to a similar incident in other religions, namely in Judaism and Islam, he said that Pussy Riot should not be judged too harshly (REN TV News, 2012). After the trial, however, the president’s commentary reflected a stark contrast in attitude. He stated that “to arrest them was a right thing to do, and the court’s decision was also right because one cannot undermine the principles of morality and virtue and destroy the country.” He added that his initial reaction was to ask believers for forgiveness on Pussy Riot’s behalf, but then the case escalated and the court decided “to hit them with a toonie [a criminal slang expression meaning ‘to give a two-year term’]. They asked for it, they got it” (NTV, 2012).

In December 2015, two years after Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were amnestied, Patriarch Kirill stated that the ROC tried to contact Pussy Riot and encouraged them to ask for forgiveness, but it was never sought (Interfax, 2015). He added that priests met with Pussy Riot members to offer them an opportunity to repent but found no remorse. Tolokonnikova immediately denied the patriarch’s statement, saying that they had never been contacted by any priests and did not feel the need to apologize to the church (Dozhd, 2015).

Pussy Riot’s Feminism

“Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist, become a feminist, become a feminist!” repeats the chorus of Pussy Riot’s song “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away.” This powerful and, perhaps, surprising invocation—especially in a predominantly conservative religious society—underscores the significance of feminism as one of the crucial aspects of Pussy Riot’s aesthetics and ideology. “The idea of the group,” as Pussy Riot’s livejournal blog indicates, “appeared in 2011, when after the Arab Spring, it became clear that Russia lacks political and gender emancipation, audacity, and a feminist whip” (Pussy_Riot Livejournal Blog, n.d.). On various occasions, band members cited the influence of famous feminist thinkers and activists including, among others, Alexandra Kollontai, Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, Karen Finley, Kate Millet, and Shulamith Firestone (Remnick, 2014). Pussy Riot’s feminist agenda, however, has also become a subject of contention.

A complex, inherently multifaceted concept, feminism raises even greater controversy in the Russian context. Despite a solid intellectual tradition, the idea of feminism, for various reasons, has been discredited among the general population (Salmenniemi, 2008; Slater, 2014). “Russian women are highly suspicious of the term and generally refuse to identify themselves as feminists, even those working to improve the status of women through political organization and activism” (Lanoux, 2007, p. 188). This context is important for understanding why, in Russia, Pussy Riot’s self-identification and media portrayal as feminists have from the outset evoked a generally negative, often hostile, response. The critical representation of the band in the media, and the concomitantly disapproving public opinion, are in fact eerily reminiscent of the condemnatory media coverage of feminist protestors in the United Kingdom in the 1980s, as discussed by Alison Young (1990) in Femininity in Dissent. The only difference is that the adverse reaction in Russia took place more than 20 years later. Seal (2013) suggests further that “Pussy Riot actively sought to be categorized as criminal” (p. 295), a strategy that ultimately contributed to their work having a much more far-reaching impact than did that of the earlier generation of feminist protesters in the United Kingdom.

The most telling examples of belligerent attitudes toward Pussy Riot in Russia come from the Pussy Riot trial. Testifying as prosecution witnesses, a candle seller and a cathedral security guard asserted that the word feminism was “an insult for an Orthodox believer,” “an obscenity” and “a swear word if said in a church” (Pussy Riot, 2013b, pp. 50–51), while Larisa Pavlova, a lawyer for the church employees, claimed that “feminism was a deadly sin” (Pavlova cited in Kichanova, 2012, n.p.). Finally, in her sentence (Khamovnicheskiy District Court, 2012), Judge Marina Syrova somehow managed to establish a connection between feminism and religious hatred. She stated that although feminist views were not illegal in the Russian Federation, the idea of superiority of some beliefs (and accordingly, inferiority of others) led to conflict and animosity, apparently implying that Pussy Riot considered their feminist convictions superior to Orthodox beliefs.

Russian feminist groups and organizations unanimously spoke against Pussy Riot’s incarceration. But not all agreed with the group’s feminist ideology or approved of its means of protest, accusing the band of sensationalism and superficiality (Sperling, 2014). Even the band’s name, an audacious double entendre in English, was criticized not only as insolent, but also as meaningless to an average Russian (Yusupova, 2014).

