Masquerading Acolytes of Pussy Riot assume the same trademark headgear as the all-girl band before a 2007 rally. (Carl Court / Getty Images)


The award-winning BBC Four documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer opens with a quote from Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Apt words which could have been cribbed from the Russian punk-rock collective’s own manifesto. In March 2012, a month after their brazen guerilla performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, three of Pussy Riot’s members were arrested and two subsequently sentenced to two years in remote penal colonies. The Russian state, always on the alert to prevent hammer blows to its omnipotence, took a dim view of Pussy Riot’s “art” and instead condemned it as “hooliganism.” Theatrical protests of state power would not be tolerated.

But if an increasingly hardline Vladimir Putin imagined that banishing these putative hooligans would be the equivalent of out of sight, out of mind, he couldn’t have been more misguided. The judge rendered her verdict at the end of the miserable show trial. The journalists filed out of the kangaroo court. Word spread of the merciless conviction, and international support for the handcuffed girls flooded in. Pussy Riot became media darlings, a cause célèbre impossible to ignore. After all, it is one thing for reporters to come upon student protesters trolling Moscow’s streets, and quite another to discover young women in colorful balaclavas thrashing out tub-thumping punk rock. The latter is what lures the television camera.

And so what began as a protest against Putin’s tyrannical rule soon became a global phenomenon, the embodiment both of fighters for justice and victims of injustice. Amnesty International dubbed Pussy Riot prisoners of conscience. Yoko Ono gave them the LennonOno Grant for Peace award. Madonna played a Moscow stadium with the band’s name on her bare back. U2, Paul McCartney, and Bruce Springsteen were among more than 100 artists who put their names to an open letter calling for their release.

Those in the dark as to why the international media devoted so much coverage to Pussy Riot should look at what the group was setting out to do. The band made it clear that Mother Russia’s contemporary ills are the work of one man, the man at the top, and can only be remedied by his removal. Pussy Riot drew attention to Putin’s brand of oppression by skillfully drawing attention to themselves: the name, a clever juxtaposition of sex and outrage; the shrill and angry music; the garish, eye-catching clothes; the performances in very public places; the use of social networks to relay their message; and the articulate interviews in clandestine locations that mixed a sense of fun with a serious commitment to change. They were a striking image of cartoon characters with bite, a punk protest that eschews jaw-breaking violence for jaw-dropping shock tactics. Critics have mocked the music and in so doing have missed the point. Pussy Riot would be the first to confess their musical limitations. Their agitpop is intentional noise, a cacophony tantamount to a clarion call to sit up, take heed, and join the cause. It wasn’t music they mastered; it was the masses, or more important still, the media.

What has also turned heads is their stubborn insistence on doing things on their terms. They acknowledged and expressed gratitude for the international support and at the same time were quick to reject the West’s model of art. “We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist system, at concerts where they sell tickets,” they told Radio Free Europe. This smacks partly of biting the hand that feeds them, but it also underscores their single-minded purpose and reluctance to compromise.

Perhaps what has endeared them most to the outside world is the very nature of the David-and-Goliath struggle in which they have so readily engaged. Everyone roots for the underdog. In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote that “One’s got to change the system, or one changes nothing.” There lurks the suspicion, indeed the hope, that Pussy Riot won’t back down against their oversized and ever-powerful foe, but instead will keep on chipping away until the iniquitous system that favors the mighty is changed for the greater good.

Malcolm Forbes has written reviews and essays for the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, The National, The Australian, The Daily Beast, the Quarterly Conversation, and many other journals. Born in Edinburgh, he currently lives in Berlin.