The historical predecessors of Pussy Riot: American Punk Groups or Russian Female Revolutionaries?

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A number of articles have appeared in the press talking about the influence of American punk groups -such as Punk Grrrl and Bikini Kill in the 1990s on the Russian group Pussy Riot. One article while damning radical or political art as a whole, left a space for punk suggesting that it was an exception to the rule James Panero on Punk
However, the idea that Pussy Riot and feminist punk in Russia is a western import is far from the truth. It may have been an influence but only one of many – and most of the other influences are Russian. From the iurodivy traditions of Russian Orthodoxy to another more recent historical influence and one that was explicitly mentioned by Pussy Riot. A clue to this influence could be found near Vinzavod Art Gallery in the area not far from Kurskaya station this weekend in the form of five stencilled figures of graffiti on a street wall. This graffiti consisted of six female images, names and the punishments meted out to these women revolutionaries of the Tsarist and early Soviet periods.

The names and punishments were the following: Maria Spiridonova (36 years forced labour and exile. Shot); Irina Kakhovskaya (9 years forced labour, 35 years of prison camps and exile); Katerina Breshkovskaya (8 years forced labour, 19 years of exile), Vera Zasulich (20 years of illegal immigration), Sofia Perovskaya (hanged), Vera Figner (20 years of solitary confinement). These female revolutionaries were victims of political repression as well as some of the most active revolutionaries of their day who fought repression of both the Tsarist and Stalinist type. They belonged to leftist and populist movements such as Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) or the Left Social Revolutionaries as well as the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Party. Some were linked also to Bakuninist circles. Nonetheless, they all fought political repression both in a constant and determined way paying for this with both their freedom and, at times, their lives.

Each of these life stories are an extraordinary story in themselves. The life of Maria Spiridonova, for example, was one of continuous battle against political repression in which she endured continuous physical torture by both Tsarist authorities and the Chekhists and was eventually executed by the Stalinist NKVD in 1941. An account of Spiridonova after the revolution was given by the American anarchist Emma Goldman in her work My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) Goldman Vera Zasulich moved from populism to Marxism after being acquitted by a jury in her trial for her part in shooting a tsarist governor. She was forced into a long exile and joined Lenin and others in the foundation of Iskra (The Spark) although later in her life she parted with the Leninists. Trotsky wrote of her:

Sasulich was a curious person and a curiously attractive one. She wrote very slowly and suffered actual tortures of creation… “Vera Ivanovna does not write, she puts mosaic together, Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] said to me at that time”, And in fact she put down each sentence separately, walked up and down the room slowly, shuffled about in her slippers, smoked constantly hand-made cigarettes and threw the stubs and half-smoked cigarettes in every direction on all the window seats and tables, and scattered ashes over her jacket, hands, manuscripts, tea in the glass, and incidentally her visitor. She remained to the end the old radical intellectual on whom fate grafted Marxism. Sasulich’s articles show that she had adopted to a remarkable degree the theoretic elements of Marxism. But the moral political foundations of the Russian radicals of the ’70s remained untouched in her until her death.

Vera Figner was also someone who was closer to the Social Revolutionaries at one point but was to leave it after the Azef scandal. She published one of the greatest revolutionary memoirs ever written Запечатлённый труд (translated as ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionist’) and, although she wasn’t herself subject to repression in Soviet times, she would constantly fight against political repression and in 1927 openly called on the Soviet government to stop any political repression (alas, her voice was not listened to). Irina Kakhovskaya was also constantly subjected to repression under tsarism as well as under the Chekhists and Stalinists. The memoirs of Kakhovskaya were highly praised by Romain Rolland for their literary quality. Katerina Breshkovskaya, known as the grandmother of the Russian Revolution,was mainly linked with the Social Revolutionnaries and was involved for decades in revolutionary activity although she preferred renewed exile after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Sofia Perovskaya was the only figure here who did not live in both Tsarist and Soviet eras – she was hanged for her part in preparing the assassination attempts on tsar Alexander II. A Soviet era film was dedicated to her story in the late sixties (interestingly also during this period Soviet films would have some rather sympathetic and rounded portraits of other revolutionary figures, such as the above mentioned Maria Spiridonova, who fought the Chekhists as well as the Tsarists). A scene from the Soviet film of Sofia Perovskaya can be seen on YoutubeHanging of Sophia Perovskaya

The appearance of graffiti on a street in Moscow recalling these female revolutionaries of another era suggests that the historical precedents of Pussy Riot and feminist revolutionaries need not be linked to ‘western influences’ but are very much a part of Russian ‘tradition’ and history. They are joined by many names of contemporary Russia such as the anti-fascist journalist Anastasia Baburova assassinated by Neo Nazis alongside Stanislav Markelov in January 2009 for her resistance to the gunman as well as prominent figures of a new generation of Russia’s revolutionary left such as Zhenya Otto and Isabelle Magkoeva that have sprung up during the recent upsurge in political rebellion. In a period when feminism is declared in court as a political crime and the patriarchal hysteria of Orthodox religion and militaristic nationalism becomes state doctrine, the number of female revolutionaries looks set to grow.

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About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

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