The opening of the Pussy Riot concert at the National Theatre is almost unbearably sad. When Putin was first appointed prime minister in late 1999 he was perceived by many as a breath of fresh air after the misery of the Yeltsin years. By the time he reappeared in the president’s seat in 2012, that air had gone from stale to suffocating. Over a million people protested against what was to be the formal death of democracy in Russia. Among those who could clearly see what was coming was feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, which was to achieve worldwide notoriety for an impromptu performance in an orthodox church that saw them sentenced to jail.
Having since fled Russia, Pussy Riot member Masha Alyokhina was in Reykjavík in late November to wrap the band’s world tour. The collective set the stage with this reminder of Russia circa 2011-12 and they didn’t let up for the next hour and a half—which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering hot hard they’ve been going for the past ten-plus years.
One act of defiance has followed another, and is inevitably followed by police harassment and sometimes jail, all portrayed on screen and in song. There is an element of danger in every art form worth talking about, but rarely have performers put themselves in as much physical danger as these activist performers. And indeed, the point is neither to entertain nor to shock, but to change the world—starting with their home country, which so desperately needs changing.
Smuggled in a suitcase
The music is aggressive, their physicality even more so. An attempt to urinate on a picture of Putin does not go completely to plan. Pussy Riot’s history is recollected on stage as they are attacked by Putinists at a McDonalds in Siberia, smuggled in suitcases under the noses of the FSB (successor to the KGB), and stand outside for an entire night as temperatures drop to -25 Celcius to protest the arrest of the brother of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose main crime is being related to his sibling.
An overview of the Gulag
Through the performance, we get an overview of the Gulag that they first protest against, and are then imprisoned in. A person in a Russian police uniform sets the scene, but the focus is always on the actions of collective members, rather than on Russian politics. That’s the point. When a government becomes so terrified of its citizens, every act becomes political, be it submissive or subversive. And Pussy Riot are not taking any shit, not even from goons with batons and guns.
After two years in prison, Masha was released just before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but she wasted no time attempting to further disrupt Putin’s party. After being jailed six times more, she was to be sent back to the penal colony after Putin finally dropped all pretence of civil society with his all-out invasion of Ukraine. The worst did come to pass and the concert ends with a show of solidarity with Ukraine, which would be illegal back home.
Escaped with help from Ragnar Kjartans
Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson assisted Masha in the escape and co-curates an exhibition of the recording of Pussy Riot’s live performance for Kling og Bang gallery. But the acts of bravery belong to Masha and her group. Punk rock has long since been commodified in the West, where despite all its problems artists are not usually arrested for their opinions. In Putin’s Russia, art can be a matter of life and death and, with the power they emanate from the stage, Pussy Riot make the stakes known.
If you missed Pussy Riot’s live performance, you can relive the event at the exhibition at Kling & Bang at Marshallhúsið until January 15th.
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