Other criticisms, often ungrounded, ranged from accusations that it was men5 who actually masterminded the seemingly feminist project to concerns over unjustified objectification of the female body. The latter idea resulted, to a significant extent, from the confusion and confluence of Pussy Riot’s activism with the Ukrainian group Femen, also active in Russia and notorious for their “topless” protests. Even though Pussy Riot tried to distance themselves from Femen (Channell, 2014), their previous involvement with Voina and participation in public sexual intercourse in the museum performance were often cited to challenge their feminist ideals.

A more substantial conceptual disagreement with Pussy Riot’s feminist agenda, however, arose over the use of violent and sexist discourse in their songs. As Sperling (2014) noted, “Pussy Riot’s lyricists made use of traditional gender norms and homophobia, wielding these against their opponents in the regime and thereby reinforcing them in ways that other self-identified Russian feminists found problematic at best” (p. 223). Such ambivalence in attitudes, even among the group’s alleged supporters, can be explained by Pussy Riot’s belonging to “the informal feminism emerging in Russia, a response to nongovernmental organization (NGO) feminism, and the regime’s repression of NGO feminism” (Johnson, 2014, p. 583).

Conversely, in the West, Pussy Riot’s feminist message was supported almost unequivocally. In Michael Idov’s (2012) words, “the fact that Moscow can produce a loud feminist action collective inspired by the punk rock band Bikini Kill and Julia Kristeva is as edifying for the West as it is dumbfounding to most Russians” (n.p.). In addition to statements of solidarity and encouragement, fundraising campaigns, petitions, and open letters, one of the most important contributions in support of Pussy Riot came from the Feminist Press at the City University of New York (CUNY). This nonprofit organization, advocating for women’s rights and feminist perspectives, published the letters from prison, songs, poems and courtroom statements of Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich in English translation.

In 2014, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina participated in the First Super Symposium, a collaborative feminist art project, founded by artists Gidsken Braadlie and Lisa Pacini, during which they discussed the problem of feminism in Russia with Judith Butler and Rosi Braidotti. Extending their feminist agenda to other issues, most notably, rights of the LGBT community and of the unjustly incarcerated, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina continue their activism in Russia and abroad.

Pussy Riot’s Protest Art Aesthetics

Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s 2013 HBO documentary titled Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer opens with Bertolt Brecht’s epigraph “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world but a hammer with which to shape it.” Also often attributed to the rebellious Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, this epigraph immediately draws attention to the question of art as a form of political protest. More broadly, it invites us to ponder over the function of art and the role of the artist, especially in socio-political circumstances where freedom of expression and other civil and political rights may be curtailed.

Western media and academic literature viewed Pussy Riot’s performances as protest art targeted at President Putin’s regime. Judith Bessant (2014), for example, describes it as “performance art” drawing on “dissident political gestures and actions” (p. 171), while Greg Martin (2015) views it through the prism of Eyerman and Jamison’s concept of “cognitive praxis.” In Russia, on the other hand, the band was treated with considerable skepticism and animosity.6 Claims by government supporters and, surprisingly, by many representatives of intelligentsia, about tastelessness and lack of talent, as well as accusations of inappropriateness, profanity, and vulgarity must have rested, at least partially, on a refusal to acknowledge the powerful political critique. Coverage of Pussy Riot in many Russian media outlets was also underpinned by the desire to diminish the band’s international and domestic impact by reducing their performances to mere mockery, hooliganism, and “punk-behavior without an artistic premise,” as one critic put it (Yelagina, 2012, n.p.).

