Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom

Front cover of 'Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom', 2013, The Feminist Press

Front cover of ‘Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom’, 2013, The Feminist Press

For those who are or aren’t familiar with the plight of punk band Pussy Riot, Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom, published by The Feminist Press, is an excellent introduction. A trim 150 pages, the book includes key excerpts from the band’s trial, selected song lyrics, letters and poems, and tributes from individuals such as Yoko Ono, Bianca Jagger, and Justin Vivian Bond.

Pussy Riot made headlines last summer when three of the bands members, Maria (Masha) Alyokhina, Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina (Katya) Samutsevich were charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Their forty second performance of Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away! at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, proved one performance too many for the group who formed in order to critique Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Footage from the performance was used with another shot at the Epiphany cathedral in Yelokhovo to create a video distributed online.

In late October 2012, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were sentenced to two years imprisonment at separate prison camps where they are permitted four conjugal visits per year. Both have children. Samutsevich is currently free on probation after her defense argued that she did not technically take part in the cathedral performance, as guards had prevented her from unpacking her guitar.

The strength of A Punk Prayer to Freedom is its elucidation of the band’s motives, especially their emphasis on the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and Putin’s government. As Alyokhina stated in court, “I never thought that the ROC was meant to call for faith in any president; I thought its only role was to call for faith in God.”

Throughout their testimony, the trio criticized the overt politicization of the ROC on state television: Patriarch Kirill’s explicit endorsement of Putin, the use of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior as a “flashy backdrop,” and Kirill’s assertion that “Orthodox Christians do not attend rallies.” Patriarch Kirill, the current Patriarch of Moscow and all of Russia, has himself been embroiled in a number of national controversies, his ownership of a $30,000 Breguet watch being a recent example (not least because of his vow of poverty).

Pussy Riot’s forty second performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior ranks as one of the most effective political interventions of recent times. Although their performance was curtailed, it didn’t matter. Their intervention was public and accessible (as with all their performances) and all that was required to document it was a video camera. However, it was the state’s overly excessive reaction to their performance that drew international attention to Pussy Riot’s cause, throwing a harsh spotlight on Russian politics. In her closing statement during the trial, Tolokonnikova wryly quoted from Michel de Montaigne’s Essays, ”It is putting a very high value on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.”

Was Pussy Riot’s performance indelicate to Orthodox Christians? Perhaps. Was it hateful hooliganism? No. There was no violence or desecration, nor was any animosity directed at believers. Pussy Riot made a point of staging their performance outside of service hours with very few visitors around. The testimony offered by “injured parties” is laughable. A security guard at the Cathedral claimed he couldn’t work for two months afterwards. When asked to clarify how the performance insulted her, a candle seller at the cathedral reasoned, “they had dresses that bared their shoulders and were very bright in colour, and very contrasting!…And their tights were different colours!…The pain has not let up.” When asked by Tolokonnikova whether “feminist” is a swear word, the same witness responded “it is if it’s said in church.”

The publication fails to address the various political persuasions of Pussy Riot’s members. Many consider themselves committed anarchists, and based on their agenda, one can assume that the band members are secular. These associations were exploited by the prosecution at Pussy Riot’s trial. It also put some of their members in an awkward position when western artists championed their cause. As one anonymous member put it, “we’re flattered, of course, that Madonna and Bjork have offered to perform with us. But the only performances we’ll participate in are illegal ones. We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist system, at concerts where they sell tickets.” Little is also made of Pussy Riot’s connection to Voina (War) an art collective infamous for their provocative performances of which Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich were active members. Together, these facts complicate the broader appeal of Pussy Riot as champions of feminism and democracy. On the other hand, these exclusions in the publication have the benefit of narrowing the reader’s focus onto the trial itself.

As to be expected, the tributes section is a mixed affair. Generally, the briefer contributions are more arresting and inspiring to read. The exception to this rule is Vivien Goldman’s entertaining passage focusing on Pussy Riot’s methods and aesthetics. Bianca Jagger’s contribution briefly widens the publication’s scope to discuss other courageous dissidents such as Jafar Panahi and Owen Maseko.

The most electrifying passages are the translated closing statements by Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova, and Samutsevich. Eloquent, fervid, and reasoned, these speeches will retrospectively be regarded as key contributions to the oratory of human rights. In her closing statement, reflecting on the OBERIU poets, Tolokonnikova states, ”the price of participation in the creation of history is immeasurably great for the individual. But the essence of human existence lies precisely in this participation. To be a begger and yet to enrich others. To have nothing, but to possess all.”

Upon the trial’s closure, the final lines of Alyokhina’s closing statement were the most widely circulated, reproduced and re-tweeted for all the world to read. Whilst undoubtedly inspiring Pussy Riot’s supporters, Alyokhina’s words also serve as a mantra for dissidents world wide. ”All you can deprive me of is my ‘so-called freedom’. This is the only kind that exists in Russia. But nobody can take away my inner freedom. It lives in the world, it will go on living thanks to the openness (glasnost), when this will be read and heard by thousands of people.”

The preface states that proceeds from the sale of ‘Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer to Freedom’ will support the fund for Pussy Riot’s legal defense.

Kii Arens, 'Pussy Riot', 2012, matte lithograph, 24" x 18" (lalalandposters.com)

Kii Arens, ‘Pussy Riot’, 2012, matte lithograph, 24″ x 18″ (lalalandposters.com)

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