I can’t say if the Pussy Riot trial tells us anything new about Russia, but it tells me something about feminism. In the UK at least, the new feminism has been polite, well-mannered and, well, twee. When the pro-life protesters get out their tiny plastic models of foetuses, we get out our iced gingerbreadwomen. We open feminist conferences not with exhortations, but with jokes about sexist children’s books. Abortion clinics are inspected for pre-signing forms, but hardly anyone is saying that the 1967 act is antiquated and unfit for purpose. Big gestures can seem empty and small ones futile. I’ve left too many meetings, conferences and rallies feeling the absence of Angela Davis, of Simone de Beauvoir – and, it turns out, of Pussy Riot.
Pussy Riot are three women – two mothers – sitting in a cage in a Moscow court, they are an anonymous feminist collective and they are new ways of saying no to it all. In their outfits the colours of toddlers’ soft-play areas – yellow balaclava, green dress, pink tights – they raise their fists. I’m sure the balaclavas help in evading the police but they are also a way of stamping out flowing hair, fluttering eyelashes, painted lips, or the lack of those things. And, not being black, they don’t recall bankrobbers or the niqab.
In the window of my local cafe in Dalston, Free Pussy Riot posters have been improvised with a white plastic bag and a pink highlighter pen, and the balaclava now looks like the unscary ghosts that chase Pac-Man around his maze. Kathleen Hanna, of the 1990s riot grrrl group Bikini Kill, which inspired Pussy Riot, has said that the ‘ski-masks’ remind her of the Guerrilla Girls. They are easy to make: if anyone can be Pussy Riot, everyone can be Pussy Riot. In the video for an electroclash song by Peaches in support of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, hundreds of people skip through Berlin with coloured tights pulled over their heads. Other people have shown their support by writing ‘Pussy Riot’ in eyeliner on their arms or stomachs or backs. Dumb flesh speaks back.
Even in what they wear, Pussy Riot are going for the big targets. The idea that feminism can be used against organised religion, against the corruption of the state, is invigorating. And that’s before we’ve heard what they have to say (as opposed to sing). Hundreds of people came to the Royal Court Theatre to hear actresses read translations of the three convicted women’s trial statements on Friday. The baking feminists were there too, handing out brownies from a tupperware box. Pussy Riot: Final Verdict, part of the global day of action to protest against the inevitable guilty verdict, was organised by the playwright E.V. Crowe:
Watching their activism on YouTube and hearing their courtroom statements, I felt inspired in a way no other cultural movement in my lifetime has captured my imagination or responded to my perception of women’s place in the cultural and political landscape.
Lyndsey Marshal, who opened the reading with Samutsevich’s statement, used to be in the 18th-century legal drama Garrow’s Law, which showed women fainting in courtrooms instead of giving closing statements. At the Royal Court, Marshal was bare-faced and in high tops, but gentility lingered. Every time the BBC English accents of the actresses hit the words Pussy Riot, Putin, Patriarch or Punk Prayer, which was often, the plosives made the microphone pop. Many in the audience blushed and squirmed a little during the readings; British feminists aren’t yet used to being angry again.
Alekhina quoted Cameron asking Putin, on their way to the Olympic judo: ‘Why are three innocent girls in prison?’ (That’s Sasha Dugdale’s translation; in other versions they are women.) But they aren’t girls playing with protest; that is exactly what they’re not. They know their Russian absurdist poetry, their Solzhenitsyn, Foucault and Judith Butler. ‘Prison is Russia in minature,’ Alyokhina said. They have a well-earned line in paradox.
‘I now have mixed feelings about this trial,’ Samutsevich said. ‘On the one hand, we expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won.’ (This brings a hushed cheer from the crowd in London.)
‘I would like to note,’ Alyokhina said, ‘that our trial stands as a very eloquent confirmation of the fact that we need the support of thousands of individuals from all over the world in order to prove the obvious: that the three of us are not guilty.’
Samutsevich quoted Medvedev: ‘Freedom is better than no freedom’ – and at this everyone laughed. ‘All of our songs have been prophetic,’ she said, ‘including the one that goes: “The head of the KGB is their big saint man, loading protesters in a prison van.”’ And here they are.
‘We are freer than all those who sit opposite us on the side of the prosecutor,’ Tolokonnikova said, ‘because we can say what we please, and we do.’ And perhaps they are freer than their supporters in the West, too, since we, in theory, can say what we please, but most of the time we don’t. Maybe now we will.