A demonstrator against Pussy Riot's prison sentence in London, 2012. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on Pussy Riot: "People fear us because we're feminists"

A meeting the Russian punk-protest group.

Pussy Riot aren't just on tour. They're on the run. 

When we meet in a secret location in central London, they make it clear that this interview is on condition of anonymity. The Russian punk-feminist protest group, two of whose members are currently travelling the world, talking to activists and journalists and raising support for their band-mates in prison, are wanted by their government, who have branded them extremists for their stand against religious patriarchy and the Putin regime. It will be illegal to read or share this article in Russia.  

“There’s a media war in our country,” says the one who, today, is calling herself 'Serafima', whispering painfully through a sore throat. Since three members of the group, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, were tried and sent to labour camps last year, Pussy Riot has been attacked in almost every press outlet in Russia. The international outcry on their behalf goes unmarked. “Katya did not realise there was so much support until she was released. When we were in Russia, we didn’t fully understand, but now we see there truly is huge support,” says Serafima. She asks for a translation of a German proverb she knows: “Nobody is a prophet in their own country.”

Because of the very real danger that these young women will be arrested when they go back to Russia, every journalist who speaks to them must promise to reveal no identifying details. We swear to conceal not only their names, but their ages, where precisely they’ve travelled, and any physical description whatsoever. I can tell you that two members of the Pussy Riot are moving from country to country, talking to activists and journalists and raising support for their fellow band-members in prison. But there’s is so much I can't tell you. I can't tell you whether they wear their hair short and blonde or long and dark; I can't tell you if they’re six-foot hardass rock chicks in ripped jeans or slight, nervous schoolgirls. I can't tell you whether the girl curled in a hard red armchair in the lobby of a nondescript London office block, three off-key chords and thousands of miles from home, is a stranger or your lost little sister. What I can tell you is that she looks tired. 

They both look tired. Serafima is pale and rasping and has a nasty-sounding cough which almost prevents her from speaking. They both look ill and drawn and worn-out; somebody's nan might tell them they look a bit peaky and ought to go to bed with some hot ribena. That's not an option, though: Pussy Riot have work to do, before they move on to the next city, and there’s almost nothing any of us can do to make it easier. In the end, I offer Schumacher a multivitamin. I pop two out of the foil packet and take one myself, because if I were Pussy Riot I wouldn't accept huge orange pills from strangers, even if they do come in a jolly box promising that they can keep a narcoleptic elephant awake for a week.

These girls are young. Very young. For their safety, I can’t say how young, but imagine how young you think they might be. Are you imagining it? They’re about five years younger than that. When they arrived I wondered, for a second, who let a couple of moody work experience kids into a clandestine meeting.

I had read their interviews, seen the court transcripts of last year's show trials, gone to protests where students in home-made masks yelled out solidarity slogans in truly awful Russian, but I wasn’t prepared for this. Not for this frontless vulnerability, this sudden reminder that behind the bright balaclavas are real bodies that get tired and sick, real people who can still have everything taken away from them. 

This is how media activism works, when it’s done well. You get to see the flash and dazzle of protest, but you don't often get to see the toll exacted from individuals, the energy and courage it takes to keep going, day after day, when you're being attacked in the press and hunted by police. The younger of the two, 'Shumacher', closes her eyes in the armchair and doesn't talk to anybody, grabbing ten minutes of sleep before she has to answer more of our questions. Some Russians have a saying: “A person who smiles for no reason is a fool.” Pussy Riot are not fools.

Serafima smiles just once, when asked to describe the performance in Christ the Saviour Church in central Moscow of the song “Punk Prayer - Virgin Mary, Drive Putin Out!”, which  got three of her bandmates jailed for ‘hooliganism’. She can’t divulge whether she was personally involved in the stunt. “It was designed as a maximal expression of freedom of speech,” she says, because of the iconic location of Christ the Saviour and its close connections with the political establishment. It was the biggest “fuck you” to the Russian elite that five girls could get away with. Except that they didn’t.