Whether what Pussy Riot did was “art or politics”—a naively dichotomous question that often seemed to dominate the discussion in Russia—hardly appears central or relevant. As Michael Idov observed in his New York Times op-ed, “Pussy Riot marks the outer edge of Russian culture. And in this sense, today, they are the biggest, most important artists in the country” (Idov, 2012, n.p.). “This has nothing to do,” he stressed, “with the quality of their music; judging it on artistic merit would be like chiding the Yippies because Pegasus the Immortal, the pig they ran for president in 1968, was not a viable candidate” (Idov, 2012, n.p.). Asked if Pussy Riot’s performances could be considered art, Viktor Miziano, editor-in-chief of Khudozhestvennyi Zhurnal (Moscow Art Magazine), offered a different explanation of why viewing Pussy Riot through the prism of art might be problematic (Art Khronika, 2012, n.p.). According to him, assessing the band’s performances after the trial on a purely artistic basis was impossible because the focus had shifted from aesthetics to ethics. In other words, a critique of Pussy Riot’s aesthetics would inadvertently imply an endorsement of the punishment, and vice versa, a positive appraisal would rather be indicative of a civic and political position than an aesthetic one. In light of this impossibility, a more important question should then be what Pussy Riot’s art did (rather than what it said and how it said it), especially when other means of democratic protest, such as the Bolotnaya Square demonstration7 and marches against corruption and fraudulent elections in Russia, had proven less effective in laying bare and attracting international attention to the situation in Russia under President Putin.

In her closing statement, Tolokonnikova (2013b) described the band’s aesthetic agenda as dissent against Putin’s regime:

Pussy Riot’s performances can either be called dissident art, or political action that engages art forms. Either way, our performances are a kind of civic activity amidst the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties.

(Tolokonnikova, 2013b, p. 91)

Russia had neither “[t]he culture of punk and performance” (Feygin, cited in Lerner & Pozdorovkin, 2013) nor “a legacy of twentieth-century feminism in its cultural background” (Gessen, 2014, p. 60). Pussy Riot’s emulation of American role models, therefore, invited accusations of aping Western culture, and acted to sway Russian public opinion against the band.

On the technical side, Pussy Riot’s performances, normally lasting only a few minutes at the most, were simple and easy to disseminate via social media. Sporting flamboyant costumes and wearing balaclavas, band members recorded their appearances in public places as they took out guitars, jumped, danced, and screamed refrains from their songs. These video recordings were then edited (sometimes with footage from different venues) and posted online with enhanced soundtracks and complete song lyrics. Raw YouTube footage of Pussy Riot’s performance at Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, for example, shows five masked women jumping, dancing, kneeling, and crossing themselves in front of the gates of the altar. In the original video, they could also be heard yelling the phrase “sran gospodnia,” translated verbatim as “shit of the Lord.”8 The edited final version of the song “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away” features a choir part (based on the motif from Sergey Rachmaninov’s “Bogoroditse Devo, Raduisia,” a Russian “Ave Maria”), mixed with four punk stanzas and a refrain. The refrain contains an invocation to the Mother of God to chase Putin away, while the stanzas are a diatribe against the alliance between the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and President Putin.

Discussions of Pussy Riot’s music are less extensive and often stop at parallels to their Western counterparts. Some attention has been given to the lyrics of their songs, many of which have already been translated into English. Describing them as “hard-edged,” Haskins (2015) claims that Pussy Riot’s lyrics “convey the women’s rage against authoritarianism and patriarchy” (p. 229). Their use of sexist and obscene language, however, has become a contentious subject. The opening stanza of the song “Putin Has Pissed Himself” is a representative example of Pussy Riot’s aesthetic and political discourse. It reads:

A column of insurgents is marching towards the KremlinWindows explode in FSB9 officesThe bitches piss themselves behind the red wallsRiot declares abort to the system.

Besides a straightforward rebellious message, the stanza is also interesting from a literary perspective. It contains an “s” alliteration, epitomizing “scare” and exemplified in the words piss, bitches, FSB, system, all of which are in contrast with the explosive “r” alliteration in the words riot, abort, vzryvaiutsia (Russian for explode).

Whereas in Russia the response to Pussy Riot’s most scandalous performance, even among members of the arts community, was predominantly negative, many Western artists expressed support of the band. During her August 2012 concert in Moscow, Madonna acknowledged Pussy Riot’s courage and even had the band’s name written on her back (Herszenhorn, 2012, n.p.). Statements of support were also made, among many others, by musicians Yoko Ono, Billy Bragg, Sting, Anti-Flag, Le Tigre, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Björk, Paul McCartney, Toby Vail, and Kathleen Hanna (Tochka, 2013).

