Pussy Riot

Here is a toothsome truth both universal and denied: Unburned women and their warrior words are the serrated shrapnel of the world....
Pussy Riot : Live
Pussy Riot : Live
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Here is a toothsome truth both universal and denied: Unburned women and their warrior words are the serrated shrapnel of the world. No matter where one casts a line throughout the torn timeline of history, it is the verboten verbs of the virago that stick under the skin of dogma in all the places even the most skillful political and patriarchal surgeons cannot access without demolishing the very same “protective” paradigms that the she-dragons of this kind of démarche are designed to destroy. Though she may effortlessly redraw the orrery for the rest of the thinking world, a woman with no prelude to capitulation in her is labeled by many (and most damagingly by the less empowered women who are fearful of losing what she is breaking) as moral featherweights, midwives to unspoken traumas, plain dangerous, or an uncertain enterprise fit only for ignoring or locking away. Whole ideological wars are won when such women weaponize their womanhood in time, and in conjunction with their words, then rocket-launch both into every fatherly forum the world says is better off without such women. Riot Days, which made its way to Atlanta’s Masquerade Purgatory on Thursday, November 30th, is Russia’s pulsar-like Pussy Riot doing precisely this – putting a pin the guff-inflated balloon of the trouts and louts who would consign women to patience and forgiveness—and for this, the laudable interest of making a treatise for termagants, Riot Days is not to be missed by any sort of person.

People immediately know the glowing balaclavas of Pussy Riot, but they do not as readily register the point. Though what is commonly called “good PR” is counted in “placements” and “hits,” its evil twin bad PR (which is always the best kind in the end) is measured in kinetic killer instincts alone. Pussy Riot has worn a divided cloak of both kinds of attention, but it was that white-hat kind and its inherent need for over-simplification that has caused a persistent misconception in both camps of the public’s understanding of exactly who and what Pussy Riot is. If you labor under the idea that Pussy Riot is a punk band that got arrested for performing contraband music in a Red Square reliquary, you have been the victim of this misinformation and Riot Days should become even more mandatory viewing.

For those who still might not know, Pussy Riot is no more a punk band than they are a drawstring bag full of hearts and cupids drawn in an Aquarian font. Pussy Riot contains just as many talented and feminism-forged men as it does women, and they are all working toward the common goal of shedding obliterative light on the dark authoritarian regimes perpetrated by Vladimir Putin and those who quietly support the social repressions he both encourages and enforces. Pussy Riot is a wholly liquid artist’s collective that comprises far more than the notorious girls captured in the Red Square and later imprisoned for impersonating a punk band in a church setting. Practically everyone in the watchful world knows the names of the women who were taken into state custody that day, but parts of that same alert demographic continuously fail to recognize that this handful of women were but a fateful few belonging to a synchronous many, both male and female, working in the Pussy Riot cluster to generate a freestyle reimagining of what freedom actually means in the practical sense long before it became so obvious to the wider population of Russia and the world that such a redo was urgently necessary.

Pussy Riot

Premises as poignant as Pussy Riot do not require plausibility, and even sneer at it, but they do very much require punctilious representation of fact. Thus, while it is true that many of the most internationally conspicuous names associated with Pussy Riot – such as the icons that are Nadya Tolokonnikova, Maria “Masha” Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Diana Burkot, Veronika Nikulshina, Olga Pakhtusova, Lucy Shtein, and Olga Borisova – are feminine, it remains miles past pivotal to put forward that forward-thinking men like Pyotr Verzilov, Vasily Bogatov, Alexey Knedlyakovsky, Alexander Sofeyev, and Dmitriy Kuminov have laid every bit as much on the line for this cause as any of these women, and have faced down the same smears, deportation threats, and covert consequences as well. While there should be no misunderstanding that all members and aspects of the Pussy Riot agglomerate of artists exist on shooting terms with the moderate arrogance of the contemporary male and chew on the disarticulated bones of the daddy-minded daily, let it be likewise noted that they are all equally conscious of there being a set of novels waiting to be written on how it’s just one more cretinously chauvinistic caveat the way the press always wants to emphasize the women involved in any revolutionary harangue of this color because we fragile mongrel class of secondary characters are seen as being more ‘sympathetic’ to both sides of any argument, even and perhaps especially when we are the ones not just holding but lighting the explosives – just ask Dolores Price’s historically celebrity-less male IRA colleagues any old time. If sentimentality does indeed work on unearned emotion and these are the monkeyshines you crouch to, Pussy Riot is here to tear that nonsense down for you post haste.

