What Pussy Riot taught the world

The Royal Court's EV Crowe on the Russian punk band.

A "Free Pussy Riot" demonstrator. Photo: Getty

On 17 August, the day a court in Moscow handed down its verdict to three members of Pussy Riot, actors at the Royal Court Theatre in London took part in a global day of protest in solidarity with the punk activists. I had proposed the event because I felt that Pussy Riot were what I’d been searching for: a model of fearlessness in art.

When I was working with a group of 12-year-old girls last year, writing plays, they asked me questions such as: “What does antidisestablishmentarianism mean?” I tried to help them solve the problem of what to write about – to find a way to observe your own life, to place some sort of value on it and then to find a language that best expresses it. Yet most 12-year-olds don’t think that their lives are “important”. Hardly anyone does.

While I was working with the girls, perhaps Pussy Riot were somewhere, in a secret place, trying to solve the same problem – talking about their experience of the world, validating each other’s ideas, discussing the best way to express what they had found to be true.

If Pussy Riot had existed then, I would have played my group a clip of the band’s punk prayer that the Virgin Mary would “chase out” Vladimir Putin. I would have said: “Look at these women, how they have decided they have something to say and are determinedly expressing it.” Then we would have digressed into a discussion about knitwear colours, felt girly and stupid, until we were able to imagine that perhaps Pussy Riot had also had this very conversation, about a love of bright colours, which in their hands became a concept, a visual language. We could have talked about the visual language of our plays and that would have made sense. I would have said I think they’re very brave, hoping this would imbue creative bravery in the group, or fewer toilet breaks.

I am, in a way, still a 12-year-old in search of a balaclava-wearing superhero who is able to remove invisible barriers. Reading Pussy Riot’s words, watching their performances and looking at their list of people who influence them – Judith Butler, Bikini Kill, Emmeline Pankhurst and Simone de Beauvoir, to name a few – I felt emboldened that the observations a 12-year-old girl, a woman or a female artist might make about the world and her life could be right and could have an audience.

Theirs is a language that says: “What I see and experience matters and nothing, not even imprisonment, will stop me from saying it.” Pussy Riot have proved that this is possible and that it is feared by some. Indeed, it has cost them their freedom.

Say it loud

“Antidisestablishmentarianism” (which means the movement that opposes the separation of church and state) is not an easy word to say but the 12-year-old girls said it just like that, unafraid of  seeming a bit smarty-pants. A political language about our own lives is within everyone’s grasp and now the band has made it look not only possible but irrepressibly transformative. Pussy Riot!

E V Crowe’s play “Hero” will open at the Royal Court Theatre, London SW1, on 23 November.