Puss in Chains

Throughout the media’s coverage of the Kremlin’s heinous treatment of Pussy Riot one thing has been shamefully overlooked: their feminism

Counterpoints Russia
Pussy Riot: Dissidents, democrats and feminists

Unoriginally, the Putin regime has responded to the defiance of Pussy Riot with overwhelming brutality. Six months ago, three members of the Russian punk band were arrested for illegally performing in a prominent Moscow cathedral in condemnation of Putin (this, it seems, defines the crime of “hooliganism”); they have now begun a richly undeserved two-year jail sentence. The authoritarian response to the band’s criticisms of the regime reflects the increasing severity with which Putin is cracking down on dissent. Unsurprisingly, then, Pussy Riot has become a cause célèbre of the Western media. However, the media flurry does the band a disservice by failing to recognise the other, equally fundamental component of their identity: their feminism.

The group aims to eradicate the sexism prevalent in Russian society, which they see as condoning the public expression of misogyny at even the most senior levels. For instance, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin called Madonna a “slut” after she stated her support for the band. It’s no surprise then that Pussy Riot also wish to end “the domination of males in all areas of public discourse” and address “problems of masculine conformity” — conjuring an encouraging vision of a future in which Putin no longer feels the need endlessly to crow about his masculinity.

In a country where domestic abuse remains legal, where three times more women are murdered at home than in any other European country, the sheer fact of Pussy Riot’s existence is an incredible act of bravery. So, too, was their illegal January performance on Moscow’s Red Square celebrating a rogue group of demonstrators (including members of the band) who, protesting against the rigged Duma elections, broke through police cordons and marched almost to the Kremlin itself. The police were stunned, not least because the women in the group “screamed so furiously that the policemen were scared to come up to us at first,” Pussy Riot told the St Petersburg Times.

A parallel can be drawn here to the February Revolution of 1917. Groups of women led a series of rallies in celebration of International Women’s Day. Angry women demanding bread persuaded factory workers to strike and such were their numbers that the city was soon paralysed, with the threat of military retaliation largely neutralised by the presence of women. Within the week, the army had changed sides and the tsar abdicated. By contrast, women played no part in the Bolshevik coup later that year.

Almost a century later, many of the same battles are still being fought — by people like the members of Pussy Riot. This in no way is intended to diminish the group’s importance in highlighting the human injustices of the Putin regime. But if Western governments and media fail to support the feminism championed by Pussy Riot, it is all too likely that 2012, like 1917, will be remembered as a lost opportunity for radical change.