People with only a passing understanding of Russia are familiar with Pussy Riot, the feminist punk performance collective that has become a global phenomenon. Three of its members were convicted in August of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after performing a “punk prayer” in a Russian Orthodox cathedral. (Their two-year sentence will be appealed in Moscow city court on October 1st.) The Orthodox Church is a patriarchy (its current Patriarch is strongly allied with Putin) but Pussy Riot’s song was a direct address to Mary, “the mother of God.” “Be a feminist to us/be a feminist to us/be a feminist,” they sang. In the cathedral, said a witness at Pussy Riot’s trial, “feminist” is an offensive word.
When I lived in Russia, I found “feminist” to be an offensive word everywhere. I first visited Moscow in the spring of 1993 with my mother, who worked for The World Bank. In 1996 she moved there and a year later, when I finished college, I followed. I planned to stay for just a month or two because I wanted to learn Russian. I ended up staying for two years. During my first few months, I studied with a Russian tutor during the day and taught English classes at night at a school started by a man whose family had immigrated to Brooklyn. Let’s call him Maxim. He’d grown up in Brighton Beach, but returned to Moscow in 1996 in hopes of making money. His school promised English conversation with “real American teachers” but I think I was the only American citizen on the payroll. (I received my salary in cash, in dollars.) I’d answered an ad in the Moscow Times and was hired, despite my complete lack of teaching experience, because I had an American passport.
I sat in on one class taught by another instructor who had lived in the States for just one year in the 1970s. He was coaching his bewildered students to say things like “I popped the question” with a thick Russian accent. In my own classroom, I planned lessons I hoped would be more resonant. I earnestly typed up the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and distributed copies. Then I played the song three or four times in a row, hoping that the music would inspire a discussion about how the times were, in fact, changing in Russia. Instead, my students found the vocabulary totally perplexing—particularly the verse about Congress—and I was stuck desperately pantomiming the shaking of windows and rattling of walls.
Not long after Maxim hired me, he asked me to be in a commercial for the school. He said that a “pretty American girl” would be good for business. And so I found myself standing in front of a video camera in a small studio near Chistye Prudy. I hardly knew any Russian then, but he taught me to say, “I am Elliott. I am an American girl and I am a teacher at the American Language Center.” He said it didn’t matter if my Russian was perfect. I just had to be pretty and American. “You are nice girl,” he said. I winced at being called a girl. I finished high school in 1992, during the height of the riot grrrl movement. I’d just graduated from a liberal arts college where my friends and I frequented the Women’s Center and helped take back the night. Some of my classmates had insisted that they were majors of “herstory.” I’d learned to refer to myself as a woman, even though I didn’t feel like one. But I stood there in my turtleneck sweater and tried to say my lines with a smile. The commercial was incredibly low budget (picture cable access production values), and later, I was embarrassed to learn that some of my mother’s Russian colleagues at The World Bank had seen it.
My boss may have thought being an American girl was a selling point, but I wasn’t convinced. I felt ugly in Moscow. There were so many beautiful women—so many graceful swans—that I was dumpy and awkward in comparison. Russian women my age wore short skirts and lots of make-up. They were hyper-feminine. My students wanted to know if I was a feminist (the word is the same in Russian, but I never heard it uttered—by men or women—without a disgusted, mocking tone) since I never wore skirts. It was clear they thought feminism was an American problem, like obesity. I explained that yes, I was a feminist, but that I was wearing pants because it was freezing outside. Far below freezing, actually. I wore long underwear under my jeans and felt especially bulky in all my extra layers.
I was wearing all those layers when I visited the infamous bar called The Hungry Duck. It was Ladies’ Night, so only women were allowed in before nine o’clock and we all got to drink for free. The bar’s expat management plied the women with alcohol and excited them with a strip tease (two men in silver thongs on top of the bar) then let in the men—a testosterone stampede—at nine. I’m not a big drinker, so I was a sober witness to the mayhem. Bodies writhed around me, shedding more and more clothing, revealing more and more skin. Women wanted American and European passports; western men wanted beautiful women. No one wanted anything from me; I wanted nothing to do with the whole scene. I didn’t stay long. But no one noticed me go. As an American woman, I was practically invisible.
The women in Mother Russia seemed to be doing all the work. Officially men were in charge, but everywhere I went, I met strong-willed Russian women who held down the fort while their husbands and bosses got drunk. (This was in the age of Yeltsin; Putin’s proud sobriety is one of the reasons he was elected.) Most women worked outside the home; they just did all the work in the home, too. Once a year, the women got a break. On March 8th, International Women’s Day, all the men bought flowers for their wives and female employees. The holiday’s feminist history was not acknowledged: in Russia, it was celebrated in the saccharine way that Valentine’s Day is marked here, with bouquets and chocolate. My mother received so many flowers from her colleagues that her apartment looked like a funeral home the next day. Meanwhile, my female Russian friends assured me I’d never find a husband because I was a feminist. (They’d probably be unsurprised to find out I’m still not married at thirty-eight. No one has popped the question.)
In a place where gender roles are so traditional, Pussy Riot’s brand of punk rock feminism is a foreign concept, and this is underscored by the band’s English name. In Russian, the most common slang for female genitalia is pizda. Related forms, according to the Russian slang dictionary, are the verb pizdanut (to lie, as in tell untruths; or to hit) and the noun pizdabolstvo (bullshit). Pizda is not for use in polite company—its equivalent in English starts with a C. There are plenty of other synonyms in Russian slang: peredok (slaba na peredok, or “weak pussy” is a slut); manda; bunker (its literal meaning is the same as the English word), but “pussy” and “riot” have to be transliterated into Cyrillic from the English. The name is a brilliant bit of marketing. With the juxtaposition of “pussy”—so soft, so sibilant—and the shock of “riot,” they chose a name that was ready for the world stage. A name just subversive enough to make some people uncomfortable—I have yet to hear a male journalist say it out loud on the air—but also perfectly suited to activist riot grrrl culture. (Naomi Wolf may not approve, but third- and fourth-wave feminists have claimed the word “pussy” as their own.) And even before Madonna voiced her support for the band during her recent concert in Moscow, it was not hard to imagine her taking pleasure in saying the words, “pussy riot.”
The members of Pussy Riot are not mere provocateurs (one need only read the three defendants’ closing statements to see how seriously they are engaged with critical discourse and how well they have positioned themselves as dissidents with historical precedence) and their performance was not just a stunt. But their prayer has yet to be answered in Russia, where feminism is still a distasteful concept—even to most women, and they have found many of their biggest supporters abroad.
“You are nice girl,” my old boss said to me. I heard it time and time again. “She is nice girl,” said male and female colleagues at the American advertising agency where I worked after I quit teaching. This is what was expected of women in Russia. Be nice. Be pretty. Be clean. (Another rude expression in Russian is glaz ni pizda, promorgaet. Literally it translates as “an eye isn’t a pussy, it blinks itself clean”—in other words, the damage isn’t permanent.) Don’t break any balls. Don’t lie. Don’t hit. Don’t riot. Be nice. It reminds me of Roger Sterling’s brilliant line in the most recent season of Mad Men: “They’re all nice girls until they want something.”