Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova (blue mask) and Masha Alyokhina (pink mask) speaking with journalists while leaving a police station near Sochi, Russia, Feb. 18, 2014. Photo Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty.

In July an invitation came to write a song with Pussy Riot. It was from my old friend Inge, a publicist based in New York, who's been managing certain things for the Russian feminists—well, for two of them. Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, since their release from prison in December 2013, have become the faces of the once anonymous, balaclava-wearing anti-Putin art collective. They've parlayed world outrage at the government's heavy-handed response to their prankish protest art into sustained attention for their human rights work. Photo shoots, appearances, meetings with diplomats and celebrities—they're busy. And now, Inge explained, they had agreed to appear on the third season of the Netflix series "House of Cards," the political drama starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as a Machiavellian power couple. No, she wasn't kidding. The women wanted a new song for the show, a song in English. In her e-mail to me and JD Samson, my bandmate along with Kathleen Hanna in the defunct feminist electronic punk band Le Tigre, Inge asked if we would be into it.

Of course we would: If Pussy Riot wanted to infiltrate pop culture to spread their message, we'd be honored to help. The mixed results of our own experience in the music industry may have tempered our expectations a little, but we still had some faith in the radical potential of a so-called sell-out moment. And we'd never imagined that such disparate interests of ours—international feminism and binge TV—could merge in a single creative project.

In the early 2000s, Le Tigre, our band with Kathleen Hanna, attained a kind of cult success founded on the political sympathies of an underserved audience, as well as—I'd like to think—our artistic daring and good songs. But we were, for the most part, a scrappy underground venture. So it was pretty weird when, a few years after our band's quiet 2005 breakup, JD and I wound up spending a week working on songs with Christina Aguilera at her home studio, securing a Le Tigre cowriting credit on the pop star's commercially disappointing album Bionic and a major-label publishing deal for ourselves. We got a small advance and a shot at writing PG-13 songs about crushes and partying for budding pop stars, mostly teenage girls. It hasn't worked out quite as well as we hoped—at least not yet. Girls get dropped. Cool tracks languish on hard drives. Everything is a long shot. So, in contrast to the many awkward and fruitless songwriting sessions we've been good sports about, collaborating with Pussy Riot sounded fun and promising.

Emerging from the actionist collective Voina during Russia's wave of protests in 2011, Pussy Riot made international headlines by posing as a neo-riot grrrl band that staged surprise public performances of foul-mouthed punk songs, savvily documenting their antics and converting them to YouTube gold—until arrests and a political trial ended their thrilling run. Their action at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior in early 2012 (synchronized genuflections and fist-pumping to a prerecorded hardcore punk track with the refrain "Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out") was quickly aborted by security guards, ultimately resulting in the conviction of three band members on outlandish charges of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Pussy Riot member Katya Samutsevich's sentence was suspended, but Nadya and Masha served almost two years in remote penal colonies.

While it's preposterous to compare Le Tigre to prisoners of conscience—we paid only a small social price for our rebellion, and mostly, we profited from it—JD and I nevertheless felt like they were our peers in some way. After all, you could say we were a fake band, too. With programmed beats, sampled guitar parts, backing tracks and didactic video projections, Le Tigre was proudly inauthentic as a live act. We often felt we were adopting the form of the punk band for our political performance art. While Pussy Riot's original concept was high-stakes, hinging on guerrilla disruption, we held on to a utopian vision of what could happen in a crowd of like-minded people at a club.

Scrolling down the e-mail thread that Inge had forwarded, I saw the conversation between the artists and the "House of Cards" production team: If there wasn't time to write a new song from scratch to feature for a few seconds in a street protest scene, and then play as the end credits ran, perhaps they could use their old song "Putin Pissed Himself." They would just have to change "Putin" to "Petrov," the show's fictional Russian president. I watched Pussy Riot's video for the song a few times, thinking of it as the messy, rabble-rousing template for a new thing. Performed in Red Square on a 15th-century snow-covered stone platform, the Candyland spires of St. Basil's Cathedral behind them, eight women appear like an angry Jem and the Holograms. They're masked, wearing thrift-store dresses and colored tights, bare-armed in the dead of winter. There's a guitar, a bass, a purple Women's Liberation flag and smoke bombs. It's a television-ready triumph of no-budget art direction, making it easy to imagine the White House keyed in as the backdrop.

On a hot July day after we'd agreed to collaborate, I stared at my guitar leaning against the wall of my home office, while I talked to JD on the phone. First, there was the question of what the song should sound like. Were Nadya and Masha appearing as Pussy Riot on the show, or as a fictionalized version of their conceptual band? Should we keep the sound "on brand?" It should be aggressive call-and-response girl-punk, right? Or maybe our goal shouldn't be Pussy Riot realness, but rather a slicker, retouched version of "Russian feminist guerrilla punk." What did Pussy Riot want? What would "House of Cards" let us get away with?            

"We don't want it to be the usual raw punk like our other songs, but something more modern," Nadya clarified. "Since anyone can be Pussy Riot, the group's music shouldn't be the same all the time. Maybe it can be more electronic." JD and I wrote at her apartment, starting with some sped-up guitar riffs over placeholder drums. It would be easier to work together in person, but Nadya and Masha wouldn't be in the U.S. until August, when they'd fly to Baltimore to tape the episode. So they e-mailed ideas and responses to our MP3 sketches from Moscow. For inspiration, they sent two YouTube links to songs: the spare, jazzy "My Cherry Is in Sherry" from 1980, by Manchester art-punks Ludus, and Marilyn Monroe's famous rendition of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." We tried our hardest to make them happy.

