Voina, the infamous Russian art collective known for making art out of vandalism and other pranks, remains best-known for a very male image: a 65-foot drawing of a penis on a St. Petersburg drawbridge (a work for which the group won Russia's Innovation art prize). Now, a handful of Voina members have broken away to form a Riot Grrl-influenced all-female group that is putting a feminist spin on Voina's wild-eyed aesthetic. Wearing purple and yellow dresses and neon-colored ski masks, the splinter group known as Pussy Riot has gathered attention since its formation in winter 2011 for performing unauthorized punk rock concerts in public, letting loose songs with lyrics that decry the alleged ballot-rigging in recent parliamentary elections. And like the group from which it was formed, Pussy Riot has already run afoul of the Russian authorities.
Earlier this month two members were taken in by Russian police after performing the song "Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, Expel Putin!" next to the altar at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. A third member was arrested on Friday on charges of "hooligan behavior." While some have viewed the arrests as clumsy acts of intimidation (Voina co-founder Natalia Sokol was once arrested and detained with her infant son for one night without being charged), the three women face prison sentences of up to eight years.
Much like the Russian anarchist collective of which its members are alums — whose initiatives have included firebombing a police tank — Pussy Riot has become willfully identified with chaos, illegality, and dissent in their music and public statements. In light of a demonstration for which Voina members snuck guitars and amplifiers into a courtroom during the trial of members Andrei Yerofeev and Yuri Samodurov, the spinoff's punk rock aesthetic should hardly come as a surprise.
Pussy Riot's members are cagey in their relations with the press, simultaneously seeking attention while avoiding direct engagement. They wear masks to preserve their anonymity, and operate under nicknames such as Balaklava, Cat, Seraph, Terminator, Blondie, and Garadzha. After the recent brush with the law, a band member calling herself Shayba was interviewed by the Financial Times via Skype, connecting the group's Riot Grrl feminism with its opposition to prime minister (and president-elect) Vladmir Putin. While Voina's members have described Putin as the personification of corruption and unchecked power in Russian politics, for Pussy Riot, he is also a symbol of a thuggish, grandiose masculinity that oppresses Russian women. Putin, said Shayba, “has repeatedly made sexist statements that the main task of women is child bearing and being in a passive position relative to men."