Read & Riot: A Pussy Riot Guide To Activism by Nadya Tolokonnikova, being published by Harper Collins in October 2018, is an instruction manual and an autobiography from one of the co-founders of the punk/art activist collective Pussy Riot.
Pussy Riot first came to international attention in 2012 when they performed their song “A Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away” in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Tolkonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were sentenced to two years in prison camps for the crime of “Blasphemous Hooliganism” (A third member charged had her sentence commuted as she was pregnant at the time). By arresting and sentencing them the Russian government couldn’t have done a better job of promoting the group if they’d been hired if they tried.
In fact, by making an example of Pussy Riot’s members, Russian President Vladimir Putin not only increased their visibility he gave them the status and legitimacy to criticize his regime on an international stage. While some might be critical of Tolkoniikova and Alyokhina’s “celebrity activism”, they and other members of the Pussy Riot collective, haven’t stopped putting themselves in the line of fire to protest the dictatorial rule of Putin. (As seen by the news Tolkonnikova’s ex-husband, Pussy Riot Producer, Pyotr Verzilov was poisoned by undisclosed individuals in Russia and had to be airlifted from Russia to Germany to ensure proper care and his security)
In Read and Riot Tolokonnikova hasn’t just written out a how to list of things you need to do in order to stand up to authoritarian bullies, but also provides a philosophy to underpin your actions. Her philosophy, and the credo she espouses, won’t go over well with the consumer driven market loving forces who so dominate our world today, for they show a way forward that isn’t driven by greed or self interest.
The book’s chapter headings should give you a clue as to the direction Tolokonnikova is going to take. They are a list of rules for activists: “Rule # 1: Be A Pirate”, “Rule #2: DIY (Do It Yourself)” and so on. My personal favourite is “Rule #5: Make Your Government Shit Its Pants”.
Her subheading for this chapter sums up what she sees as the role of the activist:
Those who have power need to live in fear. In fear of the people. Meet the main characters of this chapter: power, courage, laughter, joy, belief, and risk. The main characters may well also be inspiration, fairness, struggle , heretics, witches, dignity, faith, masks, and mischief.
While the playfulness of these words, and overall joyful and exhilarated tone of the whole book, might strike some people as not the proper approach to take when considering resistance to corrupt and terrifying regimes, it is actually quite refreshing. The great American Emma Goldman may never have actually said “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution”, but she certainly understood the power of a joyful spirit in the face of oppression and the need to appreciate beauty and expression.
Tolokonnikova brings the same spirit to her writing. Even when she’s talking about the time she spent in one the notorious Moldavian prison camps where women are forced to work 16 hour sewing police uniforms and are punished for not meeting impossible quotas, she talks about how she learned to find pleasure where she could.
Whether it was the beam of sunlight that came in the window in a cell once a day or something equally small, it could make a difference. However, she doesn’t make light of the conditions or trivialize the horrors women and men experience on a daily basis in prison anywhere. In fact she’s very careful to point out that due to the support of people around the world, and Russia, she eventually began to receive preferential treatment, some of which helped her fellow prisoners – albeit temporarily.
Tolokonnikova has done a remarkable job of not only detailing her own history of activism, but also of reminding us of the history of activism dating back to our earliest recorded history. In each section of the book she lists her heroes, people who have provided inspiration for her own life.
Well some of them are ones you’d expect, Martin Luther King Jr., others like Diogenes (the ancient Greek with the lamp searching for an honest man) or Socrates (the Athenian philosopher put to death for asking too many questions) might surprise you.
What’s remarkable about Read and Riot is not just that it describes active resistance to what is essentially tyranny, but the fact that in spite of everything (aside from being jailed Tolokonnikova has been whipped by police and had toxic paint thrown in her eyes during anti-Putin demonstrations at the Sochi Olympics) PussyRiot remains as dedicated to fighting injustice anywhere they find it as they did six years ago.
Read and Riot is not just a handbook for those wishing to take on injustice, its a guide for how to look at the world in a new way. Sure it could inspire you to take action of some sort in your own community, but it will also show you how hope and creativity are still the best weapons at your disposal. This is a wonderful and intelligent book full of joyful ideas about the possibilities for a better world.