Remember July? As we worked on the song, sending audio files and notes back and forth and becoming friends, apocalypse unfolded in our Twitter feeds. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza escalated and sickening images from citizen journalists paused our work. Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, diverting attention from anti-Putin activist Sergei Udaltsov's court date. The Left Front leader was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for his part in organizing a mass protest in 2012. (He was accused of premeditating the day's violent skirmishes, which Putin's critics insist were instigated by riot police.) Closer to home, Eric Garner was murdered on Staten Island, put in a choke hold by officer Daniel Pantaleo, supposedly for selling loosies, and for objecting to constant police harassment.

JD added tempo changes, switched the drum sounds a few times and added some synth-y things, but soon we were getting down to the wire and needed to figure out the vocals. Uncomfortable with writing lyrics in English, Nadya and Masha said we should start and send them something. They didn't want the song to focus exclusively on Russian politics. They wanted it to expand Pussy Riot's themes to address global issues. It was a funny assignment. We'd have to keep our references general, so as not to contradict the specifics of the fictional landscape of "House of Cards." And we wanted to approximate the women's rhetorical style—a singular combination of riot grrrl's titillating menace and a heady, vintage feminist critique of phallic power.

I looked up the English translation of "Putin Pissed Himself" for inspiration. Crude and poetic, the song refers to the reactionary government's "culture of male hysterics," says the Russian Orthodox Church worships a "hard penis," and evokes a victorious future in which "bitches from the sexist regime" are "begging the feminist army for forgiveness." I wondered if Pussy Riot had succeeded as a cause célèbre because their liberal champions couldn't understand Russian! The main thing that's been lost in translation in the mainstream defense of Pussy Riot beneath a bland Americanized banner of "free speech," I thought, is their intoxicatingly gauche radicalism—their emphasis on the patriarchal character of state repression, their idealistic insistence that women and queers will lead the way to a freer society. This song could be an opportunity to make that clear, simply by rendering that unpalatable vision in English. And maybe writing a "Pussy Riot song" could give us the conceptual distance to speak our true feelings.

JD was in a car somewhere, out of range, on the day we found out that we needed to send lyrics almost immediately. Nadya, Masha and a few friends had arranged to record at somebody's apartment and they needed our ideas. I came up with a verse and a chorus, recorded a scratch vocal in Garageband with a toy mic and hit send.

Soon we got a link to download a folder of the takes they'd recorded, tracks which would prove to be a nightmare for JD to edit, but we smiled listening to a chorus of Russian girls yell, "Fuck me with your big hard drone / Kill my whole family, I don't wanna die alone." And in their next e-mail, Nadya asked if we would meet them in Baltimore the first week of August to perform the song with them on the show in an ad hoc configuration of Pussy Riot. Of course we would.

Right away we were sent scripts, and I got really excited thinking that I would have some lines. (I didn't.) Someone contacted me to make travel plans and to get me to fill out union paperwork. A wardrobe person called to tell me to bring two pairs of pants and ask if I would, theoretically, wear a rainbow muscle tee. On August 8, JD and I met at Penn Station and took the train to Baltimore. We were picked up in an SUV and taken to Nadya and Masha's hotel room where we hung out, discussed dance moves and started feeling like a band. Should we all do the same thing when we sang, "Diamonds, they say, are a girl's best friend"? What about when we shouted "genocide"?

We were driven to catering, where maybe a hundred anarchist kids and unemployed gay people hired as extras were milling around with balaclavas tucked under their arms, wearing brightly colored T-shirts with the words "STOP PETROV" and a Putin-ish face. While we ate lunch, Masha said that they wanted to make a film, and that this adventure was an information-gathering mission. Nadya told me they were writing a book of philosophical essays about how to be a revolutionary.

JD and I were taken to a trailer where we changed our clothes, and we did the thing you're not supposed to do—sign a contract without reading it. This one was like 50 pages long, but whatever; we were going to be actors now and we were just going to follow instructions. The truth is, it really doesn't matter how smart you are, what a bitch you can be, or how far back your feminism goes. In these situations, you have no control, and if you think that you do, you're just going to be upset when the episode airs. Mainstream culture is a brutal mediator of nuanced self-presentation and political ideals, and yet, how can you believe in your message without having faith that it will survive a little dilution or fragmentation? There's a chance that when the episode airs it could be cool, or important to somebody. We tried on our scratchy balaclavas and went to shoot the scene.

The four of us ran up an alley and scuffled with cops. As the song started, we turned a corner and ran through a crowd. JD and I jumped on a flatbed truck, where some teenage girls from a local band pretended to play guitars, and then we jumped onto a car, which we were told we could destroy. We performed the song dozens of times, with and without balaclavas. We did some shots where we were on the truck with Nadya and Masha, and some where we crowded on the roof of the car. Big guys stood behind the car, to catch us if we fell off.

Exhausted, we were hustled back to the Amtrak station, and Nadya and Masha hung out with us while we waited for the train. Nadya's husband took a picture of us together sitting on one of the station's wooden benches. I was nervous because this was all supposed to be totally secret, but since they were doing it, I put it on my Instagram, too.

On the train back to New York, JD shook her head when I pulled out the purple STOP PETROV T-shirt that I'd stuffed in my purse. I probably wasn't supposed to do that. We wondered if we'd even make it into the scene, or if our song would even be used. If it wasn't, maybe we should do a better mix and put it out as a single. We both thought that the whole thing was worth it just for the chance we'd be a footnote in Pussy Riot history. I told JD that for a split second, toward the end of the seven-hour shoot, I got teary because I realized that the hundred or so extras had learned the lyrics we'd written, and were singing along without the sheets that Inge had typed and photocopied. JD agreed: That was the best part. 


CURRENTLY ON VIEW Pussy Riot performing in a Season 3 (2015) episode of the Netflix series "House of Cards."


Johanna Fateman is a writer, musician and co-owner of Seagull, a hair salon in New York.