Whether a Pussy Riot member be male or female, the moil of living this politically and culturally broad, to say nothing of being this civically courageous, is that other people, be they pedestrian or imbued with power, begin to attach a kind of claustrophobic horror to little corners of the biggest ballasts in belief this big. Society nearly automatically tries to make people this tuned in to the full picture seem smaller so that its own outsized insecurities can continue to roam unaddressed and largely undetected under the mantle of accepted “normality” or “health.” A gargantuan chunk of the business of being in Pussy Riot is about doing what it takes to stay the opposite of that non-opposition state; it’s about having zero apprehension of the infinite and embarking on an embrace of the enigma fed by a cell-level understanding that no applicable answers to anything worth knowing are ever findable in closed, contained crannies, especially where those nooks are neurological. In short, the first step to waking up is subconsciously realizing that you have been asleep, and Pussy Riot is the alarm clock with no off button.

The truth is that all anyone needs to instigate Pussy Riot’s kind of illustriously impious robbery of bureaucratic blinders is time, typography, and triangulation. In the choppy wake of their unexpected earthly stardom, Pussy Riot has become the static-shooting confetti in the eye of every kind of patricentric party, and they have done it by making the entry fee to their club nothing more expensive than strident fury and the ability to let creativity trample curated circumstances. You can never run out of concept money if your devotion is your only dollar and the bank that you draw from is staffed solely by your willpower. As any member will be quick to tell you, and as even their electric pink and yellow merch tees attest, “Pussy Riot: Anyone can do it.” One could be dreaming in Nablus or at death’s door in Napa Valley and the story would be the same. This group of high-frequency thinkers is the radio left on in the last standing room of a derelict house co-owned by all of humanity. Their forte is fiery weather and their dissonance the distortion pedal of a doll with heaven knows how many nested nuclear bombs inside.

Pussy Riot

Though their country’s government quickly attempted to make them out as a slew of sirenic Saul Basses, the Pussy Riot cooperative quickly demonstrated that it was, in fact, a fraternal group of Francis Bacons that would not be relegated so easily to some bibelot rendition of the Battle of Hubbardton. These were living sticks of dynamite swizzling the vodka cocktail of a culture that used to claim it took its liquor straight. In that process Pussy Riot made quite a few supremacist skin-slinkies from all over the world shrink right back up into their overhanging flesh garages. Call them Beckettian wanderers, germane gem merchants, or blaspheming bitches if you must, but in view of what has now transpired between Russia and Ukraine, a weighty decade post their first demonstration, Pussy Riot is forever accurately saddled with the burdens of the prophet. Women in particular who are this smart and straight-seeing are expected to play cute like cotton-top tamarins to make up for it. Riot Days is simply Pussy Riot’s latest lusty and lustrous refusal to do so.

Having been performed some 400+ times globally, and first venturing out to the highways and byways of the U.S. of A. in May 2017, the Riot Days show is a praise-decorated punk prayer with a passel of polyphonic Princess Myshkins in its prance. Winning the Herald Angel Award at the Edinburgh International Festival, the Total Theatre Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the annual anti-fascist award in Germany, and the Woody Guthrie Prize in America in May 2023, this show is a radical Russian rebel street opera with subtitles. Presented by current lineup Maria “Masha” Alyokhina, Diana Burkot, Olga Borisova, and Alina Petrova, Riot Days makes a new taxonomic category of theomachy, taking on carceral authorities, presidents, prime ministers, and pater familias posers of every possible pocket. The solid 75 minutes’ worth of flashing words on the screen looming behind the girls are all earmarked excisions from Alyokhina’s critically acclaimed book, which Borisova edited, and that the Riot Days compatriots are reciting forward and backward by heart.

