In Russia, Punk-Rock Riot Girls Rage Against Putin

Feb 8, 2012
Originally published on February 9, 2012 7:18 am

Anti-government protests in Russia are taking many different forms, from mass rallies and marches to defiant street art and music.

Just recently, members of a feminist punk group were arrested in Moscow's Red Square after they performed a song ridiculing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The group, which calls itself Pussy Riot, says it's planning more stunts before March's presidential elections.

The band's latest performance took place on an icy winter's day in mid-January, when even the police who guard Red Square were hunched over from the cold. Eight young women doffed their coats, jumped over an iron fence and climbed atop a snowy stone platform.

They were dressed in summery short dresses and tights, but brightly colored balaclavas masked their faces. Dancing frantically to keep warm, they launched into a song that could be delicately titled "Putin Got Scared," though the lyrics in Russian were ruder than that.

Other members of the collective shot video of the Red Square performance, which promptly went viral on the Internet.

Eventually, they were detained, held for a few hours at a police station, and given small fines for holding an illegal protest. Band members say the "illegal" part is the whole point.

One band member — who goes by the name "Schumacher," an homage to the German car-racing champion — says many people in Russia are ready for more radical action than the leaders of the main opposition movement believe.

The members of the collective have known each another for years, she says, but they came together as a band in August to protest what they say are government policies against women.

Schumacher says feminist groups had campaigned all summer against government legislation that placed restrictions on legal abortions. They were further outraged by the announcement that Putin and current President Dmitry Medvedev planned to change places after the next election.

In December, the band performed a song called "Death To Prison, Freedom To Protest" on the roof of a garage next to a prison where other protesters were being held.

The collective is made up of about 10 performers, and about 15 people who handle the technical work of shooting and editing their videos. Members say all their decisions are collective and anonymous — Schumacher and her friend Kot won't give their real names, and they insist on wearing their balaclavas during the interview.

They didn't start as performers, says Kot, whose nickname means "Tomcat." She says they were politically engaged women who figured punk protest music would energize people through their emotions.

As to the group's name, Kot says band members are well of aware of its vulgar connotations in English. But "pussy" can also be taken as a term of endearment for girls in Russia.

Kot says the group members liked the tension between that word, and the rudeness and aggression of the word "riot." She says they plan to stage more protest exploits in the weeks leading up to the March 4 elections that Putin is expected to win.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Anti-government protests in Russia are taking many forms, from mass rallies to defiant street art and music. Members of a feminist punk band were recently arrested in Moscow's Red Square after they performed a song ridiculing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports that the group is undeterred and plans more stunts before next month's presidential elections.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Pussy Riot's latest performance took place on an icy winter's day when even the police who guard Red Square were hunched over from the cold. Eight young women doffed their coats, jumped over an iron fence and climbed atop a snowy stone platform. They were dressed for summer, in short dresses and tights, but their faces were masked by brightly colored balaclavas. They danced and launched into a song that could be delicately titled "Putin Got Scared," though the lyrics in Russian were ruder than that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUTIN GOT SCARED")

PUSSY RIOT: (Singing in foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Other members of the Pussy Riot collective shot video of the Red Square performance, which promptly went viral on the Internet. Eventually, they were arrested, held for a few hours in a police station and given small fines for holding an illegal protest. Band members say the illegal part is the whole point.

SCHUMACHER: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: This band member says many people in Russia are ready for more radical action than the leaders of the main opposition movement believe. She goes by the name Schumacher, an homage to the German car racing champion. The group members have known one another for years, but they came together as a band in August to protest what they say are government policies against women.

SCHUMACHER: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Schumacher says feminist groups had campaigned all summer against government legislation that placed restrictions on legal abortions. Group members say they were further outraged by the announcement that Putin and current President Dmitry Medvedev plan to change places after the next election. In December, they performed a song called "Death to Prison, Freedom to Protest" on the roof of a garage next to a prison where other protesters were being held.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATH TO PRISON, FREEDOM TO PROTEST")

RIOT: (Singing in foreign language)

FLINTOFF: The women say Pussy Riot has about 10 performers and around 15 people who handle the technical work of shooting and editing their videos. They say all their decisions are collective and anonymous. Schumacher and her friend Kot won't give their real names, and they insist on wearing their balaclavas during the interview.

KOT: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: They didn't start as performers, says Kot, whose nickname means tomcat. She says they were politically engaged women who figured punk protest music would energize people through their emotions. As to the group's name, she says band members are well aware of its vulgar connotations in English.

KOT: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: But pussy can also be taken as a term of endearment for girls in Russia. Kot says the group members liked the tension between that name and the rudeness and aggression of the word riot. She said Pussy Riot plans more protest exploits in the weeks leading up to the March 4th elections that Vladimir Putin is expected to win.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.