Pussy Riot use their Riot Fest set to demand justice for a fallen comrade—and for all the oppressed | Bleader

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Pussy Riot use their Riot Fest set to demand justice for a fallen comrade—and for all the oppressed

Posted By on 09.15.18 at 12:06 PM

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click to enlarge Nadya Tolokonnikova and Pussy Riot - DANNY O'DONNELL
  • Danny O'Donnell
  • Nadya Tolokonnikova and Pussy Riot

Nadya "Tolokno" Tolokonnikova and the rest of the 14-member Pussy Riot posse marched onstage Friday at Riot Fest wearing frilly white blouses, athletic pants, and DayGlo green balaclavas, holding up a huge sign demanding justice for a fallen comrade: "We will punish those who poisoned Peter Verzilov." Aside from the group's DJ, only Tolokonnikova wasn't wearing the signature Pussy Riot mask—hers sat on top of her head. As such you could call Tolokonnikova the face of the group, but its members clearly included different races, genders, body types, and levels of ability (one woman had come out in a wheelchair).

click to enlarge Pussy Riot member Peter (Pyotr) Verzilov was hospitalized in Moscow on September 11 after a suspected poisoning. - DANNY O'DONNELL
  • Danny O'Donnell
  • Pussy Riot member Peter (Pyotr) Verzilov was hospitalized in Moscow on September 11 after a suspected poisoning.

Formed in Moscow in 2011, Pussy Riot gained international attention in 2012 when they staged a guerrilla performance in a Moscow cathedral to protest the Orthodox Church's support of Vladimir Putin. Three members were arrested for the show, including Tolokonnikova, prompting widespread use of the hashtag #FreePussyRiot, which you may remember seeing floating around Twitter. Since then Pussy Riot has endured several internal fractures over tactics, but its mix of conceptual art, music, and activism continues to serve as a voice for people around the world who are fed up with patriarchal oppression and other injustices.

click to enlarge An anonymous member of Pussy Riot - DANNY O'DONNELL
  • Danny O'Donnell
  • An anonymous member of Pussy Riot

Days before Pussy Riot's performance at Riot Fest, longtime member Peter Verzilov (often spelled "Pyotr") was hospitalized, having lost his sight, his speech, and his ability to move in less than a day—his friends suspected he'd been poisoned by the Russian government in retaliation for Pussy Riot's World Cup protest against police brutality in July, in which four members (including Verzilov) ran onto the field during the final match wearing police uniforms. As news of the likely poisoning spread, fans wondered if Pussy Riot would cancel their Riot Fest performance out of respect for Verzilov. (He and Tolokonnikova also have a daughter together.) Instead the group took their set as an opportunity to educate Americans about what it's like to be an activist in Russia—and to show the world that they won't be silenced so easily.

click to enlarge Nadya Tolokonnikova - DANNY O'DONNELL
  • Danny O'Donnell
  • Nadya Tolokonnikova

The group continued to hold up the sign behind Tolokonnikova while she spat the lyrics to "Bad Apples," a song about corrupt and killer cops. Eventually her mask came off completely, and the majority of the group left the stage—Tolokonnikova performed the bulk of the set with two anonymous backup dancers. Throughout the show, the other members came and went, sometimes leaving Tolokonnikova all alone on stage. But even when she was rapping in Russian by herself to a slightly confused crowd, her intensity penetrated language barriers. Her raw vocals, paired with the group's wild dancing and drum- and bass-heavy songs, evoked the energy of rebellion even as the content of her lyrics conveyed the fear and trauma of oppression.

click to enlarge Nadya Tolokonnikova - DANNY O'DONNELL
  • Danny O'Donnell
  • Nadya Tolokonnikova

Pussy Riot's social and political commentary targeted the United States as well as Russia—they performed "Track About a Good Cop," which is about their World Cup protest, and "Make America Great Again." During an intermission, a computerized voice recited 25 facts about wealth inequality.

click to enlarge Not a bad crowd for 3 PM on a weekday - DANNY O'DONNELL
  • Danny O'Donnell
  • Not a bad crowd for 3 PM on a weekday

Tolokonnikova closed the set with a speech about Verzilov's possible poisoning: "Russian doctors refuse to share with us any papers on Peter's health," she said. "Guess why? Because they're tied with Russian government. We have all the reasons to suspect that he was poisoned by Russian authorities." Soon the entire crowd was hanging on her every word. "Capitalism tells us to 'think big,' but capitalism does not really encourage us to think big. Capitalism teaches us to think small," she continued. The crowd cheered her on. "We demand justice, and we will do everything we can to find those people who are in charge of poisoning Peter, and be sure that they will be punished for what they did."

Correction: This post has been updated to make it clearer that "Tolokno" is a nickname for "Tolokonnikova."

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