[18 October 2013]
“The Orthodox religion is a hardened penis / Coercing its subjects to accept conformity”.
—“Putin Zassal” by Pussy Riot
On 21 February 2012, five members of a rag-tag punk-feminist group called Pussy Riot, accompanied by a small film crew and some journalists, entered Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior. With no services in session and only a few bystanders in the building, the young women of Pussy Riot then proceeded to jump over the protective gold rail and head up to the pulpit (or “soleas”), an area designated for males only.
There, they shed their winter coats, covered their heads with balaclavas, and started to jump around wildly, screaming and punching the air. Alarmed, church security guards hastily stopped the outburst, subsequently escorting the women and their ensemble from the building. The whole incident lasted less than a minute. The police officials that arrived at the scene some time later found that no damage had been done, no desecration had taken place, and no crime had been committed.
Meanwhile, back at Pussy Riot central, the band and their cohorts set about editing film footage of the event, setting it to a soundtrack that incorporated a brief religious hymn juxtaposed against an original punk song. By the end of the day, “Punk Prayer—Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPDkJbTQRCY) had been posted to the internet and the clip was soon to become the focus of a tumultuous international sensation.
Raging against the corruption of both the Orthodox Church and the Putin administration, “Punk Prayer”’s lyrics propose that the nation’s most popular church has become the new KGB (“Black robes, golden epoulettes”), supporting the government and its harsh policies from behind the scenes. The song attacks those subservient to Church—and by association, government—policy (“Parishioners crawl bowing”). Their inaction, argues the song, enables the “bitch” Church patriarch, Kirill 1, to keep women down, barefoot and pregnant (“So as not to offend his holiness, women must bear children”), and to keep Putin in office.
Kirill had openly supported the President in his previous election, calling him a “miracle from God”. Pussy Riot, like so many of Russia’s young generation, thought otherwise.“Punk Prayer” challenges the authority of the Church patriarch by ironically making its own “holy” call to the Virgin Mary to join the feminist collective and get rid of Putin, along with his corrupt church affiliates.
Like their previous political prank videos, “Punk Prayer” would no doubt have drifted into internet obscurity, and the incident into historical obscurity, had a viral effect not taken hold. Within days of posting, the clip had spread across not only Russia but the whole world, ultimately coming to the attention of Kirill, who swiftly informed Putin of its existence and increasing ubiquity.
Soon after, on 3 March, two members of the band, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadia) and Maria Alyokhina (Masha), were arrested, as was a third, Yekaterina Samutsevich, on 16 March. Each was charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison. For their “sins”, these 20-something women, two of whom were mothers, were all denied bail and held in custody until trial.
The months that followed the arrest of the three band members were anything but quiet within Russia. In fact, what ensued was not only a national debate about the fairness of the charge and the ethical propriety of a legal process that would imprison these women for an extended period without either bail or trial, but also a broader discussion about the role of organized religion in this secular nation—about, one might say, the soul of the nation. During this interim period, all interested parties had their say, even President Putin, who stated that the women had “got what they asked for”, an ironic statement, considering that the women had indeed created the commotion necessary for this national self-examination to take place, the very motivation for such spectacular political pranks.
Manipulating circumstances in his own favor, Putin set to establishing himself as the guardian of religious freedom, the protector of faith after decades of Soviet oppression. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior had previously been destroyed by the Stalin regime during the ‘30s, later rebuilt (courtesy of State and mafia funding) in the ‘90s. Putin sought to capitalize on this history, casting himself as the protector of freedoms and Pussy Riot as the latest threat to them.
The Orthodox Church, too, was quick to set the terms of debate, ignoring the band’s political motivations and branding them as “evil”. While recognizing the prank component in Pussy Riot’s actions, Kirill suggested that such behavior threatened the very existence of churches, saying, “The Devil has laughed at all of us… We have no future if we allow mockery in front of great shrines.” For Kirill, the impulse had been religious hatred and he called upon the government to criminalize blasphemy. Church spokesman, Vsevolod Chaplin, also weighed in with his own preemptive sentencing, adding, “I’m convinced this sin will be punished in this life and the next. God revealed this to me.”
With Putin and the Church establishing the criteria and parameters of discussion, it’s understandable that the State media would follow their lead, characterizing Pussy Riot not as political activists but as immature hooligans. With opposition voices conspicuously silent, the general public only heard what the media told them, and its reactions were hence predictable. One poll at the time found that only six percent of Russians sympathized with the actions and plight of the women.
The bulk of this six percent was no doubt taken up by Pussy Riot fans and disillusioned Russian youth in general, and despite their opinions being barely heard above the State-Church-media apparatus, their sentiments occasionally crept through via alternative means and channels. Pussy Riot, notably, refused to be muted, even in prison. Not only did two of the women go on temporary hunger strike when first incarcerated (and one, again, as I write), but they were all vocal in explaining their “not guilty” pleas, asserting that patriarchy and political corruption had motivated their actions, not any anti-religious faith feelings. “We are representatives of our generation,” Masha declared.