Since the trials, a smorgasbord of new legislation, informally known as the Pussy Riot laws, have been put into place in Russia to clamp down on the group and anyone who might try to imitate their art-protests. You can’t cover your face in public, and the laws against ‘offending religious sensibilities’ have been tightened in a way that suggests Jesus isn’t the one who’s worried. In addition, distribution and discussion of Pussy Riot’s protests is strictly forbidden. Their websites have been attacked, people have been prosecuted for making tshirts with their image, and videos of four of their impromptu concerts have been declared extremist, meaning that it is illegal to possess them in Russia. It is also illegal for any Russian citizen to criticise the administration to a foreign journalist. That’s what Pussy Riot have been doing for the past week and a half, and it’s what they’re doing right now, sitting at the end of a bare white table in a bare white room clutching coffee mugs and daring us to ask their names. 

And then there’s the cultural backlash - including sexist attacks on what Pussy Riot stand for. "The simplest example is the idea that there’s a [male] producer behind us, or that we must be being paid by foreign governments - nobody can imagine that women themselves are expressing their opinions!" says Schumacher. 

"In the Russian mass media they're saying we're stupid girls, not able to think. Among the orthodox believers, in the media, they tell us to stay at home, do cooking, give birth to children," says Schumacher. "And Masha and Nadya are attacked for not fulfilling their roles as mothers." This last is particularly cruel, because not only is it the Russian state that placed Masha and Nadya in Labour camps far from their children, but both have been denied the usual clemency that allows mothers of young children to receive suspended sentences.

Both women, who have been named "prisoners of conscience" by Amnesty International, were denied early release this spring, and the group is now preparing to take the appeal to the highest court in the land after continued hunger strikes put Masha in danger of her life. 

In countries where Pussy Riot's videos are uncensored, you can watch them light flares and thrash guitars on the rooftop of a Moscow Detention Center, pounding out a song against the corrupt judicial system which would shortly be pursuing them, too. Their acid-bright tights and face masks stand out against the drab, cold winter like a chemical spill on snow, like something from the old days of ideological certainty  seeping through to contaminate the spotless surface of the New Russia. Pussy Riot are a problem. Putin’s government would like to make that problem disappear.

A journalist from the Telegraph asks if the girls consider themselves primarily activists or musicians. “Artists,” replies Shumacher, in English, cutting off the question. They are artists first, “feminist artists,” working within a long tradition of women’s political art; they cite Riot Grrl and Oi! punk as influences, but also feminist writers and activists like Alexandra Kollontai and Simone de Beauvoir. The group was formed in 2011 as an offshoot of the performance art collective Voina, and it is clear that Pussy Riot are not just a punk band. 

Instead, they are the idea of a punk band. They don’t release albums or go on performance tours; they have no interest in being entertainers. They are the idea of a girl with a guitar screaming in a church, and in today’s Russia that idea is frightening enough to initiate the kind of cultural clampdown that gives the lie to the illusion of a state at peace with itself. That was the point. “It is not three singers from Pussy Riot who are on trial,” said Nadya Tolokonnikova in her closing statement to the court. “If that were the case, what’s happening would be totally insignificant. It is the entire state system of the Russian Federation which is on trial.”

“There are two reasons why we frighten people,” says Schumacher, popping a chocolate biscuit into her mouth. “The first thing is that we’re a feminist, female group with no men connected to it, and the second is that we don’t have leaders.

“These two aspects, the structure that has no leaders and the emphasis on women, these are strongly connected. Russia has always linked the idea of leadership with some man or other, who can control things, and control women. A woman’s group with no leaders… this activism comes from a place people do not recognise, and sets itself up against the structures of power.”

The insistence on anonymity isn't just to protect individual group members from  persecution. Even before the backlash began in earnest, Pussy Riot only ever gave interviews using nicknames, pursuing an image of memetic militancy: without names or leaders, anyone could be Pussy Riot.  The trials of Nadya, Katya and Masha forcibly removed some that anonymity, but they have spoken out from jail declaring their willingness to see others continue the work.

