Women

04.05.14

Pussy Riot is Bigger Than Putin

Members of the imprisoned Russian punk band are using their star power to shine a light on the plight of political prisoners.

Two young Russian women from the Pussy Riot punk group took turns reading from a Call to Action they wrote to commemorate what they learned as political prisoners, and to inspire others to join them in their advocacy.  “Don’t be indifferent, be inspired and create,” Nadya Tolokonnikov began, recalling the little things the women noticed during the time they spent in prison. “A crack in the ceiling,” she said, “look around, pay attention to key incidences, sometimes they are signs your destiny is calling.”

“Revolution begins with a single person,” continued Masha Alekhina, who spoke of the women she saw in prison and her hope that their stories “will not remain in obscurity. I hope that together we will change prison,” she said.

Masha Gessen, author of “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot,” introduced Tolokonnikova and Alekhina Saturday at the Women in the World Summit.  The two women were college students when they entered a cathedral and appealed to the virgin to oust Russian President Putin. The prank landed them in prison where they held hunger strikes and had to be hospitalized. When they were released after eighteen months, they were no longer college students but “seasoned political prisoners,” said Gessen.  

Pussy Riot is now a call to action for women everywhere, and for all the many causes under the banner of equal rights and social justice. Members of the group were beaten during an incident in Sochi when the eyes of the world were on Russia, and they have since been using their star power to address the issue of prisoners’ rights, launching campaigns for individual prisoners that have “kept the pussy riot flame burning,” said Gessen.

Speaking in careful, practiced English, and in rhythmic cadences, the Call to Action recited by these two heroic women took on the aura of poetry.  Tolokonnikova said she couldn’t understand how her country, one of the first to give women rights in 1917, is now 65th “next to Kazakstan and Belarus.” She noted that there are “not as many women politicians in the U.S. as we would like,” adding that it is “our place to show women are brilliant and talented as politicians,” a remark that drew applause and cheers from the women delegates in the theater at Lincoln Center.  

“Politicians are simply government workers and they work for you,” Tolokonnikova continued, to more cheers.  “You are the people who hired them and you have the right and moral responsibility to control and direct their activities.”

Picking up the refrain, Alekhina said, “To be moderate and restrained is not always the correct choice.”  She urged everyone to heed the voice within that urges action.

Challenging a government whose politics you disagree with is an easier task in a democracy than it is in Putin’s Russia, where these young women learned the hard way that Putin’s crackdown on protestors would not spare artists and mothers like themselves. But Putin also learned something about Pussy Riot: that they won’t back down. After being released from prison, members of the group appeared in open defiance in Sochi, where they were detained and beaten by police guards acting on Putin’s orders.

“Anyone can be Pussy Riot,” Tolokonnikova exhorted, as voices in the audience picked up the chant.

“For your and our freedom,” Alekhina chimed in while Tina Brown, founder and creator of Women in the World, took the stage amidst the cheers and whoops and high energy of the crowd. “That’s a great call to action,” Brown said, beaming.  “But no one can be Pussy Riot but you.”