By the time of the trial in late July, the defendants had been wholly marginalized by the myriad superstructural forces around them. Moreover, given only two days to prepare for the trial, defense lawyers were promptly outwitted in court by a state team that merely perpetuated the by then consensus opinions that had taken hold across the nation. The women had been controlled “by Satan”, argued the prosecution, and their motivation had been to “incite religious hatred”.
Few were surprised when, on 17 August, the three defendants were convicted and sentenced to two years in a prison colony (or gulag). Later, on 10 October, one of the women was freed and given probation, her sentence suspended after a successful appeal.
Reactions to the sentencing were somewhat restrained within Russia, where most citizens shared Putin’s postulation that the band members had “got what they asked for”. Beyond Russia, though, particularly in the West, there was no such resignation, only outrage. US and European governments swiftly exploited the David versus Goliath aspect of the case, using the incident to score points against Putin, whose policies appeared to be growing increasingly harsh, especially as they pertained to human rights. The western media followed suit, reframing the headlines as “Art versus Power”, “Civil Society versus the Church-State”, or simply “Punks versus Putin”. Critics regarded the ruling as overly harsh and disproportionate, suggesting that a fine or community service would have been more appropriate for what amounted to a mere public order offense. International human rights groups concurred, Amnesty International calling the punk group “prisoners of conscience”.
Dissent soon spread to celebrity culture, too, with Madonna, Paul McCartney, Sting, and Yoko Ono (amongst others) adding their support to the emerging “Free Pussy Riot” protest movement. There were even a few copycat occurrences, such as from Russian rebel Inna Shevchenko, who chain-sawed through a public statue of Christ on the cross, much to the chagrin of the Pussy Riot team, which regarded this as an act of vandalism rather than an art-political prank that might garner solidarity. Nevertheless, solidarity did take hold as a broad coalition of artists, bloggers, and political opposition soon made the court’s decree a cause célèbre, in the process shining a spotlight on a nation seemingly behaving more like Iran or Saudi Arabia than a modern secular society.
Western onlookers initially thought that “Punk Prayer” was an isolated event, but soon discovered that not only had Pussy Riot performed prior public pranks, but that the group was actually a spin-off from an art collective called Voina that had been acting out in similar fashion for years. Indeed, the prosecution had periodically cited the behavior of this 60-plus member group in order to contextualize the Cathedral incident as just the latest in a long line of public nuisance outrages.
Like Pussy Riot, Voina (which means “war”) specialize in guerrilla performance pranks that call attention to political developments within Russia. When then-President Medvedev, in 2008, proposed an increase in the national birth rate, Voina members mocked the call by simulating a mass public sex act in Moscow’s State Biology Museum. Among the dozens of criminal cases that have been brought against the group, one involved Voina activist Oleg Vovotnikov. Dressed in an Orthodox priest’s robe and a police officer’s hat, Vovotnikov had entered a supermarket, filled his cart full of groceries, and then left without paying.
The fact that no-one even attempted to stop this shoplifter/imposter comically illustrated the extent to which certain chosen institutions operate beyond the bounds of the law in Russia. Such Voina pranks have become renowned around Moscow, and despite receiving the “innovation prize” for visual art from the Ministry of Culture in 2011, the group has been constantly prosecuted for its public offenses.
The Pussy Riot faction of Voina have employed comparable prank strategies, but have brought more sustained focus to gender and sexuality rights issues within Russia. In a nation where over 70 percent of the population proclaim themselves anti-gay, Putin has faced little resistance when introducing repressive measures against LGBT rights. Likewise, the Church has proven an invaluable ally in sanctioning and perpetuating such discrimination, as well as in coercing women into traditionally subservient roles.
In response, Pussy Riot’s punk-fueled pranks have offered a counter-image for women, one full of fury and assertiveness. Their various performances around Moscow have called attention to issues of abortion, health care, and education as key components of women’s rights, with the government and national church targeted as the band’s principle adversaries in these concerns. Pussy Riot’s 2011 song/performance “Release the Cobblestones” literally calls for a riotous uprising in the streets, as does “Putin Zassal” (rough translation: “Putin Has Pissed Himself”), the latter performed against a backdrop of smoke bombs in Red Square by eight members on 20 January 2012. This song includes the forthright lyrics, “The Orthodox religion is a hardened penis / Coercing its subjects to accept conformity”.