Allergy to leadership and hierarchy has been a defining feature of the new youth protest movements that erupted around the world in 2010 and 2011. It's not just Pussy Riot with their bright balaclavas. It's the Arab Spring and Occupy with their horizontal, networked organisation systems. It’s the black bloc face-rag, the grinning Guy Fawkes masks on the front lines of riots and in occupied squares in Cairo, Tunis, Athens, London and, this week, in Istanbul and Sao Paulo. Nor is it only Russian protesters who now risk arrest if they cover their faces - new laws in Britain and the United States mean that if you go to a protest in a you could well face what Schumacher delicately describes as “intimate problems with the authorities.”  The iconography of Pussy Riot is infectious and easy to appropriate because it works in the way that resistance works in a post-ideological age where art moves faster than organisation and repressive regimes can be shaken by irreverent protest memes, bright colours and bravery.

And, of course, it’s a girl thing. Every sexist society, including this one, fosters an image of women as basically interchangeable. Underneath the makeup, girls are all the same, aren’t we, with the same petty problems and weak, willing bodies. Pussy Riot take the image of modern womanhood as a faceless smile, repeated endlessly, and turn it back on us as a scream. 

“The idea of women liberating themselves, speaking out and acting out against Putin and other forms of power is something that appears strange,” she explains, “It’s an attempt to transform the role of women, who are seen from the conservative viewpoint as people who have to behave, have to be subservient, have to be as soft as possible, as giving as possible.” It upsets people. The name upsets people. Broadcasters have trouble pronouncing it; parents purse their lips. And that’s the point, too. “People ask us all the time, which is more important, politics or feminism, and for us politics and feminism are one and the same thing.” 

So. Here's how you make a balaclava out of old stockings. Cut a length off a really thick pair, preferably in day-glo pink or blue or green, and pull it over your head to work out where the eye and mouth sockets go. Snip little holes with a pair of kitchen scissors;  pull them apart with your fingers. Bear in mind that if you go outside like this, you may be breaking the law in several countries, including this one. Put on your homemade neon balaclava. Now go and start an oppositional art revolution. 

It’s what Pussy Riot want you to do. Really. Right now, it’s extremely difficult for the six group members who are still free to organise protests: they want their punk-feminist, anti-authoritarian message to spread around the world, and they want people to interpret it in their own way. “We’re open-source,” says Serafima. Throughout the entire interview, it’s the only thing she says in English.

“In travelling, we have understood that this isn’t just about Pussy Riot, but about a broader movement – this is very important, this is a wonderful discovery,” says Schumacher. “We met people from Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy in New York, and we agree with what they’re doing. It turns out that at we inspired people, and now we are inspired ourselves. This is really key, because any living person can become Pussy Riot, if they support the ideas. We support third wave feminism, and we want to bring that wave to a finish,”.

“It’s like when Marcel Duchamp posed the question of ‘what is art?’” says Serafima softly- her throat still hurts, and she’s trying to talk through it, even though speaking is so difficult. Speaking is always difficult. “I reckon that we asked a similar question – it just takes time for everybody to understand.” Duchamp didn’t have much time for women, but he did say that “art is either plagiarism or revolution.” Pussy Riot are originals. Their manifesto is a call to action - "we are open-source-extremists, the feminist virus infecting your thoughts." In a time of bland hegemony, that takes unbelievable guts.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Aid in whose interest?

The government appears to be raiding the aid budget to subsidise big business and the security state.

In March 1988, Scottish aristocrat and Defence Minister to Margaret Thatcher, George Younger visited was part of a controversial offer of £200m of the UK aid budget in exchange for Malaysia signing a £1bn arms deal.

The government promised public money to subsidise UK construction giant Balfour Beatty to build a hydroelectric dam named Pergau in Malaysia’s mountainous north east.

Malaysia’s national utility, the World Bank and auditors at the Overseas Development Administration, the UK aid ministry, questioned the human development value of the project for the middle-income country, finding its costs to be “markedly uneconomic" compared to other options then available.

But these warnings were summarily dismissed.

Thatcher, who I believe saw aid not as a vehicle for eradicating poverty but as a means to advance Britain's commercial and geostrategic interests, wanted the arms deal.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad wanted an infrastructure project in Kelantan state, which was held by a rival party, which he wanted to wrest votes from.

