Goodbye, Pussy Riot: meet the trailblazing women pioneering Russia’s post-punk underground

A woman’s work is never done, especially when it means revolution and rebellion. The Calvert Journal talked music, intimacy, and sisterhood with the female artists leading the new alternative scene in Russia today.

23 October 2019

It’s been a long seven years since Russia’s Pussy Riot tore into global consciousness with their raucous punk rock prayer, Mother of God, Drive Putin Away.

But with a new generation taking up the mantle of rage, mosh pits, and rebellion, more fearless female musicians are rushing the frontiers of the country’s underground scene, creating new genres, pushing the political, and fusing new forms of expression.

The scene sets down roots at the likes of Moscow’s Uspex club and St Petersburg’s Fish Fabrique Nouvelle: underground music havens that give alternative acts regular stage time, alongside talks, discussions, and festivals on feminism. Now, musicians are touring independent bars and venues across Russia — everywhere from Nizhny Novgorod to Tula to Vladivostok, and beyond.

But even as their influence grows, many musicians are stepping away from the “punk rock” label. Instead, they’re using the same restless disregard and the swelling support of Russian feminism to break barriers, express themselves, and take a stand across new genres— with the same causes.

Krasniye Zori (Red Dawn)

Helga Zinziver and Anya Tereshkina found each other by chance. Tereshkina had been invited to take part in a musical project, but when one band member didn’t show up, Zinziver was asked to step in. The pair immediately found common ground; the rest became history.

Known as Krasniye Zori, or “Red Dawn” in English, the pair delivers a unique blend of electronica, overlaid with lyrics that Tereshkina describes as “psychotherapy sessions”. The words aren’t just designed to draw the listener into the band’s own complex sound: for both women, it’s the sheer excitement of creating music and sharing a message that counts. “So far, there have been some amazing moments, it’s hard to pick just one,” Tereshkina says. “It seems to us, the coolest experiences are yet to come.”

The duo has reason to be optimistic. Both believe that the outdated stereotype of men as musicians and women as fans are gradually diminishing in Russia: something that gives the band a boost on stage. Changing ideals means there’s more of an appetite for their music. “[Today], feminist ideas are widely and freely distributed through the internet. Musical instruments and programmes are also more widely available, and you’ll even see women’s music festivals,” Tereshkina says.

Despite this shift, the two women still often feel like outsiders in the music scene — something they have tried to turn to their advantage. “[Being an outsider] can give you a certain freedom, because you don’t [feel the need to] try to gain approval among these ‘real’ musicians,” she says.

Tereshkina now hopes that more women will step up and join the growing ranks of female musicians. “It’s important just to get out there, rather than waiting for your skills or knowledge to reach this kind of ‘ideal’,” she says. “That ‘ideal’ does not exist.”

Rosemary Loves a Blackberry. Image: Courtesy of the artist

Rosemary Loves a Blackberry

Experimental electronic artist Rosemary Loves a Blackberry — otherwise known as Diana Burkot — began her career in 2012 as drummer for iconic no-wave band Fanny Kaplan.

Since then, the Moscow-based artist has taken part in numerous music projects, but remains most drawn to her solo work: taking to the stage alone, vulnerable, and yet completely connected to the audience.

With live performances that often include dance and acrobatic acts, Burkot believes that her movements on stage can create a space of trust for both herself and listeners to immerse themselves in an intimate musical experience. “Sometimes, the most important thing is to create something that leaves people with the impression that they learned something, or felt something interesting for themselves,” she says. “I don’t want the audience to feel as if they’ve come to a concert in vain.

But it’s also been the rise of other women on the alternative music scene that has given Burkot the space and support to grow and experiment. “It’s thanks to the increasing momentum of the feminism movement,” she says. “Everyone is trying to communicate with each other, to support and inform each other, and to create a community.

“A sisterhood is developing in Russia. I’m happy to be a part of it and to watch how it develops.”

ОNA (She)

Feminist trio ONA had a message. Music gave them the platform. All three members — Elena Keller, Kamila Iusupova and Anna Shulik — were part of Russian feminist organisation RFO ONA. At a cafe one day in late 2017, they decided to adopt the same name, which means “she” in Russian, to create a band.

True to the punk rock core of a message being more important than musical skill, ONA was quick to realise that the genre was suited for them in more ways than one. “The first time we tried to play together it was obvious that some of us had no experience in playing instruments,” says Keller.

Since then, ONA has stepped away from branding themselves as punk rock, believing that the modern day version of the genre has become so diluted to have lost its original meaning. But that doesn’t mean they’ve scrapped their noisy, guitar-heavy sound, or haven’t had their own collection of rock-and-roll run-ins. Being female is difficult, says Keller, but it’s even tricker to be female, feminist, and part of the scene – a combination which caused the group to be kicked out of at least one club they had been slated to play.

“We went to the club and we saw our name on the poster. We were excited,” Keller recalls. But a few songs into their set, one satirical number on gender clichés irked the owner, who claimed their music “wasn’t for ladies and gentlemen”. The song, Muzhik, poked fun at Russia’s hyper-masculine stereotypes, with the title itself taken from the Russian word for a real man’s man. The owner was not amused. “The man actually was like a true ‘muzhik’: big and wearing golden rings and a chain,” Keller says. “There were no bad words or anything that would insult people in the song, but he swore he would punish the manager who had invited us in the first place.”

Brighter days came instead when ONA performed at Upsex in 2018 for the Punk Rock Feminist festival. “We did great,” Keller says. “The girls attending danced, yelled, and jumped all over the place. It was the coolest performance.”

While the band has come a long way, they have further to go yet, Keller says. How women are perceived, singing about rights and choice, how you look and who your target audience — this comes down to society, she adds. And in Russia? “Society, traditions and culture are not tolerant, equal or, for sure, feminist [enough] yet.”

Mirrored Lips

Power trio Mirrored Lips bring mayhem to the stage. With a discography dating back to 2015, the band began touring internationally in 2017 with a chaotic set of songs with titles like “Russian Cocaine” and “No Love But Kill”.

After starting life as an avant garde jazz project, the team of three redeveloped their project into what it is today: angry, urgent poetry set to music.

Originally from Nizhny Novgorod, Mirrored Lips shies away from the “punk” label. The group is adamant about one thing: they’re here to admire the world around them rather than to try and change it. But if music is their business, then they’re bringing the kind of furious energy to every live performance that would make self-declared punk acts quake.

Instead, the group lives their politics through their actions, often making a stand on Russia’s most divisive social issues. Performing at a recent concert in support of three sisters charged with the murder of their abusive father, the band condemned Russian law and its failure to protect the women.

“Self defence is self defence,” the group wrote on Facebook. “Everyone has a right to feel safe.”

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