Alexander Cheparukhin, the author of concept and creative producer for the Riot Days show and a monumentally mythic figure on the Russian festival circuits in his own right, opened the show with the backstory of the Pussy Riot ideal, the court trials, the changing face of Russian liberties both political and social, and the sharing of his own shock when the initial Pussy Riot arrests were made in 2012. Cheparukhin has been with the collective since 2012, has conceptualized the Riot Days initiative from idea to the handling of rehearsals, spending a good year convincing Masha Alyokhina to jump on board, and been instrumental in the organization and interest of the 15 artists who have rotated throughout the show since 2016. He is likewise responsible for hooking the girls up with musicians and handling recordings in Peter Gabriel’s studio and in New York with folks like Lenny Kaye and Marc Ribot, and for the inclusion of Yury Muravitsky (a big name in contemporary Russian theatre) to direct the first version of the show that existed. Having lived a rich lifetime in Russia and witnessing protest performers freely staging scenes without clothes, hurling any amount of abuse at the government they pleased, spray painting, and committing other such deeds of nonviolent dissent in the same place Pussy Riot was apprehended for “indecency,” he said was his first indication that something demented was beginning to disfigure the Russian law-making entities that have now gone on to pass some 200 new “laws” allowing people to be put in prison for so much as an anti-establishment Instagram post.

Pussy Riot

As founder and organizer of mammoth festivals in places like Kazan (Tatarstan), Perm (Urals), Shushenskoe (East Siberia), and Pyatigorsk (Caucasus) that rival Coachella and Glastonbury for cultural relevance and size, Cheparukhin lost everything when he stood by Pussy Riot during the famous imprisonment years. He told of all the many musical dynamos, such as Peter Gabriel and Madonna, that have come forward to support Pussy Riot, and how none have done so more warmly and personally than Sir Paul McCartney, who wrote handwritten letters to the judges during the girls’ court trials. This run of Riot Days representing the first fully commercial tour that Pussy Riot has done, all others having been in some way sponsored, thereby takes on a deeper, more precious meaning for all involved. That Pussy Riot and Cheparukhin are giving half of all funds raised through this tour to the Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital in Kyiv, Ukraine solidifies that meaning to a place too sacrosanct to sully with mere words.

In an oxymoronic turn then, it is the words of the Riot Days show that become the celebrated stars of the evening. Spoken entirely in Russian, one does not need to read or understand a word of that transcendent tongue to get the torrid take. Like a delirious dispatch from a deprivation tank, the English subtitles on the screen conduct synchronized precision strikes at the force field of protection those who most need to engage these words are most keen to disregard, and there will be not a syllable of Riot Days that lets an audience member forget it. Prison is not exactly an artist hatchery on any continent, but Pussy Riot has turned the judicial system’s stomach-turning self-righteousness into a forceful fusion of live music, video, and aggressively antagonistic theatre limned by a malthouse rage.

Trousseaus of Riot Days phrases should be taught in school as factual reality, tattooed into the skin of society, and read like the raw Rhema of every religion. Curdled clauses like “Access to light is forbidden,” “The guitar is an unorthodox instrument,” “Freedom doesn’t exist if you don’t fight for it every day,” “Putin will teach you to love the Motherland,” “If you hear the word Humanism in Russia, plug your ears and run” (good advice in any country), and “In the afterlife, I will be recognized Hell-wide for my art,” teach as much as they deconstruct. “Beauty will save the world” may well be the most glaringly didactic of all these damely diatribes. Walking in an arc through the crowd at one point in the show, smoking real cigarettes in a non-smoking venue, the Pussy Riot performers tell of dark taiga mornings in the prison camps of the Ural Mountains and give the most sinister, soul-silencing soliloquy about how it feels to watch from an unmarked white van the ordinary pedestrians who do not know that they are being beseeched by the hidden eyes of the lawlessly convicted. That speech is then followed by a crowd baptism administered by Borisova, whose pelted deluge is extreme enough to smear mascara and shoot in a soul-deep awareness of the irony in the fact that what the world came to know of these wrongfully removed women was only their eyes behind their neon ski masks.