But the National Audit Office soon got wind of the deal and parliamentary committees started to ask awkward questions of those involved.

The press published dozens of articles and the Pergau scandal was born.

Newspapers soon unearthed other white elephant development  projects resulting from the tying of aid to private British interests that did little for reducing poverty but were a boon for the contractors involved.

The Permanent Secretary to the ODA (Overseas Development Administration, now Dfid – the Department for International Development), Tim Lankester, said that Pergau was “unequivocally a bad buy”, “an abuse of the aid system” and “not a sound development project”.

The World Development Movement (renamed Global Justice Now) won a judicial review in 1994 against the government in the High Court which ruled the payment of aid “for unsound development purposes” illegal.

The Tories reacted, not by untying aid from UK vested interests, but by slashing the aid budget as punishment for the bad press – it seems that Thatcher saw little use for aid that could not be used to subsidise private interests.

Labour came to power in 1997 with an agenda to reform how Britain did development. It established a better-funded and politically-stronger aid department, the Department for International Development (DFID), with a seat in cabinet.

It scrapped the Aid and Trade Provision, the official mechanism by which aid was used to subsidise British company contracts, and in 2001 untied aid from UK commercial interests. The International Development Act of 2002 for the first time legally committed the UK to spending aid only on poverty reduction.

But since the Conservatives won a clear majority in last year’s general election, the government has been wilfully unlearning the lessons of Pergau.

Out of the hobbling coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne have unpicked Labour’s reforms by effectively retying aid to the interests of the private sector and its perceived security interests.

They appear to have deprioritised poverty reduction as the principal purpose of the aid budget. “There is a real risk of the budget being recaptured by commercial interests as it was in the 1980s,” Sir Tim Lankester told me recently. “[International Development Secretary] Justine Greening has been making sure British commercial interests get more and more of the cake.

“What’s remarkable these days is the huge contracts going to the big consultancies to advise government and manage projects – The Adam Smith Internationals. The Crown Agents and others.”

November’s aid strategy “tackling global challenges in the national interest”, written largely by the Treasury rather than by Dfid, announced that aid would be a tool to “strengthen UK trade and investment opportunities around the world”.

The retying of aid spend is sold in the strategy in the same way the Conservatives sell austerity and privatisation at home.

Using the language of “prosperity” and “economic opportunity” (“inequality” was not mentioned once in the 22-page document), the government spins the dubious argument that communities in the world’s poorest nations share the interests of both UK business and the UK security state.

This “what’s good for us is good for you” aid strategy’s promotion of the UK interest over those of the poor grossly undermines the government’s legal duty under the International Development Act.

The aid strategy leaves it to the concurrently published National Security Strategy to enumerate what these imaginative interests are: to “protect our people”, to “project our global influence” and to “promote our prosperity”.

To achieve these ends, the government has allotted half of the aid budget to conflict-hit states, which are expected to be the states Britain has helped destabilise in recent years: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya Syria and Yemen.

The government also successfully lobbied the OECD to widen the official definition of “Official Development Assistance” (aid) to include military spend on counter-terrorism and expand the use of aid subsidies for private – and inevitably British – projects in the developing world.

Over the course of this Parliament, the Tories will triple to around £5bn the amount of aid to be spent outside of Dfid. The main beneficiaries of this diversion of aid are the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the foreign office (FCO) and the business department (BIS). These departments are considerably less transparent than Dfid and, according to the National Audit office, spend most of their aid on middle income countries, rather than low-income countries.

This slide towards using aid to subsidise British business and as a slush fund top up its military and security budgets means that development projects devoted to public health, education and countering the agricultural and ecological destruction wrought by climate change, will suffer.

***

Take the growing spend by Dfid on private consultants and accountancy firms.

Under the Tory austerity programme Dfid’s staff has been slashed, which means there is less public capacity to allocate, monitor aid projects.

To compensate for this under capacity the government has farmed out the aid budget in bigger and bigger parcels to private contractors and accountancy firms to do the work for a profit.