Conversely, two iconic cultural figures in Russia, singers Alla Pugacheva and Iosif Kobzon (who is also a member of parliament at the Russian State Duma), condemned Pussy Riot. Although Pugacheva, in an interview for TV channel Dozhd (2012a), disagreed with the severity of the punishment, she questioned the purpose and, especially, the inappropriate—in her opinion—venue chosen for the performance. Calling Pussy Riot “three fools with no talent whatsoever,” Pugacheva, who sounded like a strict but forgiving mother, suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that they be sent to a monastery. Kobzon, in his turn, clearly confusing Pussy Riot with the Ukrainian activist group Femen, deplored the band and justified the excessive punishment as “a lesson for everyone” (Dozhd, 2012b).

The controversy regarding Pussy Riot’s art resurfaced when the band was nominated for the 2012 Kandinsky Prize for Contemporary Art in Russia. Because “Pussy Riot’s action could not be considered art of high enough quality to be included” (Jonson, 2015, p. 231), it failed to make the shortlist. A year later in Germany, however, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, along with the Ukrainian author Yuri Andrukhovych, received the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought. In 2012, Russia protested the nomination of Pussy Riot for the European Parliament-administered Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, for which they were shortlisted. In the same year, in New York, Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr Verzilov accepted on the group’s behalf the biennial Lennon-Ono Grant for Peace from Yoko Ono.

Protest Art for Social Change

The socio-political and cultural significance of Pussy Riot’s protest art lies primarily in revolutionizing the nature of political protest in Russia by transcending the traditional forms of opposition and civic dissent. Instead of largely ineffective street rallies, the band’s scathing criticism of President Putin’s authoritarian regime was premised on a powerful—and hitherto unknown in recent Russian history—amalgam of punk performance, radical feminist views, and a progressive civil rights agenda, amplified by sensationalism and scandal. The novelty of Pussy Riot’s protest also consisted in incorporating communication technology and social media to spread their message and gain recognition. The band succeeded in reaching out to mass audiences both in Russia and abroad by capitalizing on their online presence and, in fact, by relocating their protest from physical to virtual spaces that are more immune to political censorship or suppression. Pussy Riot’s performance videos posted on YouTube won them viral popularity outside of Russia and continued to fuel international outcry even after the three members were detained.

The unprecedentedly severe punishment and the trial proceedings not only helped underscore the church-state convergence in Russia and reveal the direct involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church in politics, but also compromised—at least, from the Western perspective—the Russian judicial system, which prosecuted the band on criminal rather than civil charges, testifying to a larger trend in the Russian Federation towards the criminalization of social protest and curtailment of freedom of speech. Inspired by Western feminist movements and adopting radical, often controversial means (including the reversal of sexist language and objectification of the female body) to respond to social patriarchy in Russia, Pussy Riot might have alienated themselves from the existing feminist tradition that, despite its intellectual rigor, has had little resonance in Russian society. Amidst often inconsequential debates regarding the definitions and goals of feminism, Pussy Riot’s actionable advocacy of feminist ideals proved that feminism is not merely a discursive practice and intellectual enterprise but a potent tool for social change.

Although the band was ultimately affected by internal disagreements, eventually leading to its disintegration, Pussy Riot represents a remarkable milestone in the history of social protest movements. Having already attracted considerable scholarly attention across the social sciences and humanities, it will remain an important reference point for interdisciplinary and comparative studies in the future.

Overview of Primary Sources

The two primary sources that may serve as starting points of any exploration of Pussy Riot’s activities are the band’s LiveJournal blog and the official YouTube channel at PussyRiotVideo. While the former offers a first-hand perspective on how Pussy Riot members constructed the band’s artistic identity and pursued their political agenda, the latter provides several edited video clips of the band’s performances. They remain especially valuable in light of the court’s decision to limit access to Pussy Riot’s videos that were recognized as “extremist.” Additionally, the blog offers useful references to media coverage of Pussy Riot, both in Russian and English, as well as links to more performances, commentaries, and interviews. The band’s album Wont (sic) Get Fooled Again, released in February 2015 by Spite, is also available online. It features 10 mp3 tracks that may differ stylistically from Pussy Riot’s earlier tracks, but nevertheless follow punk rock and alternative punk aesthetics. Another primary source that sheds light on Tolokonnikova’s and Alyokhina’s activities after they were released from prison is the project Zona Prava, founded with the aim to combat human rights abuses in Russian prisons.

