Moscow Grrl Band Sets Kremlin’s Teeth on Edge

Posted March 19th, 2012 at 9:16 pm (UTC+0)

Pussy Riot band stages lightning punk performance on Red Square on January 20 to protest
six more years of Vladimir Putin leading Russia. Photo: Reuters: Denis Sinyakov

Band members wear hand knitted ski masks to submerge their identities into the group. They say they draw inspiration from the 1990s punk grrl music movement in the US. Photo: Igor Mukhin

Just when politics here were starting to look boring again, along comes an outrageous girl band to rattle Russia.

With their day glo balaclavas, bright tights and summer dresses on the white snow, the angry girls call themselves Pussy Riot.

They’re starting to make President Vladimir Putin look like Dwight Eisenhower. He was the American president who took a dim view of Elvis “the Pelvis” Presley and his scandalous hip gyrations.

Under Eisenhower, the King of Rock and Roll was drafted into the U.S. Army.

Under Putin, the leaders of Pussy Riot are now in jail facing charges that could carry sentences of up to eight years.

Russia’s generational clash was triggered by Putin’s announcement last Sept. 24 that he and President Dmitri Medvedev were going to switch jobs.

For a group of Russian feminists, six more years of Putinism was six years too many. They formed a punk band, took vows of individual anonymity, agreed to perform only illegal concerts, and chose a deliberately rude and provocative name.

A supporter held a photo of imprisoned band member Natalya Tolokonnikova, marked ‘Freedom,’ during a picket
March 8 in front of police headquarters in Moscow. AP Photo:Ivan Sekretarev

In the old days (five years ago), Pussy Riot would have been a dead-end garage band, playing for friends in an abandoned warehouse. But now that half of Russia is online, their video performances are going viral, scoring hundreds of thousands of views.

In six months, Pussy Riot has become a household name across Russia. Reflecting this, a state-run TV channel recently devoted an evening program to the band, explaining to viewers that its members come from broken homes, that their parents are alcoholics, and that several band members are bad mothers.

Indeed, the mothering will suffer if they have to sit in jail for seven years.

But, it is not the quality of mothering that irritates the Kremlin, it is the politics.

In Pussy Riot’s debut action, they took over a Moscow metro station and sang their song: “Loosen the paving stones!”
Referring to the Arab Spring, they sang: “Egyptian air is good for the lungs! Let’s make Tahrir in the middle of Red Square.”

Last December, after police arrested hundreds of people who protested voting fraud, band members climbed atop a roof next to the jail and performed this song: “Death To Prison, Freedom To Protest.”

Two weeks later, after the government called out tens of thousands of police to tightly control a protest demonstration, the band climbed atop an ancient stone platform in Red Square and performed a song with this refrain: “Revolt in Russia/Putin Wets his Pants.”

That concert resulted in detentions of several hours and warnings.

Members of radical feminist group Pussy Riot try to perform their ‘punk prayer’ to save the nation from Vladimir Putin at Russia’s largest Orthodox Cathedral, Christ the Savior, in Moscow on Feb. 21. AP Photo: Sergey Ponomarev

But the final straw for the Kremlin was the band’s pre-election invasion of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. Standing near the central altar, they crossed themselves, and sang: “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, drive Putin out!”

Targeting the close alliance between church and state in Russia, band members sang: “Black cassock, gold epaulettes! The congregation bows, crawling to him! The Ghost of Freedom in heaven / Gay Pride is sent to Siberia in chains.”

Then:“The KGB chief, their patron saint is escorting protesters to a detention center; the Patriarch believes in Putin, better believe in God.”

On the eve of Russia’s March 4 presidential election, police arrested two women they said were ringleaders of the cathedral invasion, Maria Alyokhin and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. A third woman, Irina Loktina, was arrested on Friday. All have been charged with hooliganism, charges that can bring up to eight years in jail.

Prosecutors say they are all members of Pussy Riot. The women refuse to confirm or deny membership. They are to remain locked up until they go on trial, on April 24.

The Kremlin is fed up.

Talking to Dozhd, the internet TV channel, Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, said ,“Honestly speaking, as far as what happened in the cathedral, there’s no other way to describe it than disgusting.”

Maxim Shevchenko, a pro-Kremlin television talk show host, told a radio station after the cathedral invasion: “This is an insult, blasphemy, sacrilege and a desecration of the Orthodox Church. The church is not a place for gay and lesbian activists.”

Two months earlier, a Ukrainian feminist group, Femen, targeted Christ the Savior cathedral for a protest in solidarity with Russians demonstrating against electoral fraud. Here a security guard detains a Femen activist. Reuters Photo: Denis Sinyakov.

The Orthodox Church is split on the case. About 5,000 lay members have signed a petition calling for forgiveness.

Vladimir Legoida, a church spokesman, told the newspaper: “Church officials have more than once said they do not support the idea of a real prison sentence in this case, but call instead for social condemnation.”

He added: “Even the Bolsheviks in their time did not allow themselves such sacrilege, which was demonstrated during this so called ‘punk service’.”

(If the Legoida quote is accurate, he seems to be forgetting that the Bolsheviks executed tens of thousands of Orthodox priests and destroyed thousands of churches, including the Cathedral, which was dynamited on Stalin’s orders in 1931.)

