"Those Who Have Power Need to Live in Fear": A Pussy Riot Guide To Activism

by Richard Marcus

 
"Tolokonnikova hasn't just written out a “how-to” of standing up to authoritarian bullies; she also provides a philosophy to underpin your actions."

'Read and Riot: A Pussy Riot Guide to Activism' (Hachette, 2018)

Read & Riot: A Pussy Riot Guide To Activism by Nadya Tolokonnikova is an instruction manual and an autobiography from one of the co-founders of the punk/art/activist collective Pussy Riot.


Pussy Riot first came to international attention in 2012 when they performed "A Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away" in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Tolkonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were sentenced to two years in prison camps for the crime of "Blasphemous Hooliganism" (a third member charged had her sentence commuted as she was pregnant at the time). By arresting them, the Russian government couldn't have done a better job promoting the group if they tried.



By making an example of Pussy Riot's members, Russian President Vladimir Putin not only increased their visibility, but gave them the status and legitimacy to criticize his regime on an international stage. While some have been critical of Tolkoniikova and Alyokhina's "celebrity activism", the pair, along with other members of the Pussy Riot collective, have never stopped putting themselves in the line of fire to protest the dictatorial rule of Putin.


In Read and Riot Tolokonnikova hasn't just written a “how-to” of standing up to authoritarian bullies; she also provides a philosophy to underpin your actions. The credo won't go well with the consumer-driven, market-loving forces who so dominate our world today; for they show a way forward that isn't driven by greed or self-interest.


The book's chapter titles alone should give you a clue as to the direction Tolokonnikova is going to take. They are a list of rules for activists: "Rule # 1: Be A Pirate", "Rule #2: DIY (Do It Yourself)" and so on. My personal favourite is "Rule #5: Make Your Government Shit Its Pants".


Her subheading for this chapter sums up what she sees as the role of an activist:

"Those who have power need to live in fear. In fear of the people. Meet the main characters of this chapter: power, courage, laughter, joy, belief, and risk. The main characters may well also be inspiration, fairness, struggle , heretics, witches, dignity, faith, masks, and mischief".

While the playfulness of these words, and overall joyful and exhilarated tone of the whole book, might strike some people as not the proper approach to take when considering resistance to corrupt and terrifying regimes, it is actually quite refreshing. The great American Emma Goldman may never have actually said "if I can't dance I don't want to be part of your revolution", but she certainly understood the power of a joyful spirit in the face of oppression, and the need to appreciate beauty and expression.

 

Related: History, Magic and Resistance: In Conversation with Rosanne Rabinowitz

 

Tolokonnikova brings the same spirit to her writing. Even when she's talking about the time she spent in one of the notorious Moldavian prison camps, where women are forced to work 16 hour days sewing police uniforms, and are punished for not meeting impossible quotas, she talks about how she learned to find pleasure where she could.


Nadya Tolokonnikova (Instagram, 2019)

Whether it was the beam of sunlight that came through the window in a cell once a day or something equally small, it could make a difference. She doesn't make light of the conditions or trivialize the horrors women and men experience on a daily basis in prison anywhere. In fact, she's very careful to point out that due to the support of people in Russia, and around the world, she eventually began to receive preferential treatment, some of which helped her fellow prisoners - albeit temporarily.


While this book deals with the past, Tolokonnikova and Pussy Riot continue to fight against totalitarianism everywhere. Their focus has remained primarily on Russia and the fight against Putin's increasingly frantic efforts to stamp out opposition, they've also worked on projects around the world with everybody from Bansky to American punk icon Richard Hell.


In Russia they are attempting to deal with the multiple issues facing the people of the country: from the fight to free Putin's main political opponent Alexi Navalny, who like Pyotr Verzilov, was poisoned by Russian security services, to trying to protect the LBGTQ+ community and victims of domestic assault.


In Russia all things LBGTQ+ are considered unpatriotic and any displays of support for the community, flying a rainbow flag for instance, will land you in jail. Under Putin's guidance, the Russian government also rolled back any protections that existed for women who were being abused and assaulted by their partners to the point where spousal battery is no longer illegal.


Pussy Riot takes a multi-pronged approach to dealing with these injustices. While we've all seen the news clips of the massive demonstrations in Russia against Putin that have happened since Navalny was arrested, Pussy Riot's approach is much more creative. Aside from their provocative and quite brilliant music videos which deal with everything from the effects of industrial pollution in Siberia to the repressive anti-abortion laws in the US, they continue to stage live happenings.


In the past year, members of the collective hung Rainbow flags at various government building in Moscow in celebration of Putin's birthday and have funded a shelter for battered woman. They are currently raising money through a gofundme page to fly women and children out of Russia to Germany to get them into safe spaces.

Members of Pussy Riot hanging the rainbow flags (Instagram, 2020)

They've also expanded into virtual reality, producing an amazing animated video called "Panic Attack" featuring Tolokonnikova, filmed by 100 cameras and dropped into a surreal landscape. The video captures the stresses and realities of what it's like to live in the constant state of fear that comes from being under totalitarian rule.


However, Tolokonnikova, hasn't lost her sense of the absurd. While she offers instructional videos on how to create makeup that will fool facial recognition software, Pussy Riot also markets a line of clothing in their trademark bright colours emblazoned with slogans in English and Russian, calling for smashing the patriarchy and celebrating queer love.


In Read and Riot Tolokonnikova does a remarkable job of not only detailing her own history of activism, but also of reminding us of the history of activism dating back to our earliest recorded history. In each section of the book she lists her heroes, people who have provided inspiration for her own life.


 

You can keep up to date about Pussy Riot's activities by following them on YouTube or support them by buying clothes from their shop or becoming a Patreon. Of course they are also on the regular social media platforms as well.


Richard Marcus contributes to Blog Critics as well as editing their books section. He is also a monthly contributor to Qantara. He currently lives with his musician/poet/painter wife and two incredibly demanding cats in Kingston Ontario, Canada.


To read more of Richard Marcus' work click here.