Performance art or protest collective? Punk rockers or political activists? However you label them, Pussy Riot has become a well known name outside of their home city of Moscow in Russia. Based on their wide range of performances and media appearances, it’s hard to define this group under one neat label. Right now, I like international punk scholar Kevin Dunn’s choice to use the translation “an uprising in my uterus.” Pussy Riot’s English-language name is not fully translatable into Russian, so this phrase represents an admirable attempt. First gaining international notoriety with their “Punk Prayer” protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Pussy Riot has remained a global phenomenon due to their guerrilla-style performance activism and brightly-colored-balaclava brand. Their displays have resulted in many arrests, including the 2011 charges of “hooliganism” for their Punk Prayer performance. On-site demonstrations are central to Pussy Riot’s activist brand; from the Sochi Olympics in 2014 to the World Cup Final in 2018, they rely on media coverage and social media-savvy citizens to spread their imagery and messages. They utilize music to reach a broad audience in a renewal of Riot Grrrl era punk ideology about the gendered body and political space. Most recently, they released “Hangerz,” released December 6, 2019 tackles abortion rights and women’s bodily autonomy.
The Punk Prayer can be read in a variety of ways, but the role domesticity in this performance have not been acknowledged at length. At its core, this protest dismantled Russian gender tradition in a physical, visual way. To understand how radical this protest actually was, it must be contextualized in terms of cultural domesticity. There are a couple of ways we can accomplish this. First, the role of Putin-era (beginning in 2000-present day) politics on gendered ideology and expectations must be considered. Second, the Russian Orthodox Christian church’s views on “morality” have also helped to construct the landscape in which Pussy Riot is operating.
Part of the reason Pussy Riot is such a threatening force in Russia is due to the ways they challenge traditional gender expectations. Brian Rourke and Andrew Wiget note that in the post-communist state of Russia, “gendered citizenship…was entirely determined by the state.” Women’s roles in the Stalin-era (approximately 1922-1953) were guided by motherhood and work only if it helped to stabilize the patriarchal social structure. Therefore, this work was mostly domestic and located in the private sphere. This mode of understanding gender privileges cisgendered and heterosexual experience. Queer identities are outliers according to this ideology, and therefore have significantly less visibility in Russian culture. Also of note is the role of the Orthodox Church in constructing widely-held beliefs about gender roles and morality. A conservative organization, the Orthodox Church in Russia privileges the traditional heterosexual family unit alongside the Russian Family Code which holds the family accountable for a child’s “moral upbringing.” Currently, the Orthodox Church is concerned with designating acceptable standards of appearance for “true” Christians. The Cathedral now has dress requirements, with “security officers…ready to check the appropriateness of the attire of those entering.”
Political Science scholar Janet Elise Johnson and Psychology researcher Aino Saarinen suggest that Vladmir Putin brought “a more restrictive regime” which limited both women’s freedoms and ability to participate in feminist activism. In post-communist Russia, some feminist scholars conclude that Putin’s rule ushered in a “neotraditional gender ideology in which women were reassigned to the private sphere and men to the newly empowered public.” Motherhood and domesticity have become central to women’s social role under Putin’s reforms. This neotraditional gender ideology makes sexist policies and institutions possible. Sexist language is normalized by Putin, who brings private male “locker room talk” into the public sphere and, to some, make it a legitimate expression of Russian masculine identity. Derogatory language about women, paired with masculine empowerment, forces Russian women further into the domestic, private sphere which limits their ability to be public activists.
Though public activism isn’t always achievable, women activists working within countries ruled by authoritarian governments tend to use domestic traditions in their protesting. Using cultural norms and appearances helps women to “avoid being seen as political and threatening.” Thus, utilizing the traditions associated with motherly domesticity, such as appearance, can be a significant tool for remaining invisible while organizing. In the case of Pussy Riot, utilizing the acceptable clothing of the Orthodox Church helped them to gain access to the Cathedral for their Punk Prayer performance:
Appropriate attire allowed them to smuggle in both their brightly colored costumes and a guitar unnoticed. Because they achieved this invisibility, their performance was arguably even more shocking to churchgoers. In this way, Pussy Riot “made visible the Church’s nested frames of exclusion by violating them.” Performing such bold dancing in attire deemed too revealing for the church was doubly problematic for “tradition.” While not all members of Pussy Riot are cisgendered and heterosexual, (membership is often fluid and anonymous) the women involved in the Punk Prayer were. So, these participants were working from their privilege to call attention to flaws within Russia’s strict systems of understanding. Their protest challenges the cultural belief that women’s place is at home, in the domestic sphere only as mothers, and the Church’s belief about feminine modesty and self-discipline which directly opposed feminist thought.
Interestingly, two of the members of Pussy Riot arrested for the Cathedral performance are also mothers. This further complicates their critique of roles and spaces available to women in Russia. Being a mother and feminist activist simply does not align within the close-knit social structures of Putin’s rule and Orthodox Christianity. A woman’s “function” is to be a mother in Russian society, and her motherhood should be inspired by the Virgin Mary herself. How could one be a “good” mother under the patriarchal system if she does not submit to the domestic sphere as expected? How could women so brash and outspoken also be mothers? Why would a mother choose such bright, attention-seeking clothing? How could these women be connected in any way to the ideals embodied by the Virgin Mary?
Because Pussy Riot challenges deeply-held beliefs regarding women’s social position, they are no longer able to be read as non-threatening domestic beings. Ultimately, this disconnect between gender, motherhood, and the public sphere seems to be the major motivation for arresting the group on charges of “hooliganism.” By infiltrating an infamous location to critique both the church and state, Pussy Riot dismantled two of the most prominent institutions enforcing traditional domesticity in Russian culture. In the west, we might laugh at such a charge as “hooliganism.” Though, when considering it through the lens of domesticity, it makes a bit more sense. To control gender expression, imprisoning outliers might help to keep them silent. In the case of Pussy Riot, it seems to have only sparked international attention and discussion regarding topics such as gender inequality, separation of church and state, and corruption in government institutions. As the collective has proven, even imprisonment cannot silence the oppressed.
Dunn, Kevin C. “Pussy Rioting.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 16, no. 2 (2014): 317-34. doi:10.1080/14616742.2014.919103.
Isupova, O. G. “The Social Meaning of Motherhood in Russia Today “Only You Need Your Child”.” Russian Education and Society 44 (2002): 61-80.
Johnson, Janet Elise, and Aino Saarinen. “Twenty-First-Century Feminisms under Repression: Gender Regime Change and the Women’s Crisis Center Movement in Russia.” Signs 38, no. 3 (2013): 543-67.
Rourke, Brian, and Andrew Wiget. “Pussy Riot, Putin and the Politics of Embodiment.” Cultural Studies 30, no. 2 (2016): 234-60. doi:10.1080/09502386.2014.974644.
Link to “Hangerz”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNZymIIAUJk
Link to Punk Prayer Performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grEBLskpDWQ
Rachael is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her current research interests include girls’ cultural production and “bedroom culture,” technology-based activism, and performance studies.