Pussy Riot Duo Sanitizes Russian Feminist Punk

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Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot at an Amnesty International concert last year.

Credit: Greg Chow on Flickr, under Creative Commons

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot at an Amnesty International concert last year.

(WOMENSENEWS)– Before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s second election, they crashed into the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 2012, reciting a mock prayer: "Mother, Virgin, get rid of Putin."

Three years later, on March 7, two of those who were arrested in the cathedral, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, shared the spotlight with another president when they spoke on a panel with Bill Clinton at a event. Who are they? Pussy Riot, the Russian female punk collective.

Formed in 2011 as a group of some 30 women, the exact number uncertain, the group is now represented by the formerly jailed political irritants Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova. With a and about them and an in the new season of the HBO series "House of Cards," Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are riding a wave as Western-cause celebs of political activism, free speech and musical expression. Protest, scandal and stardom entwine.

This can be seen in their new (and first) English-language "I Can’t Breathe," about the suffocation of New Yorker Eric Garner by a police officer. The text evokes "the spark of the riots" in New York City. Although written about Garner, "I Can’t Breathe" can also be related to the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in February. While it is a strong protest song, "I Can’t Breathe" lacks the usual markers of Pussy Riot and seems to stray from its origins.

The group’s visibility started with their scandalous performance in the cathedral in 2012. In their anti-Putin song, memorable in their colorful short dresses, bright spandex and neon balaclavas, Pussy Riot yelled out, "Rebellion in Russia — Putin’s pissed himself/Rebellion in Russia — ."

Then came the arrest of three performers a few weeks later. The day the Russian court announced the verdict to imprison them, a new song was released; about the riots. In their colored masks– jumping, thrusting fists and spreading hands wide open, waving flags and raising hammers–they are filmed climbing on , standing on top of oil tankers, their Pussy Riot banner hanging over a .

Replaced Voices

During the Pussy Riot members’ two-year imprisonment, their silence was replaced by voices of world musicians and political activists. After their release, still defiant Pussy Riot showed up in Sochi during the 2014 Olympics, taking to the streets with their song "." They called for "rebel and riots, not beautiful eyes" before the them.

Musically, their performances required no pleasing melodies or complex instrumental arrangements. Pussy Riot sang, growled and screamed with anger and energy. Their videos contained the same harsh punk rock timbre and distorted guitar with shouted vocals. A grassroots collective, Pussy Riot channeled desperate frustration and harnessed musical anger. The musical qualities and pointed disregard for socially accepted behavior led many to see Pussy Riot as rubbish.

In "I Can’t Breathe," the rough harsh language of punk is gone. Recorded in collaboration with legendary punk rocker and produced in a Brooklyn studio, the song matches a reverberating mixed-down industrial sound with clear soaring vocals. We see the faces of Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, which before were covered. Gone are balaclavas, boots, wool stockings, angular fighting gestures, distorting jangling guitars and screaming voices.

But it’s not just the music that’s changed. They have too. Moving from Russia to a global stage, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova – not the full anonymous collective –appeared in a February 2014 concert of . They visited the British Parliament to join a tribute to Sergei Magnitsky, the murdered Russian anti-corruption lawyer. They endorsed the at the European Parliament and in the U.S. .

It is arguable that before, Pussy Riot‘s guerrilla performances were about personal defiance and women’s intrepidity and this is where their power lies. Any woman could be Pussy Riot. Their videos show everyday women transforming themselves from working mothers and professionals to underground protesters. In "," Pussy Riot yelled, "But you can’t nail us in the coffin. Throw off the yoke of former KGB!"

The Oppositional Elite

Now, voicing anti-establishment activism, they have turned into oppositional elite. They are two, not all women. They enjoy status of musical and political popularity, showing up in chic , stylish makeup, jewelry and the latest en vogue punk multicolored hair, posing for photo ops with statesmen, appearing at major political events, . Polished videos and aesthetically pleasing music sanitize the cultural significance of the Russia political punk.

Replacing anonymity with their recognizable faces, the two former Pussy Riots can be seen, "but can they be listened to?" questions Elena Ishcehnko in "," adding that "their words turn into informational noise and melt into a mass-media, joining innocuous, tamed protest."

"They do not represent us" reads the blog of six anonymous members of the group. "Pussy Riot never performs on the legal concert stage! . . . Listen to us! . . .We are not Nadia and Maria, they are not Pussy Riot" screams the .

We see the anonymous Pussy Riot webpage and read their letters and messages. They seem to be performing. But the global spotlight fixed on Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova shadows the bright balaclava and spandex, defuses the ever loud, rough, radical, sound of Russia’s feminist punk; the remaining anonymous collective Pussy Riot.