Has Pussy Riot Broken Up?

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Feb. 6 2014 10:45 AM

Who’s Still in Pussy Riot, Anyway?

467074863-maria-alyokhina-and-nadezhda-tolokonnikova-of-pussy
Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova speak onstage at the Amnesty International Concert at Barclays Center on Feb. 5, 2014.

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for CBGB

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, the two members of the Russian dissident punk collective Pussy Riot who were recently freed from prison, are in the United States on a publicity tour. They appeared at a concert sponsored by Amnesty International at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center featuring Madonna, the Flaming Lips, and Lauryn Hill. On Tuesday, they more than held their own in a snark-off with Stephen Colbert. But as the Guardian reports, the high-profile visit has irritated their still-undercover compatriots back in Russia:

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Selling concert tickets "is highly contradictory to the principles of Pussy Riot," said the letter, which was signed with six nicknames.
"We're a female separatist collective," it said. "We never accept money for our performances" and "we only stage illegal performances in unexpected public places".… They have said in every interview that they have quit the group and no longer represent Pussy Riot," said the letter. "But all of their appearances are announced as appearances by Pussy Riot."
"They are no longer Pussy Riot," said the appeal signed by Cat, Garadzha, Fara, Shayba, Serafima and Shumakher.
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I had the chance to interview Fara and Shayba when they were in the United States last summer on a much more low-profile visit. (They never gave their real names and would only be photographed wearing their signature balaclavas.) The tensions between the group’s embrace by Western show business figures like Madonna and their anti-establishment ideas were definitely on display in the interview.

As Fara put it, "Statements by popular musicians were a great support and we valued them a lot because it attracts a bigger audience. We are against commerce, not against those people. … We are against corporations using us as a brand or trademark. We're not selling anything."

As journalist Vadim Nikitin wrote in the New York Times in 2012, celebrities and NGOs who have embraced the band as plucky young feminist Putin-opponents with a memorable name probably wouldn’t sign on to their full agenda of “incendiary anarchism, extreme sexual provocations, deliberate obscenity and hard-left politics.”

I don’t really see a problem with that from the point of view of their foreign supporters. You don’t have to support everything the group stands for in order to support their right to believe it, or at the very least believe they were treated cruelly by the authorities for a very minor crime, any more than you have to like Ai Weiwei’s art to support his political activities. But as Pussy Riot’s profile grew, it seemed bound to create tensions within the group.

Technically speaking, it’s hard to see how anyone can “quit” Pussy Riot, since its membership was never really firmly defined in the first place. Beginning as a side project of the radical art collective Voina, the number of members of the group varied depending on the performance.

But between the new unmasked role of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina and rumored tensions between the group and Yekaterina Samutsevich, who was arrested with the others after her church performance but had her sentence suspended after hiring her own attorney—they all deny any resentment, though Samutsevich is not part of the U.S. tour—it seems safe to say that at the very least the group is entering a new phase after the release of its two most high-profile members. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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