Pussy Riot

Something about these jet brunettes and Bambi blondes becoming the malapert emeriti of the ugliest, most destructively male regime in recent history is a symphony all its own in the corpus of punk poetry. Pussy Riot are hackers in high dudgeon, and this is not a fictional tech dystopia they are attacking; this is Russia, and these artists were barely into their twenties when they began to Rocky-pound The Spanless Land until she ran out of face. Any sort of properly self-actualized man will always seek out and actively want the devilward dames like this, the women who are thorny and treacherous, and those who come bearing some dark matter to their destiny. It is a louche leopard, not a matronly messiah that sets people of any gender or country free. Nothing so memetic as motherhood will manage a woman like what Pussy Riot places, even when they are physical mothers themselves, the golden peacock of Juno becoming their battle animal at will.

The genuine trouble is that there are so few fully-formed men in the world and plenty of males, and it is no coincidence that these same man-less males are still the ones wielding the worst of the words that the world is allowed to hear and learn. The narrative that has been nucleating around the napalm-dusted nymphs of Pussy Riot from the beginning is a story as old as it is despondently new, and thus consistently troublesome for the male side of the world that believes it knows things that it never will come close to knowing. Pussy Riot, both the women and the men, say something ancient and eternally relevant about women that phallic culture has attempted time and again to erase, to redraw, and at the very least to reduce, though always unsuccessfully for all find out that none will overwrite what Mother Nature first encoded into the unique secret of women.

That bio-message reads something like this: Some of us really are savagely indifferent to your spire-felling sperm, your fetal ambitions for yourself and us, as well as your jarred feelings about our dissident difference from the soft, pliant versions of motherly femininity that you were taught to get used to, boys. Those women who allow you to keep feeling like you matter because you made them mother are not self-owned enough to know what they are selling you so cheaply and that you somehow feel is their appropriate position in your non-negotiated “equality” bargain. You recalibrate; do not ever ask us to do so – not just because your adapting is the only right, but because it was your vantage point that warped the picture that thin, ineffectual way for women in the first place, and we have done more than enough adjusting for your rickety self-worth over the centuries as a result. We owe you no more botanical filigree on what needs saying, doing, and changing – especially as you have ascribed us such an aphyllous existence up to now, one that only ever served your acrological, truncated understanding of our standing and your wealth in even being asked to stand by at close range and admire it. You owe us more than you can ever repay. If nothing else, Pussy Riot is here to collect what part of that debt that the unaware and lazy men of the world can remit, and to do so by force wherever necessary.

Pussy Riot

Human history does not make crucibles too much more venerable than Russia since the fall of the Soviet Bloc, and like a mavenly mud library, the art of the Pussy Riot crew holds the hidden environmental histories of everything not just Russia but the world learned to hold dear about control, culpability, and complicity during those crumbling years. These artists are Cindy Sherman-esque, libertarian versus liberal, and the coolly subversive energy exuded by all of them individually and as a unit calls to mind the energies of Giulia Tofana, the infamous Italian woman who turned her makeup business into a prolific poison factory in the Papal States during the middle 1600s. The aroma of Aqua Tofana, Giulia’s fabled husband-murdering arsenic concoction, seemed to radiate in audible trails off Pussy Riot’s aloof surety – a welcome smell to many of us wolfly-women’s noses who, for all our very real respect for her sizable strengths in sweeping the boys off the table, may not scent as much of ourselves on the spoor of the Swifties.

All of the Pussy Riot women are bodily diminutive but chimera giantesses on the scale of philosophical power and performative presence. Alina Petrova, a classically trained paragon of nearly every instrument stood so stoic, staring, and still as to become a living refashioning of what you think those words mean before you meet her, so easily does she traverse between viola, percussion, and the poetry of symbolic stance throughout. Diana Burkot, evoking Björk in more ways than just the 90s pigtail buns atop her head, has resided among the original Pussy Riot masterminds since the subterranean shebang all began in 2011 and is responsible for nearly all of the musical compositions underpinning the Riot Days show. Burkot was also at the church the day that Nadya and Masha were taken but was fortunate to escape capture. Olga Borisova is a former St. Petersburg police officer who turned to the real and right side at all of 19 years of age in 2015. She is by far the most in-your-face with her overt sexual sentience and is to be uniformly savored for that.

