Pussy Riot and the radical feminist punk NFT: “Virgin Mary, Please Become a Feminist”

Pussy Riot members leave a stage of their new perfomance called “Like a Red Prison” at an oil field in Orenburg region, some 1100 kms outside Moscow.

By Oliver Scialdone

On August 17th, 2012, three members of the art activist collective Pussy Riot received a sentence of two years imprisonment following an action at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Following their Punk Prayer, a protest against Vladimir Putin and his government’s ties to the Eastern Orthodox Church, the courts formally charged Masha Alyokhina, Katia Samutsevich, and Nadya Tolokonnikova with hooliganism. The purpose of the conviction was not any type of justice, but instead the opposite, an obvious attempt to silence them for drawing attention to misogyny, homophobia, and human rights abuses. 

Now, Pussy Riot is a movement.

Members of the radical feminist punk group ‘Pussy Riot’ stage a protest against Vladimir Putin’s policies at the so-called Lobnoye Mesto (Forehead Place), long before used for announcing Russian tsars’ decrees and occasionally for carrying out public executions, in Red Square in Moscow.

“Virgin Mary, Please Become a Feminist” recognizes the anniversary of the group’s prison sentence. The piece consists of co-founder Nadya Tolokonnikova’s drawings over a copy of Pussy Riot’s arrest record, the very one given to Tolokonnikova while locked in cell #309 in Jail 6 in Moscow. Tolokonnikova rediscovered the papers while collecting documents necessary for her to travel (she is required to present it alongside a document proving she served her prison sentence). She told SuperRare that “the 309 number was like a portal that literally brought me back to my jail cell.” 

Members of Pussy Riot have spoken frankly and with outrage about the dismal conditions they experienced in prison. In 2013, while serving her sentence, Tolokonnikova responded with a hunger strike and an open letter published in The Guardian; she and Alyokhina later founded both Zona Prava, a prisoners’ rights NGO, and MediaZona, an alternative news outlet that has become a vital voice in Russian independent media. The arrest record, as presented in the piece, is entirely readable. It reminds us how deeply the personal and political are entwined.

Virgin Mary, Please Become a Feminist” by Nadya Tolokonnikova

Tolokonnikova’s drawings are colorful, reminiscent of elementary school art classes, but also of DIY punk zines. The art forms a border around the arrest record, vulvas paired with the text eat me, police cruisers set aflame, scrawlings of 1312, and flags, rainbow pride flags and Russian flags, sit nestled among candy hearts that read feminist, flowers, ice cream, the church of Pussy Riot. At the center lies the Virgin Mary, rendered as a vulva, with Virgin Mary, Please Become a Feminist, underneath, seeping through the paper in bright red. What may appear as a contradiction between style and content instead serves to contextualize the work; from the beginning Pussy Riot has embraced color and brightness and images evoking child-like emotions and wonder. 

“Depression,” Tolokonnikova explained, “is defined by a lot of people as learned helplessness, and I feel like there is such a thing as political depression…that’s what we have right now in Russia. We have learned helplessness, we don’t believe we have the power, but we actually do. I feel like we have all the power in the world and Putin will not be able to do anything with us because we are many. He’s just one.” 

The curiosity and optimism unique to children, the openness to possibilities and the compulsion to explore, are necessary for anyone interested in political and social change to cultivate—this is how people can remain hopeful, can keep imagining, can work towards making what seems intangible real.

In July of this year, shortly after being released from jail, members of Pussy Riot were arrested without clear reason. Masha Alyokhina was among them, as well as Sasha Sofiev, Ann Kuzminikh, Veronika Nikulshina, and Rita Flores, who contracted COVID while detained. Earlier this year, the incarceration of opposition leader Alexei Navalny (after a politically motivated poisoning nearly killed him), incited mass protests across Russia; in September, the country will hold parliamentary elections. 

A great deal has happened since Pussy Riot stood at the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and implored the Virgin Mary to become a feminist, to liberate the people, to get rid of Putin. Comrades have been hurt, killed, and locked away, people separated from their families and friends and lovers, all because Putin doesn’t want them to speak. But that is why Pussy Riot exists. That is why people need them.

Author profile
Oliver Scialdone

Oliver Scialdone is a queer writer and artist based in Brooklyn, NY. They earned a dual-MFA from The New School, and their work can be found in Peach Mag, ImageOut Write, and elsewhere. They host the reading series Satellite Lit.

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