Free Pussy Riot

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadia), Maria Alyokhina (Masha) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (Katia)

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer – HBO

A defiant woman sits in a courtroom in Russia. She is pretty, with cropped hair, a full, protruding lower lip. Her expression says she is unconflicted; she is waiting. The judge presiding over the trial and that of two other young women is a Russian woman of a different generation. Heavy red rouge, a hairstyle out of the height of 1980s sternness. She seems to express no empathy for the women who are charged with disturbing the social order by acts of hooliganism. To them, she is a warden of Vladimir Putin’s court. The enemy they denounce on the streets also judges them in captivity.

The women are each sentenced to three years in a penal colony. According to their lawyers, the crime they had broken was no more than a misdemeanor. Even an admittedly “sloppy” one. These women, along with other members of an anonymous feminist modern art group called “Pussy Riot,” entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow on February 21, 2012 and approached the altar. They began what was to be their fifth performance together in a public space with a song they had written that contained the lyrics, “It’s god shit.” The performance lasted less than thirty seconds before the scattered crowd of enraged security guards and religious visitors, many who were overwhelmed with shock, rushed to remove them from that sacred space. This was filmed and added to the group’s YouTube site. It is a scene of such vibrant blasphemy that few will have ever seen anything like it.

The group was expecting the performance to provoke noise from the opposition and anger from Putin. They may not have expected the backlash they would see from the Russian Orthodox church. The church has come to symbolize much of what Russia was able to rebuild after the fall of the Soviet Union, and its fragile statements about conservatism are made stronger by the backing of Putin’s state. A mother of one of the members of Pussy Riot received threats to tear off her daughter’s limbs when she is released from jail. The three women who were arrested from the performance would be left to speak on behalf of the opposition from behind bars.

“Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” a documentary directed by Mike Lerner and Maksim Pozdorovkin that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, aired on HBO this week. Revolution has in the last century appropriated the loud hues of rock and roll. Pussy Riot is driven with the sounds of punk rock, performed by young women whose thin limbs are colored in multiple brights shades of tights and whose identities are hidden with homemade balaclavas.

People only vaguely familiar with the group often refer to them as that “Russian band.” Their appearance is a shock of color and movement, seeming to compose far less a music group and far more a work of conceptual art. (Those who have seen that memorable, odd dance sequence in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers will feel a pang of recognition). The group also denies they are a band, saying instead they are a performance art group that uses metaphor and art to convey their opinions about feminism and free culture – two things that the Russian government denounces on a regular basis. In an interview with a British journalist about the group’s criminal trial, Putin asked him to consider the history and significance of the word “pussy,” inviting him to join in disgust at the audacity of such a thing. (“I assumed it referred to a cat,” the journalist coyly said).

As brash as the group comes off, there is no denying a certain amount of bravery that their performances demand. The process for the art itself seems simple, “write a song, some music, and think of a place to perform,” one member says. However the quick rush to the location, clambering up and over fences and walls, and the sudden burst of performance to a dazed public is not in the agency of every man and woman. The group’s fourth performance took place in Red Square, one month before the cathedral show. The title of the Kremlin performance was “Putin Zassel” (Putin pisses).

Today twelve activists are facing up to eight years in jail for their participation in a protest the day before Putin’s inauguration as President on May 7. Thirteen years after he first assumed the office, opponents are accusing him of establishing a base of loyalists who support his leadership of the United Russia party in what he calls a “sovereign democracy.” Part of this has been a clampdown on dissent that has echoes to Russia’s long communist era and belies a leader’s devotion to quiet, conservative values.

Pussy Riot shows the world how art expression brings criticism, clear and unmistakable as church bells, into a public square where it is not welcome. The Occupy Wall Street movement of last year could have used some of that – clear as its political objectives were. Today the words Pussy Riot evoke mass protests in Russia, a pop song, a book about the group published by the Feminist Press last September, shout outs from Madonna and various other activist celebrities. They all say that Russia needs a group like Pussy Riot.

The group should feel at least somewhat fulfilled by these results. Meanwhile, two women wait in prison – one having staged a prolonged hunger strike to protest her internment. At the appeal hearing where one of the women had her sentence suspended through a bit of shrewd legal legwork, Nadya Tolokonnikova lamented that Putin had been elected for a third term while she languished in isolation. To her, Pussy Riot and other groups like it really are important to Russia. “See what is happening,” she said to the court. “She what Russia has become?”

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