What to say of the indefinable and indefatigable Masha Alyokhina? Declared by Putin to be one of the most wanted “criminals” in Russia, she is the combined spirits of Alba de Céspedes and Nawal El-Saadawi wrapped up in a trait-tornado with a cosmonaut spouting back-alley Beat poetry from a codex of Sisyphean sisterhood so prehistoric and priceless as to be difficult to even look upon in an at-rest state without prompt, concomitant empathy tears. Her miraculous escape from Russia in May of 2022, disguised as a food courier no less (the social allegories are too many to count here!), remains the largest reason that the Riot Days show and message has made its way to the global stage. There is no bondage so physically demanding as the kind of chosen, core-centered commitment to pure, unadulterated freedom that she exhibits anew with every exhalation, and it is only ever dedication at her daily level that gives birth to dreams. When, in Riot Days, Alyokhina tells the story of the prison guard against whom she went on hunger strike, featuring behind her on the screen the numerical demarcations of exactly how her words matched up with her falling blood pressure during that time, something universally resonant comes through about how if you want to be a writer as rockstar famous as Tom Wolfe, the irony is that you have to live as an ascetic monk, the most anti-rockstar existence conceivable.

Pussy Riot

Eventually winning not just that war of wills but a lawsuit too against that much weaker woman wearing the badge proclaiming such false authority, Alyokhina shares the telling words that the guard had for her at the end of their tensile tenure together: “I wish you simple women’s happiness.” This damning dictum is followed by a flashing image of a pig’s body on a spit, which translates its malignant meaning better than ever Masha’s mouth could. Of all the tattoo-worthy Riot Days one-liners, that one says the most about the ways that women suppress other women as much or more as any male ever has or could. “I wish you the mediocrity it would take to give you the illusion of fulfillment that lesser women live by” is a more explanatory expression of what that guard meant, and it is a memo directed at the rare free women of the world from every corner on the nanosecondly, and nearly always by women made nonagenarians in body and mind by their twenties and thirties thanks to their cow-like corporeal submission to domesticity, and those who are so blithely captive to what Big Daddy Blindness bought them (be that babies or BMWs) that they will know zero definitions of actual “happiness” throughout the full course of their lives, nor how vastly that word differs from “contentment,” which is first cousin to only one thing: complacency.

That Atlanta raised its ethos-enflamed fist with Pussy Riot on the day the world had to say goodbye to yet another of my own Motherland’s most captious cultural tapestry threads was not in any way lost on me or the rest of the room. Many Pogues shirts peeked out from under rain-primed leather coats this night, and Shane MacGowan, the greatest of all Irish punk poets, was tangibly nodding to our reception of the most raucous of all living Russian street soothsayers. You could all but see him chain-smoking his unleaning approval in the corner, for no one loved a mutiny or an integrity-based court-martial more than our fairytale of Tipperary. Shane would have been the first to assert how slim and often logic-starved certainties have become in today’s global psychosocial snowscape, but here is a glacial truth I know he would vociferously agree embodies both the moral moraines of the majority and the demoralized drumlins of the deviant too: there is no musical methadone clinic in the world that gets people off pussy or riots once they have had a proper taste of either. But bind the two together, in any symbolic or literal order, and you have the ultimate cash payment put to all electronic, ecumenical, and entropic debts incurred by males at any cashless checkout counter on the planet.

Rather than the erotic picaresque that represents the furthest allowable side in the standard curve of female awakening sanctioned by modern males, the women of Pussy Riot and those like them who freely remind all passersby that matriarchy was the norm for the strongest and most beautiful cultures in human history for a reason are paleontologists digging bones nearly everyone wants to stay buried – again, not least the women who are set up in patrilineal lifestyles that they deem “independent” when in reality they are every minute as supported (financially and emotionally) as the children those unions produced and that ripped their original lives away. “Go whistle it out your ass,” these Pussy Riot rocketeers seem to say, “We are here to set termites into the denied morning wood of structural sexism.” Riot Days is for absolutely every human, but most of all it is for those Brobdingnagian mobs who subscribe to the kind of mindless agreement the immensely mindful Nick Cave recently called an “anodyne hell.” Beauty will indeed save the world, and the Riot Days revelators, these women who have known such a protracted season of shortage, have come to show that a reckoning leveled on lady-made abundance has well and truly begun.

Pussy Riot

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