Pussy Riot Makes Their U.S. Debut at the Lodge Room in Highland Park

On Tuesday night, Russia’s famous punk art collective, Pussy Riot, made their U.S. debut at the newly opened Lodge Room in Highland Park, playing a forty-five minute set consisting of the very performance art tactics that got these incredibly brave women jailed and reprimanded in their home country. 

FullSizeRender 2.jpg

Seemingly straight out of the history books on the years of the Great Terror in the Stalinist Soviet Union, Pussy Riot’s founding member, Nadezhda "Nadya" Tolokonnikova, along with Maria "Masha" Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, endured ridiculous show trials, beatings by Cossack guards, and two years in a Siberian prison camp. Their “crime”? Alleged “blasphemy” against the Russian Orthodox Church in their “sacrilegious” performance of their “Punk Prayer” at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 2012, which was aimed to protest the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin while calling attention to the Russian Orthodox Patriarch’s unorthodox ties to the leader.

Although they were charged with “hooliganism” for their “blasphemous” behavior, the very nature of their “Punk Prayer,” and the ensuing response by both the Russian government and Orthodox Church, seems to only validate the very authoritarianism and persecution that they were protesting, rather than causing a mere “anti-church or anti-faith” ruckus. Regardless, no degree of threat or punishment has held these women back, and their bravery is evidentiary in their continuous commitment to fighting for human rights — both at home in Russia and abroad.

Keeping in mind the activist roots of the “band,” it is important to remember that their purposes are not necessarily to entertain, but rather, to call attention to critical issues and empower other activists through their platform as a punk art collective. Thus, their performance art is just that much more special when witnessed live, and they certainly did not disappoint at the Lodge Room.

Following an opening performance by rapper Desi Mo and her back-up singers, the members of Pussy Riot, which for this show consisted of founder Nadya Tolokonnikova, Sasha Klokova (The Jack Wood), Ira Kondakova, and Marina Ganah, were dragged onstage in white body bags by DJ Nikita Chaikin (DJ Chaika). The ladies emerged from their body bags in their traditional balaclava face masks, moving their bodies to the directions of an authoritative voice. They started with an unreleased song, and after howling and barking, transitioned into their newly released single, “Police State.” The track features an almost nauseatingly upbeat tune juxtaposed to lyrics depicted the grim circumstances of our dystopian nightmare-turned reality. Tolokonnikova knows all too well herself such circumstances when she sings, “No problems in paradise, we’ll lock them up.”

IMG_5155.jpg

They continued their performance, supplemented with props such as black capes, police hats, and animal masks, singing and dancing to a number of tracks and what seemed to be a rendition of a “punk prayer.” The authoritative voice once again commanded them to do various physical exercises, such as squatting, standing, and jumping, reiterating the reality of a prison/police state. At one point, DJ Chaika started rapping/singing to fast-paced music while the girls put on track jackets and smoked cigarettes whilst beating the stage, perhaps alluding to the political apathy of Russian street culture. 

Next, the loudspeaker voice, mocking CNN’s The Situation Room, announced the impeachment of Donald Trump, greeted with cheering from the crowd (guilty!). Then, suggesting a camaraderie-in-authoritarianism, the voice indicated that Putin was hiding in North Korea. The girls continued their performance, both in Russian and English, singing about concepts such as feminism, sexuality, and human rights. They then broke into “Make America Great Again,” which includes lyrics so simple, yet seemingly so difficult for certain leaders and citizens to grasp, as “Let other people in, listen to your women, stop killing black children — make America great again.” The ladies also flashed a hand-painted banner that read “Good Night White Pride” during the song.

IMG_5164.jpg

The energy continued to pick up, and opener Desi Mo joined in on “Straight Outta Vagina” to remind everyone where they really come from. The ladies sang a few more songs, during which a member came out in an orange jumpsuit and blue wig and revealed her (amazing) t-shirt that read “I’m from Siberia.” The show concluded with the ladies coming out for an “encore,” which consisted of Tolokonnikova parading around the Russian flag blaring “Россия” (Russia). I was a little disappointed by the fact that they didn’t perform the biting splendor that is “Organs,” a Russian single which features Tolokonnikova rapping/speaking about the abuses of the dominating political organs in Russia while simultaneously inciting their attempt to control the organs of their [particularly female] subjects. However, their set was still incredible, and for their U.S. debut, one for the books.

Although the overarching narrative that the Russian authorities have taken up in regards to Pussy Riot has branded them as the “enemies” of the Russian state, it’s clear that they have a love for their home country, and all countries for that matter, as exemplified through their continuous fight and struggle for justice. Tolokonnikova and her comrades don’t just talk the talk; their six years of existence as a group and their perseverance through authoritarian, oppressive leadership, and the risks posed to their own freedom, security, and lives, prove that they are truly committed to their cause, for a better, more democratic Russia, and by extension, world. 

The collective is continuing their work of performative activism this week, having performed at L.A.’s Bootleg Theater on Wednesday night, and they are booked for Houston’s Day for Night festival this weekend. Hopefully, this is only the start of Pussy Riot’s venture into U.S. performances, as there is clearly a lot we as consumers of their work can learn. Pussy Riot, please keep on rocking in the so-called “free world.”

IMG_5178.jpg

By Pauline Pechakjian