Dfid spends some £1.4bn directly through private contractors and several times more than that through its payments to multilateral development banks that recycle British aid back through the private sector.

In 2014, Dfid said 90 per cent of its contracts are awarded to British companies, strange for a department that claims to have untied aid. Almost no contracts are signed directly with NGOs or contractors in the Global South.

In 2014 alone, it spent £90m through a single private consultancy, Adam Smith International (ASI), which that year declared £14m in profits, a profit that doubled in two years on the back of Dfid and British taxpayers.

ASI, which was spun off from the neoliberal think tank Adam Smith Institute, is in the business of privatising public works in the Global South from Nigeria to Afghanistan and deregulating the Nigerian economy under its “Business Environment” stream of Dfid’s £180m Growth and Empowerment in States scheme.

In 2014, Dfid spent £42.9m on the services of one accountancy firm alone (PwC), in spite of its part in the LuxLeaks tax avoidance scandal. It is this tacitly sanctioned flight of wealth that costs poor nations (non-OECD) three times more each year in tax avoidance to tax havens than they receive in aid from rich nations (OECD) according to the OECD itself.

Contrary to the public perception, aid is for the most part not “given” to poor countries. At present, only 0.2 per cent of the world’s humanitarian aid goes directly to local and national non-government agencies and civil society organisations. This is despite a consensus that these groups are the most effective engines for development.

The increasing use of private contractors and large bilateral financial institutions to get aid out of the door constitutes nothing less than a capture of the aid budget by corporate interests, which also advise the government on where to direct future aid flows.

Under this government, aid has become less a tool for development but a rent for a veritable industry that concentrates the knowledge, skills and finance in the companies and institutions of rich nations.

***

Take the amount of British aid that subsidises the fossil fuel industry and therefore promotes global warming, which affects the poor considerably more than the rich because they lack the resources to adapt.

The effects of climate change are already biting. The rising frequency of drought on the world’s semi-arid regions of the world, including the Middle East constitutes, to borrow a term from Professor Rob Nixon, a “slow violence” enacted by industrialised nations on the poor.

Our refusal to take commensurate action on climate change means that water stress is rising across the world, which impairs development and has even been linked to conflict in Nigeria and Syria.

In April, I visited Somaliland, which is experiencing the worst drought in living memory along with the rest of east and southern Africa. Agriculture has collapsed, the animals are dying and migration is rising fast.

Many of these climate refugees are washing up on the shores of Italy and Greece. Survivors in are being sent back to Turkey because there is no international protection available to a subsistence farmer without water or a parent who cannot afford to feed their children.

In 2009, the UK pledged at the G20 to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies but instead it has been using public funds to increase them, according to the Overseas Development Institute.

Using aid money to give the fossil fuel industry a leg up and imperil us all to the onslaught of global warming entrenches inequality and hampers sustainable development.

***

Last year the EU signed a €1.8bn aid package with the governments of 20 African nations, including Eritrea, a totalitarian state financed by slave labour, to keep Eritreans in their country and to accept planes filled with their citizens who are denied asylum in Europe.

Clearly, this aid money is being spent principally the interests of the donors and not the world’s poor.

But aside from using aid to forcibly return people at risk of human rights abuses, this aid holds development back in other ways. Migration is the biggest driver of development because economic migrants from poor countries who work in rich countries back remittances that amount to three times the international aid spend.

“Migrants are the original agents of development,” William Lacy Swing, director of the International Organization for Migration, told the World Humanitarian Summit in May.

In effect we are spending public money legally allocated for reducing poverty on keeping the world’s poor mired in it.

***

Take the UK’s “preventing violent extremism” agenda – borrowed, of course, from the Americans – under whose banner projects can be now funded with UK aid.

Britain’s successful lobbying of the OECD – in opposition to other large donor states, including Sweden – to include some counter-terrorism military spend in the definition of aid is of deep concern.

The OECD already allowed for the provision of aid to prevent conflict and promote peace but this new extremist lens, as opposed to the purely conflict lens, allows the aid spend to become politicised.