The most significant resource on Pussy Riot in English is Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer For Freedom (Feminist Press at CUNY, 2013), which, among other things, offers the translation of Tolokonnikova’s, Alyokhina’s, and Samutsevich’s letters from prison and courtroom statements as well as their defense attorneys’ closing statements. Correspondence between Tolokonnikova, writing from prison, and Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, is interesting in the light of an intellectual discussion of artistic forms of political activism and the future of democracy in Russia. It was published in 2014 under the title Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj (London, U.K.: Verso).

Finally, an insightful documentary that unveils the history of Pussy Riot from their first performances to the court proceedings is a 2013 Russian-British production entitled Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin. Another 2013 Russian documentary Pussy versus Putin, by Gogol’s Wives Productions, also chronicles the struggle of Pussy Riot against the Putin regime and may be useful in advancing our understanding of contemporary politics of resistance in Russia.

Interviews with Pussy Riot

Further Reading

  • Gessen, M. (2014). Words will break cement: The passion of Pussy Riot. New York: Penguin.
  • Makarychev, A., & Yatsyk, A. (2015). Refracting Europe: Biopolitical conservatism and art protest in Putin’s Russia. In D. Cadier & M. Light (Eds.), Russia’s foreign policy: Ideas, domestic politics, and external relations. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Miller, A. (2012). Perfect opposition: On Putin and Pussy Riot. Public Policy Research, 19(3), 205–207.
  • Prozorov, S. (2014). Pussy Riot and the politics of profanation: Parody, performativity, veridiction. Political Studies, 62(4), 766–783.
  • Rutland, P. (2014). The Pussy Riot affair: Gender and national identity in Putin’s Russia. Nationalities Papers, 42(4), 575–582.
  • Sharafutdinova, G. (2014). The Pussy Riot affair and Putin’s démarche from sovereign democracy to sovereign morality. Nationalities Papers, 42(4), 615–621.
  • Smyth, R., & Soboleva, I. (2014). Looking beyond the economy: Pussy Riot and the Kremlin’s voting coalition. Post-Soviet Affairs, 30(4), 257–275.
  • Sperling, V. (2014). Russian feminist perspectives on Pussy Riot. Nationalities Papers, 42(4), 591–603.
  • Sperling, V. (2014). Sex, politics, and Putin: Political legitimacy in Russia. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Yablokov, I. (2014). Pussy Riot as agent provocateur: Conspiracy theories and the media construction of nation in Putin’s Russia. Nationalities Papers, 42(4), 622–636.



  • 1. The title is a pun based on the words медведь‎, English for bear, from which Dmitri Medvedev’s last name derives.

  • 2. The complete lyrics of the songs along with Pussy Riot’s commentary, photographs, video clips, and extensive discussion threads are available on the group’s livejournal blog.

  • 3. Tolokonnikova’s husband, Pyotr Verzilov, holds dual Russian-Canadian citizenship.

  • 4. Patriarch Kirill’s secular name is Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev. “Gundyay” is a shortened version of his last name, showing disrespect. Journalist Gregory Feifer (2014) described the Patriarch “as a sharp-tongued former Church spokesman who has criticized ‘human rights’ as ‘a cover for lies and insults to religious and ethnic values’ and praised Putin’s rule as a ‘miracle of God’” (Feifer, 2014, p. 253).

  • 5. Specifically, Tolokonnikova’s husband Verzilov, and other male members of the group Voina.

  • 6. In addition to personal threats and a smear campaign against Pussy Riot before the trial, members of the band were also whipped and tear-sprayed by the Cossack security at the Sochi Olympics, while the police blatantly refused to interfere.

  • 7. A demonstration on December 10, 2011, on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, which was part of a series of protests against the allegedly rigged parliamentary vote in Russia.

  • 8. Some commentators believe that it is an approximate equivalent of the English expression “holy shit.”

  • 9. Russian Federal Security Service, formerly, the KGB.