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Photography: Stuart Moulding / @OohShootStu

Riot Days

Pussy Riot Presents @ Arts Club 22/8/18

A man in front of me collecting his guestlist ticket seems disappointed the girl on the door doesn’t respond when he says thanks in Russian. Really, that sums up the common western attitude to PUSSY RIOT, and perhaps even Russian politics in general. We view Pussy Riot’s Russian background as quirky and a commodity; we fetishise and demonise the eastern state as being on one hand mysterious and on the other viciously cruel. Western news sights are so biased in their portrayal of Russia that to find any factual information on what is actually happening is not only difficult, but more often than not it’s misleading. I say this because you can’t really appreciate Pussy Riot, and tonight’s Riot Days performance, without some sort of context in which Pussy Riot exist. Without the political and activist motivations behind this performance, it is nothing.

It’s not musical; anyone who had come along for a dance is bitterly disappointed. Riot Days’ musical backdrop is very much just that, a backdrop to the spoken word of Pussy Riot founding member and tonight’s frontwoman Maria Alyokhina. For context, in 2012 Pussy Riot performed two main feats of activism, most notably storming Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in protest of the Church’s right-wing presence on the Russian political environment. This resulted in the arrest of Alyokhina, along with Nadya Tolokonnikova and a prison sentence of two years for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. Later, a third member was arrested, and in 2014 all three were released under amnesty. Since then the group’s guerrilla antics have made appearances at the Sochi Winter Olympics and the FIFA World Cup final. All this has made them, in the west at least, unrivalled feminist heroes. We love to champion Pussy Riot because, to us, nothing could be more punk rock than fighting a system we perceive to be as evil as Russia. And yet our media champions Pussy Riot because it confirms their bias that Russia is the ultimate evil. That very well might be true: Alyokhina’s documentation of her time in prison and her treatment by Russian officials and police is little less than horrifying. Straight out of Orwellian dystopia, there is little more evil than torturing three young people for questioning the corruption of a state. This is something empathetically highlighted in tonight’s performance.

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As Maria, or as she is addressed tonight, Marsha, comes to the stage donning her iconic blue balaclava, she is meet by a roaring room. The energy is strange; in his introduction the host asks us to act as punk rock as possible and yet the low tempo, often ambient bleeps and bloops of the synths chill you out rather than fire you up. As Alyokhina starts her performance, entirely in Russian with English subtitles, you’re instantly given an insight into the world of Pussy Riot: how they hatched the plan, the reaction, the feeling, the emotion. Regardless of your opinion on Pussy Riot, it is interesting. In an age where most punk bands went to music school and fund their bohemian lifestyle via their dad’s bank balance, Pussy Riot are at very least a change in the pace of modern punk. Yet, this seems at odds with their behaviour post-release. Nadya opened an art show – Inside Pussy Riot – at London’s Saatchi Gallery, where paying punters have a chance to walk around in a colourful balaclava, hold –a sign that says ‘Share the World’s Wealth’ and then meet at the end for pricey Prosecco and posh nibbles. Is this a sell out? A contradiction? Or is this milking rich idiots to fund activism? Both Nadya and Maria appeared on Netflix drama House Of Cards, as themselves, criticising a Putin-based character. Nothing spells out punk rock more than a Netflix Originals cameo. But who wouldn’t? Perhaps we hold our standards too high for our punk icons; perhaps after spending two years in Russian prison, of which a large portion was in solitary confinement, there is nothing wrong at all with cashing in. I would agree, but I feel as if these high standards are set by Maria and Nadya themselves.

Riot Days is a performance filled with aggressive intent; fists go flying in the air, slogans such as ‘YOU ARE PUSSY RIOT’ flash on the screen. It’s being sold to us as authentic, and yet we’re all left questioning, ‘Is it?’ There must be something severely wrong if you can do two years hard time for activism and people still doubt your cred. For me, it has been the outing of tonight’s frontwoman Maria, and her links to the Russian far-right Orthodox Christian group God’s Will, the very group that campaigned publicly for Pussy Riot’s incarceration. Pre-Pussy Riot, God’s Will was a little known far-right group, their main intent to be anti-LGBTQ+, to attack pride parades, and to intimidate LGBTQ+ groups. However, during the trial of Pussy Riot, God’s Will surged to fame in Russia, as they echoed a common sentiment publicly, that Pussy Riot deserved a prison sentence for religious hatred. Some would call Maria and God’s Will leader Dmitry Enteo’s relationship forbidden, secret and proof that love can conquer all. More cynically, I believe it to be that Pussy Riot was always more about Pussy Riot’s notoriety than enacting real social change. I don’t believe anyone who is as politically minded as Maria would be able to forgive Dmitry Enteo’s actions, both physically against the LGBTQ+ people he has attacked and politically against the far-right fascism that he stands for. More obscurely, Maria’s attitude to this news circulating has been suspicious to say the least: The Daily Beast reported that when interviewing Maria in New York, the interview was stopped whenever Enteo was mentioned. While Nadya talked about a friend who was “fucking a fascist” in an interview last year

"As I watch Maria onstage scream and shout about the revolution, I can't help but wonder, the revolution for whom?"

So, as I watch Maria onstage scream and shout about the revolution, I can’t help but wonder, the revolution for whom? For women? What about lesbian women? What about trans women?

There is no doubt in my mind that a force against Putin is essential, but should we so blindly believe what we are being sold. Which brings me back to my first point, we view Pussy Riot’s Russian origin as a quirk and a commodity. You can wear your balaclava, you can buy the book, you can pay £145 to go to the immersive experience, but in the words of Gil Scott-Heron, if “the revolution will not be televised”, be dubious at how much Pussy Riot have made it onto your TV.

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