My friend asked me what the Pussy Riot show was going to be like, but I wasn’t sure how to answer.
“Are they performing some of their songs? Or are some of the members giving a lecture?”
From what I’d heard, it was to be a “theatrical reflection” of the group and all they had done. For those who don’t know, Pussy Riot is a Russian art collective who are equally loved and hated in their home country. I use the term “art collective,” though most people know them as a political punk rock band. They wrote several songs criticizing the Russian government, religious institutions, and the oppressive patriarchy of Russian society. They would then find unauthorized public places to play these songs and would do so until someone forced them to stop. This behavior eventually led to the arrest of three members in 2012.
They came to the US to tell their story, not to write ours.
But that was then and this is now. Since those incidents, various members of Pussy Riot have toured the world, discussing not only their experiences, but also the larger meanings behind their actions. What beliefs did they hold so dear that they were willing to risk imprisonment?
The last time they came through Albuquerque their tour sold out and I was unable to attend. When the same thing happened this year, I was disheartened for about a week, but was then pleasantly surprised to learn that 516 ARTS and Tricklock had worked to add a second date to the tour. The mere fact that a performance art collective from Russia can sell out two shows in a row in a city as small as Albuquerque speaks volumes. People in America want to see Pussy Riot, to know them and understand them. To experience, even if only vicariously, what Pussy Riot has gone through.
As the lights dimmed the crowd began to chant. “Pussy Riot! Pussy Riot!” A masked man came on stage to play music, then two women and another man joined him. On the wall behind the performers was a video projection showing footage of past Pussy Riot events, photos and illustrations. While two people played music, the other two took turns narrating in Russian, with the translation showing on the screen behind them. Inspirational quotes and phrases flashed across the screen like, “But What About the Revolution?” and “Anyone Can Be Pussy Riot.” As they told the story of their actions, their politics became obvious, and the crowd laughed, cheered and applauded with encouragement. The members of Pussy Riot were sick of a controlling government, one which forces religion upon its people, a system which disempowers women, laws which criminalize the LGBT community, and a culture that harasses anyone who doesn’t fit in with the status quo. A society in which not all members are free is not truly a free society. Pussy Riot understands that and Pussy Riot stands in resistance. They stand for resistance.
And this is how Pussy Riot can sell out back-to-back shows in a city like Albuquerque. The freedom that America once represented is been eroding away since the Patriot Act was enacted after 9-11. Year after year Americans feel less free—never more so than now, as our new Fascist-in-Chief signs one order after another to help big business and hinder the middle class. Resistance is a concept with which more and more Americans identify.
Of course, the battles which need to be fought in Russia are very different from the battles we have in the United States. This became painfully clear during a Q&A session after the show. Well-intentioned liberal attendees asked members of Pussy Riot for advice on how to live under an impending dictatorship, but what advice is there to give? Pussy Riot has done amazing things, using art to address reality, but they came to the US to tell their story, not to write ours.
Pussy Riot is a phenomenal group, full of guts, grit and determination. Their continuing actions, their performances and their artistic expressions are a fantastic source of inspiration. But no one can copy them, nor should we. Learn about them, get excited by that story, then use that energy to start your own revolution.