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Switzerland and Pussy Riot: Meeting of two opposing worlds

Pussy Riot, a collective whose creativity was born in the illegality of opposition struggle, recently visited Switzerland, a country where the State funds artists who criticise it.

By Amédée Hirt

On the night of August 25, 2022, around 8 pm in Geneva, a number of people were progressively forming a snake-like queue on the docks of the Rhône in front of L’Usine. A crowd at this location at this time was a small surprise because queues in front of L’Usine are usually more of a 1 am thing. But that night was special. An unexpected (and one on short notice) show of Pussy Riot, on their European tour, was organised by Post Tenebras Rock in L’Usine in Geneva.

Long-known for their political activism against the regime of Vladimir Putin, Pussy Riot is a feminist, pro-LGBTQ, anti-war and anti-Putin performance art collective, originally from Russia, but now on the run in Europe. The group shot to international fame through a protest concert in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012, after which two members of the band – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina – were arrested and jailed.

More recently, with the war in Ukraine, their activism took a strong anti-war turn, strengthening their conviction to fight Putin’s regime. The subversive nature of the band is such that the Russian Embassy in Switzerland felt the need to release a statement to protest against this “indecent and immoral” performance.

Credit: Amédée Hirt

Of course, Putin’s regime won’t be overthrown by a small concert in Geneva only. But over the years with their international audience, Pussy Riot have proven to be a very small, but an annoying needle in the foot of the Russian Federation. Quite ironically, the band itself is indirectly a creation of the Russian regime. The violent repression of their actions by Russian authorities helped Pussy Riot to reach an international audience and eventually garner fame. Today, European newspapers are competing  to interview members of the group. Those on the run outside of Russia became a prominent voice of opposition to the war and Putin. In that regard, Pussy Riot’s European tour serves two purposes. On the one hand, the collective is fundraising for Ukraine. On the other hand, members of the group are meeting journalists from all over Europe thus calling the West to act strongly against Russia and end the war.[1]

Hail Mary and fuck Putin and his war

Back in L’Usine, a diverse audience waited for Pussy Riot to take the stage. Senior citizens, young students, women, regulars of L’Usine, curious people or political activists were all here for Pussy Riot. 

The show, mixing musical performance, videos and art performance, started with a speech of the producer of the collective – Alexander Cheparukhin. To set the scene and get the audience alert, he mentioned the statement of the Russian embassy. He then welcomed the four members of the collective present that night to the stage: Maria “Masha” Alyokhina, Olga Borisova, Diana Burkot (drums and DJ) and Taso Pletner (flute), with a special guest for some parts, the Russian saxophonist Anton Ponomarev, based in Zurich.

Credit: Amédée Hirt

The four artists arrived on the stage, their heads covered by colorful balaclavas, as they are often seen in newspapers. Diana Burkot was wearing a bulletproof vest and military boots. Maria Alyokhina’s ankle still had the electronic bracelet she was wearing when she escaped her house arrest in Russia, disguised as a food delivery person. 

The first part of the concert was precisely about that: Pussy Riot’s illegal show in Moscow’s cathedral, Alyokhina’s jail time and escape. It continued with a criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church, its head Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, and Putin’s links with the institution and the Patriarch, both former KGB colleagues. At some point, the four members knelt in front of the audience in a cynical prayer to Mary: “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin!”, “Mother Mary, be a feminist”. The show went on, in a sequence of songs in Russian, with English subtitles on a screen in the back, bearing criticism of Putin’s regime, the patriarchal system, Russian oligarchs corruption, nationalism and war.

Alternating between recitation-like singing, and more punk explosions, the music was a deep, dark and turbulent electronic continuum. The four members were successively standing in line, in a steady position, jumping around in hysterical outbursts, or walking around throwing angry gazes at the audience. At its most tempestuous moment, as the spectators were engaged in a frenzied pogo, Pussy Riot’s members started to violently throw water on the audience.

The climax of the show was reached when the clearest of the messages was blatantly sent. As a big painting of Putin’s face was brought on the stage, a member of the group, wearing a long black dress and a balaclava climbed on a table behind the portrait, lifted her dress and urinated on Putin’s face.

Credit: Amédée Hirt

After a moment to let the audience catch their breath, the performance ended with a powerful last song, written this Spring, to denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This was the last message of Pussy Riot in Geneva: fuck the war and fuck Putin.

When the frenzy of the performance wore off, the artists came back on the stage for a quick speech, in which they answered the Russian embassy’s statement and announced a fundraising for a hospital in Kyiv. After a final “Fuck Putin”, taken up in chorus by the audience, Pussy Riot left the stage, leaving Maria Alyokhina’s girlfriend at the turntables for the rest of the night.

Artistic freedom and contestation

Pussy Riot’s greatest asset that night was not their music. Let’s be honest, far from the punk rock of their origins, what they played was neither artistically amazing, nor a revolution of the genre. Their strength lay in something else. What we saw was a group transcended by their convictions and their political struggle. The authenticity, reality and their whole-hearted commitment  to their militancy is what gives them this fascinating aura, allowing them to cross borders and make their voices heard internationally. Pussy Riot is the perfect example of using art to communicate. Art is a powerful vector of emotions, but also of messages. And messages were sent that night.

Credit: Amédée Hirt

Seeing them on stage, with the strength of their political convictions, making their political activism their life, risking arrest, serving time in jail, escaping detention, and going on with their fight separated from their families, also makes you think about one’s own situation. Having the right to create freely, to criticise freely, through art or other forms of expression, sometimes even in state-funded productions, like we have here in Switzerland, is a huge privilege that should be everyone’s right. It makes you wonder about the huge gap separating artists fighting for a cause from the comfort of their wealth and western privileges and the ones facing censorship, threats of arrest, or even putting their life at risk for their art and conviction.[2]

Quite ironically, some members of Pussy Riot were also arrested in Switzerland. On the night of  August 29, Maria Alyokhina, Taso Pletner and a third one, were taken in custody by the Police near Bern, after they were caught spray-painting an anti-war message on a wall. They were released a few hours later, after questioning. This did not prevent them from performing in Bern, on the 30th.

References:

[1]https://www.rts.ch/info/monde/13335424-en-suisse-les-pussy-riot-appellent-l-occident-a-agir-contre-la-russie.html?rts_source=rss_t

https://www.letemps.ch/monde/desinvolture-fracassante-pussy-riot-conquis-public-romand

https://www.nzz.ch/feuilleton/pussy-riot-ein-interview-mit-saengerin-marija-aljochina-ld.1699260?reduced=true[2] According to Freemuse, an NGO defending artistic freedom in the world, in 2020, 17 artists were killed, 82 imprisoned, 133 detained, 107 prosecuted, and many more censored, threatened, harassed, or banned from traveling in certain countries. Source: Freemuse, THE STATE OF ARTISTIC FREEDOM 2021, Freemuse, 2021. https://freemuse.org/media/ck5fvaze/the-state-of-artistic-freedom-2021.pdf

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