After all, governments across the world call their political enemies “extremists” or “terrorists”, but the term is rarely ascribed to governments themselves, even when they brutalise their populations.

The government seems ready to exploit to this change, having set up its new £1bn aid-funded Conflict Stability and Security Fund (rising to £1.3bn in 2020), of which 90p of every pound is spent by the FCO and the MoD.

The stage has been set for Britain’s security state to raid the aid budget to pursue the ill-conceived and expensive military strategy du jour.

The government’s agenda to spend aid in conflict-hit and fragile states on counter-terrorism projects has a bad precedent. The US development agency USAID spent billions in post-2001 Afghanistan, which was embezzled or spirited out of the country.

Even worse, the aid was destabilising. “Instead of rescuing the [political] transition process, aid contributed to its failings,” said the NGO Saferworld in a report this year on the lessons learned from the American state-building strategy in Afghanistan. “Large aid volumes overwhelmed local absorptive capacity and sustained a rentier state . . . The influx of aid funds and the competition over the illegal economy strengthened predatory and opportunistic elites that the US and its allies tried to reform.”

The British government risks falling into the American trap of using counter-terrorism aid to remake conflict-hit fragile states into democracies.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), the government’s own aid watchdog, has criticized the government’s failure to learn lessons from the past, adding that its security initiatives are “naïve” and perform “poorly” in terms of both effectiveness and value for money.

***

In another dangerous case of aid not being used in the interests of development, the Tories are using it to establish private healthcare and education across the Global South.

Publically provided, free and universal health and education of the type we enjoy in Britain should be pursued across the Global South because it reduces inequality and strengthens democratic accountability.

Private provision of these services in the words of turns these basic needs into commodities whose price variable and unaffordable to poor and marginalised sections of society.

In Britain we should be internationalising the principle of free-at-the-point-of-use health and education, a privilege hard fought for by a generation of Labour politicians interested in social justice and the condition of the poor.

Instead, Dfid’s Education Position Paper calls for “developing new partnerships across the public-private spectrum” and commits Dfid to promoting low-cost private schools “in at least four countries”.

Its flagship education programme of the Department of International Development, in partnership with Coca Cola and PwC, is the £355m Girl’s Education Challenge, which rolls out private education across 18 countries, including 15 African nations.

In signing up to last year’s Sustainable Development Goals last year, Britain committed to “achieve universal health coverage”, which is directly undermined by a development agenda which favours fees.

***

The privatisation of our aid budget alongside its entrapment by enormous multilateral financial institutions is symptomatic of the wider erosion neoliberalism is enacting on the British – and global – economy.

In 2016, aid should be about empowering the losers of neoliberalism across the Global South to cut poverty and reduce inequality. This means placing more emphasis on working directly with the poor, colonised and, more-often, the women of the Global South.

Aid should not be spent on the five and often six figure salaries of the global financial elite, nor should it be tied to Britain’s commercial interests to provide public subsidy for private interests. If we wish to subsidise our private sector, that’s fine, but should do it using export credit and not disguise it as aid.

I can already hear the outcry from development experts that spending money at the grassroots is harder to track and the shrill headlines that taxpayers’ money is being wasted on bee-keepers in Kyrgyzstan or on a Somali radio drama that gave tips to illegal immigrants (all real headlines from the Murdoch press).

But I would accept more “waste” by employing more Dfid civil servants to monitor a greater number of smaller grassroots aid projects on a trial-and-error basis than I would accept the other now ubiquitous form of waste that we do not call waste: the subsidising poverty barons, who enrich themselves off the aid ‘industry’.

This is not a particularly radical agenda. Aid under Labour’s Clare Short, Dfid’s first head, targeted the grassroots and there is a growing consensus among the establishment that we must return to this model to make development more effective and give poor people ownership over projects rather than imposing them from above.

More power and capital needs to go into the hands of grassroots groups.

We must recall the lessons of Pergau and redesign our aid system so that it is not captured by industry or distant elites for their own profitability but a means by which the poor can bring about transformative social change for themselves. 

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow secretary of state for international development.