by Marina Blitshteyn, Contributing Editor
I first read about Pussy Riot in a Guardian article on February 2nd, 2012, titled “Feminist punk band Pussy Riot take revolt to the Kremlin.” I remember it well because of two lines in particular that I immediately co-opted into a loose but political poem. The lines were:
“The revolution should be done by women,” said Garazhda. “For now, they don’t beat or jail us as much.”
“There’s a deep tradition in Russia of gender and revolution – we’ve had amazing women revolutionaries.”
At the time the women were using aliases to maintain the integrity of the band, the anonymity of the protesters representing anybody, anywoman, or everywoman. After their infamous church arrest I hazard a guess that the words belong to now-23 year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who was recently hospitalized after her hunger strike in a Siberian penal colony.
Since then I read about the trial voraciously, with a special kind of pride I only feel for relatives and close friends who do something awesome in the world. It was like I felt myself represented in a new way, or a new image of myself uploaded onto Facebook and I had to use it as my profile picture because it said something about me that I want to be heard publicly. The revolution should be done by women–I hear that affirmed. We’ve had amazing women revolutionaries–I want that affirmed even louder. I post photos of Ulrike Meinhof everywhere, the ones of her in a simple white blouse on a simple couch with her legs crossed, looking a certain kind of feminine but palpably and undeniably powerful.
I’m intoxicated with this intersection of gender and revolution, art and politics, feminine and threatening.
It’s not entirely appropriation of Nadezhda that moves me here. Born in Moldova, I too was raised in a fairly traditional post-Soviet household, under the banner of a domestic motherhood and Communist narratives with men at the helm: picture books full of the kindly, kitten-whiskered Stalin, smiling benevolently at a gaggle of children; the stern but just Papa Lenin guiding his flock. The truth seemed to be that, despite the egalitarianism of Soviet public labor, in the private sector women were just as oppressed by gender expectations as in the quaintest 1950s American suburb. I could not name for myself one Soviet Revolutionary woman. And yet even a cursory internet search not only confirms their existence but also underscores their usefulness to the movement. Disappeared, again, from the very system that promised their liberation.
Today, in something resembling adulthood, I know not only a few more names but more intimately the mechanism by which they get disappeared. It takes just a few instances of imprisonment, institutionalization, a collective nostalgia for paternalistic heroes, and a deliberate erasure of the names and faces of revolutionary women from the public narrative.
Recently a friend of mine (a comrade in the struggle) sent me an article by Aimee Wall published this year in Maisonneuve. It’s called “On Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, Being Too Much and Taking Up Space” and features the following hyper-intertextual and inspiring passage:
I love this story Kate Durbin tells, in a conversation with Zambreno at Her Kind, about Lady Gaga and Marina Abramović:
There was this interview Gaga did with SHOWSTUDIO, wherein Marina Abramović called in—many celebs called in. Abramović asked Gaga the question: “Who creates limits?” Gaga answered, “We do,” and then she said to the interviewer: “You see how simple her [Abramović’s] question was? That’s because she’s fucking free.” The interviewer asked Gaga to explain, and she said, after gushing about seeing “The Artist is Present” in NYC, and gushing about “Rhythm O,” Abramović’s famous performance wherein she let the audience abuse her, almost to the point of death, without surrendering or bowing her head: “That bitch trusts herself, and she trusts her art.”
To me, to be a woman, an artist, and to be free, the bitch has to trust herself, has to trust her art.
“We are freer than the people sitting opposite us for the prosecution because we can say everything we like, and we do, but those people sitting there say only what political censorship allows them to say.”
This was Nadezhda’s final speech when addressing the court that determined her guilt long before it charged her with it. When I saw a video of her delivering it all I could think was ‘that’s a badass bitch’. That bitch trusts herself. It was like an ownership of her right to say it, the space she was taking up, the attention of the media and the prosecution, all was hers. I envied her that freedom as much as I desired it too. And I should have it as much as any woman, as much as any man. And believing that is feminist, and acting on it is revolutionary.
It is not fair to say that women themselves create the limits that prevent them from entering into the political arena, but it is fair to recognize that we can internalize those limits, rehearse those predictable critiques, and ventriloquize the language of misogyny.
A set of questions on the female revolutionary:
Could men see women as leaders?
Could they understand that their own liberation is irrevocably bound up with ours?
Would they be willing to follow a woman to the promised land?
Could a revolutionary woman be a mother?
Could a revolutionary woman talk about misogyny without alienating men?
Would they be willing to let a woman liberate them?
Does the revolutionary woman have to be beautiful?
Could she be?
Would she be admired if she wasn’t?
(These are all the wrong questions.)
It’s not lost on me that Nadezhda in Russian means hope, but to rest on this poetic coincidence for the sake of the narrative would be an oversimplification of our current state of affairs. As I write this Nadezhda is either already dead or about to be. Her protests are already silenced, for now or for good, and her voice is now extracted from public discourse in the way of her great Soviet forebears.
But I am not interested in seeing her as a martyr. History runs on the blood of martyr women. Rather I am interested in the way she has chosen to live, her commitment to her own convictions, her radical and revolutionary self-trust, and her position as a leader of an opposition movement of both women and men. I am interested in the appropriation of her image for future female revolutionaries and in Pussy Riot as a model for more protests both in Russia and abroad.
That gender figures not only as a condition of their work but also its force is half the thrill of Pussy Riot, and more than half the threat. Indeed being a woman entitles you to the work of politics, makes your participation more urgent, more imperative, for the good of your citizenship as well as feminism. Hence the function of the tights, the dresses, the colorful balaclavas. It is not despite your gender that you enter into the revolution, but because of it.