Resistance is fertile
They fought the law ... Pussy Riot are wary of their celebrity status. Photo: Vanya Berezkin
Depending on how you define it, the year's most important performance by a rock band lasted either less than two minutes or a full nine days. Pussy Riot's guerilla rendition of Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, was brief even by punk standards. But the trial that ensued was an international media event that revealed the power of popular music to illuminate a political situation.
Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich didn't set out to get prosecuted. A shrewder, less authoritarian government would have stayed its hand and let interest in the group peter out. Once they were granted a platform that they had never sought, the three women used it to put their accusers on trial.
Tobi Vail, whose early 1990s Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill was one of Pussy Riot's inspirations, wasn't being too hyperbolic when she called them ''the only band that matters in 2012''.
Viewed purely as a pop group, Pussy Riot are faultless: the unforgettable name, whose punchy collision of sex and violence is a feminised, radicalised take on the Sex Pistols; the uniform of bright dresses and balaclavas, which makes them both memorable and anonymous; the terse, splenetic punk racket; the unlicensed occupation of public spaces for their performances; and their dissemination on social media.
Although their unusually tight post-trial release, Putin Lights up the Fires, is as strong as many Riot Grrrl records, Pussy Riot are political provocateurs first and musicians second.
Some have grumbled about young women in colourful balaclavas receiving more international attention than other persecuted dissidents. They might as well complain that rain is wet. Pussy Riot chose to exploit the media to the hilt because they know how it works. Their fame has not eclipsed other injustices in Russia but highlighted them. We are used to musicians making inspiring protest songs, then fumbling the follow-up as they try to paper over the gaps in their knowledge. Not Pussy Riot. They have an arsenal of political theory. The scope of their concerns is broad - from education and healthcare to feminism.
Samutsevich told Rolling Stone: ''An artist is a person who is constantly analysing critical thoughts, always working out an independent opinion regarding everything. That is why art gives a breath of fresh air and a different way to protest.''
The international Free Pussy Riot campaign quickly became the celebrity cause du jour. Yoko Ono gave them the Lennon Ono Grant for Peace award. Bjork and Patti Smith dedicated songs to them.
The band was coolly grateful for all support, and its lawyers acknowledged that the outcry helped to secure relatively lenient jail terms and free Samutsevich on appeal, but the circus of Western celebrity sits uneasily with Pussy Riot's stern rejection of fame and capitalism.
''We're flattered, of course, that Madonna and Bjork have offered to perform with us,'' a member using the pseudonym Orange said. ''But the only performances we'll participate in are illegal ones. We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist system, at concerts where they sell tickets.''
The frenzy around Pussy Riot involves an uncomfortably voyeuristic fascination with a situation in which punk can land you a prison sentence rather than a Converse ad - a nostalgia for the outlaw frisson that music once possessed in the West. But any threat of Pussy Riot becoming cuddly icons is dispelled whenever the women themselves speak. When Der Spiegel interviewed Tolokonnikova in the penal colony, she regretted nothing: ''If you're afraid of wolves, you shouldn't go into the forest.''
So far they have used the machinery of pop far more than it has used them.
Pussy Riot have vowed to continue, although their future is uncertain. The remaining members are in hiding. The Russian government has labelled their videos ''extremist'' and thus illegal. Samutsevich and Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, have separately been accused of being Kremlin agents.
For their sympathisers, the challenge is to neither forget nor romanticise them. As Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna wrote during the trial: ''This could be the start of a whole new thing, a whole new motivating source for a globally connected, unapologetic punk feminist art and music scene.''