The history of rock, particularly punk rock, has offered many examples of subversion, feminism, and political pranks pertinent to the recent Pussy Riot phenomenon. As their moniker suggests, the ‘90s “Riot Grrrl” feminist punk scene has had a significant influence on the aesthetics of the band’s confrontational style, as well as on their prankster activities. Likewise, the Riot Grrrls had been initially inspired by The Clash’s 1977 punk anthem, “White Riot”, in which Joe Strummer had raucously intoned, “I wanna riot, a riot of my own”. The feminist punks of that era adopted the spirit of this sentiment, represented by the likes of The Slits, X-Ray Spex, and the Au Pairs. One can see Pussy Riot as part of this tradition of socially combative punk, though with rather more sinister political forces to fight and harsher consequences at stake.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Riot Grrrl was to harness and collectivize the energies of its practitioners into a viable movement. Unlike the more disparate and diverse punk feminists of late ‘70s Britain, Riot Grrrl offered a manifesto (in fanzines), a recognizable focal scene (the Pacific Northwest), and a musical vocabulary that self-consciously inverted the expectations of rock competence. This lexicon operated in a range of ways: through style, sound, slogans, and sarcasm. Moreover, these were played out on public stages, such that the shock of the deconstructions and destructions were readily apparent to observers.
Pussy Riot have proudly drawn from these precedents: Riot Grrrls chose band names like Bikini Kill, Hole, Dickless, and Honey Bear; as with Pussy Riot, these tags forefront an ironic humor that mocks conventions of female sexuality and identity while inserting insult and aggression into the semiology. Ripped “summer” dresses and disheveled hairstyles often provided the stylistic components of paradox in Riot Grrrl bands; there is a similarly disturbing, yet comical, incongruity in seeing the Pussy Riot women lined up in an array of brightly colored dresses, topped off with dayglo balaclavas, hysterically acting out on top of Moscow’s iconic buildings, bridges, and railway stations.
Clothes and colors have long been used by patriarchy as markers keeping women within their prescribed places; thus, to see these parodied with such tongue-in-cheek excess transforms prior symbols of subjugation into present-day subversion through recuperation and reinvention. One Pussy Riot member commented that the balaclava makes her feel like a superhero; in addition, it also provides a united, indivisible identity for the band, as well as hiding individual identity from the authorities.
Pussy Riot find further sustenance in the aesthetics of punk rock music itself. Short pithy slogans and sarcastic put-downs have long been defining features of punk, particularly of its more politicized practitioners like Crass and Dead Kennedys. Such lyrical fragments are curtly delivered by Pussy Riot, not in any melodic or mellifluous ways, but in the kinds of screams and chants traditionally deemed “unbecoming of a lady”. Listen to the band’s seven released songs and you further hear the lo-fi minimalism and harsh guitar assaults of old school punk. It may surprise some that the band have cited the ultra-macho ”Oi” bands of the UK punk scene as key inspirations, for their feminist themes and brazen technical incompetence speak more to a heritage from which female-driven bands like The Slits and The Raincoats sought to challenge the phallocentric codes of male “classic” rock.
Essentially street-based at its roots, public spectacles have been a striking trait of punk history, too. Whether this involves peacock-like punks in full bondage attire strutting up and down the King’s Road on a Saturday afternoon, or the Sex Pistols providing an alternative Silver Jubilee celebration by tagging along behind the Queen’s flotilla on the River Thames, visible social provocation has been a constant calling card of punk proper. Its feminist adherents have contributed to this legacy as well, such as when L7’s Donita Sparks threw her tampon into the crowd at England’s Reading Festival in 1992.
For Pussy Riot, such pranks are not isolated occurrences but the band’s very essence. Their public performances in “unsanctioned” spaces always have a political motivation. Dancing and screaming in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior may be their most publicized political prank, nevertheless, their appearances outside prisons and in Red Square have similar psycho-geographical significance.
In this regard, their gigs have as much in common with art “terrorists” like Banksy as with any rock groups. Just as Banksy takes his art to the streets, reclaiming public spaces from corporate or state control (and largely eschewing gallery culture), so Pussy Riot refuse to tour or even play traditional gigs in rock venues. In fact, Pussy Riot are quite different from their western punk counterparts in that they never play paying shows and will only do illegal ones—unannounced and always at public sites. For them, ideological interests trump any illusions of—or aspirations to—rock stardom.
No fans of western capitalism, the band maintain their autonomy and artistic integrity by avoiding the commercial, corporate, or co-optive trappings many ideologically-driven western rock bands often fall into. Indeed, the band’s savvy use of YouTube and social media to share their prank performances is not so much an act of self-publicity as it is a means by which to provoke authorities by spreading their gospel as effectively and broadly as possible. Despite their antipathy to western capitalism, Pussy Riot have become something of a cottage industry in the West. There’s even a website up offering knitting patterns for Pussy Riot balaclavas!
Furthermore, as much as the ballyhooed Cathedral incident raises pointed questions about justice, religion, politics, and public pranks in modern Russia, it also begs the questions: Why has the West taken such interest in it? Would our reactions be so different if a similar incident occurred in one of our major cathedrals, synagogues, or mosques? What role does organized religion play in our politics and culture today? One editorial in The Guardian argues that the West’s response to the whole Pussy Riot saga has been nothing short of hypocritical, a means by which we can sanctimoniously ignore our own culture wars and institutional repressions. It allows us, one might say, to stare into the mirror without having to recognize our own reflections.