But Vsevolod Chaplin head of the Church’s social relations department told Interfax on Monday that the girl band had tried to perform their punk prayer in the another Moscow Cathedral before they succeeded at Christ the Savior, the largest in Russia.
“They have declared war on Orthodox people, and there will be war,” he told the Russian news agency. “However, responsibility for it rests with those who started it. If the blasphemers are not punished, God will punish them in eternity and here through people.”
Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader and a nationalist, was more moderate, writing in his blog: “Their action at Christ the Savior Cathedral is idiotic, and there is nothing to argue about. To put it mildly, I would not like it if some cranky chicks broke into a church while I was there and started running around the altar.”

But, Navalny added in his blog, it was equally ridiculous to have Pussy Riot members jailed for almost two months “during an investigation into an offense which obviously cannot be punished harsher than five days of arrest. Let them mop the square around Christ the Savior Cathedral and think about their behavior. This is senseless and horrible cruelty, which is much worse than their very stupid but small offense.”

While Elvis Presley’s singing career zoomed after his two-year stint in the Army, the musical future of Pussy Riot is not so clear.
In an interview with, a band Riot member described their two-minute concerts as performance art, creating images of “pure protest, saying: super heroes in balaclavas and acid bright tights seize public space in Moscow.”

To get their message about, the band has their own LiveJournal blog, a YouTube PussRiot channel, and a new English language support site: “Free Pussy Riot!”

Another band member, who goes by the pseudonym Garadzha, told the Moskovkie Novosti newspaper that the group is open to women recruits with limited musical talents. She said: “You don’t have to sing very well. It’s punk. You just scream a lot.”

Pussy Riot sing an anti-Putin song from Lobnoye Mesto, a white stone platform where Prince Pozharsky announced in 1612 that Moscow was free of Polish occupiers. Reuters Photo: Denis Sinyakov

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

3 responses to “Moscow Grrl Band Sets Kremlin’s Teeth on Edge”

  1. Gennady says:

    1. Some prejudiced aficionado of Putin’s dictatorship will disapprove the Band desperate performances while admiring clumsy efforts of “Anatomy of Protests” paranoid film.
    But people who don’t ignore to see things in context will certainly agree that the Band has set Putin Kremlin’s teeth on edge as the Kremlin more and more strangles basic human rights in Russia. It shows how deep and desperate is contempt of Russian intellectuals towards the lawless regime, how greatly limited is the public venue to attract world’s attention for restoring Constitution, law and order in Russia. It’s remarkable that some prominent scientists in Russian Orthodox Church and public personalities don’t judge the Band performances, they view them as a part of wider popular Orthodox religious tradition. But not secular Putin’s Kremlin.

    2. Who are they to judge the extraordinary and brave girls? The bloody FSB regime that hijacked the country and holds it hostage. The regime that holds Russia FOR YEARS under the undeclared STATE OF EMERGENCY with some Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen stipulated in the Constitution of the Russian Federation having been suspended and violated. I mean the articles 17.1,22.1,29.1,29.5,31, 56.1. The State of emergency makes Mr. Putin President for life.

    3. Now with usual cruelty bureaurocrats serving the unpopular ruler and record number of billionaires, profiting with stolen from impoverished population money, demand eight years imprisonment for the great Russian girls, try to crash to smithereens the arrested delicate women who have toddlers to look after. The regime uses rubber-stamped “laws” as a fig leaf to conceal its anticonstitutionality, to hide its ugly private parts and to prolong its days.

    4. What are the girls fighting for? Being women they passionately fight for basic human right for life and change in Russia. Almost every day somebody perishes as a victim of lawless regime. After institutional murder of Magnitsky the regime widely praised its “reform” when militia, dangerous for Russian population, was renamed police. But under the anticonstitutional regime nothing has changed since: the same torture, lawlessness and brutality by police for dozens citizens. Just a few days ago in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, an arrested man being held in police custody was raped by police officers with a Champaign bottle and died from ruptured rectum. I wonder why a Hollywood studio doesn’t want to shoot a horror film about Putin’s police to make the world shudder? Such crimes may go on just in deeply lawless country.

    5. By intimidating and drowning in blood all of those fighting for basic human rights in Russia
    the regime widely uses thief’s strategy when thief on a run himself cries “Hold the thief”. The people opposing vote-rigging were the first to report about the regime buying absentee ballots, paying for participating in pro-Putin’s rallies, flying deceived people from Siberia to Moscow in order to attend the rallies. Now in “Anatomy of Protests” propaganda film the regime mirrored the opponents without any proof.

    6. I wonder how could hysterically sounded NTV female journalist have claimed among onlookers some men as “staff from American embassy” (I’m sure with the help of Putin’s FSB special services)?
    To my simple mind, it’s duty of any foreign embassy to witness what is going on in the country of their accreditation. For Putin’s NTV foreign embassies shouldn’t show outside.

  2. Pyotr says:

    Bravo to the girls! If men in Russia were as brave and courageous as the girls there wouldn’t be a dictator like Putin at all.

  3. […] or Soviet history. Sometimes the humor is outrageous, as in the satirical performance by the feminist punk band “Pussy Riot” in the cathedral most closely associated with the Russian Orthodox church as an establishment […]



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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