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Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” Reminds Us to Cherish Freedom of Spirit—Not Just Speech

What we still have to learn from the world’s favorite riot grrrls.
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Uproar. Pogrom. Uprising. That's how Nadezhda Tolokonnikova defines the word "riot" in a new documentary on Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk collective that rattled the world last year when three members were arrested for performing an anti-Putin "prayer" in Russia's premier Orthodox church.

Tolokonnikova, better known as Pussy Riot's complex, mysterious, fist-raising "Nadia," is perhaps the most intriguing and provocative figure in Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. The film premiered in January at the Sundance festival, where filmmakers Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award.

Nadia is currently serving a two-year sentence in a Russian penal colony, along with bandmate Maria "Masha" Alyokhina, for a conviction of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Hooliganism, because on February 21 of last year, five Pussy Riot members dressed up in day-glo tights and balaclavas and ostentatiously entreated the "Mother of God" to oust Russian President Vladimir Putin, and religious hatred because they did it on the sacred ambon (a raised platform reserved for clergy) of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow's most prominent church. While the group had performed similar numbers before—including a confrontational song blasting the Putin government right outside the Kremlin—it turns out that belting "It's God shit!" with bare arms and masked faces in one of Russia's holiest places sparks a reaction even the young dissidents didn't expect.

Here's what they did:

That's it! Revisiting the a cappella original (as opposed to the more raucous, widely circulated music video version edited with a recorded soundtrack later) reinforces just how out out of proportion the government backlash appears.

For their seconds-long crime, Nadia and Masha got two years each in a penal camp—and the whole world's attention. (Two Pussy Riot members evaded arrest, and one, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released on appeal last year).

While public opinion polls show that a good portion of the offended Russian populace finds the punishment fitting, international outrage from the likes of Paul McCartney, Madonna, and even the Obama administration has helped make the trio into global political heroines—martyrs of Putin's controversial third term and a narrowing tolerance for divergent political opinions.

Their dissent, expressed through "oppositional art" (which, Nadia laments in the film, is little understood in Russia) has cost them not only two years of freedom, but also separation from their families. Though it's rarely emphasized in the media, where Pussy Riot is primarily identified as pranksters and radicals, both Nadia and Masha are mothers of young children.

And more than one year in, they're still trying to fight a sentence that has done more to indict the Russian judicial system than get the convicted to repent.

This week, Alyokhina was hospitalized during a hunger strike that has now continued for 10 days in the Ural mountains facility where she is imprisoned. Alyokhina was protesting the denial of her right to attend her own parole hearing in Moscow's highest court, which rejected parole for both her and Nadia earlier this week. Their lawyer, Irina Khrunova, told the Associated Press she will appeal to Russia's Supreme Court next.

Also this week, an unnamed (and unjailed) member of the collective testified in front of a European Union subcommittee on human rights that the post-trial crackdown on Pussy Riot members is symptomatic of a growing trend of human rights violations. Subcommittee chairwoman Barbara Lochbihler pledged to put human rights at the forefront of future relations with Russia.

While the possibility of early release was rejected in part due to the contention that neither Nadia nor Masha are sorry for what they did, the film lingers on the profuse apologies they offered to Russia's "believers"—Orthodox Christians—for any perception that Pussy Riot was criticizing faith itself rather than politics and the union of church and state. And here's where the movie ventures into some surprising—and poignant—territory.

Pussy Riot struck a nerve in targeting a building that had been destroyed under Soviet rule, during a period when Christians were oppressed. After the fall of communism, the film explains, the church was lovingly reconstructed by "the faithful." During a massive Pussy Riot counter-protest, one elderly woman grieves the church's desecration, crying that it was rebuilt with "[our own] coins." A somewhat perplexed gang of Orthodox cross-bearers (with full beards, leather vests, and skull t-shirts that say "Orthodoxy or Death") assumes Nadia must be possessed by a demon. They seem to not know what to make of her politics. In the end, shaking their heads, they leave judgement to the courts—but not without reminding each other that in the past, they would have hanged the feminist punks.

The religious backlash is why it's so interesting that Nadia's lengthy closing statement at the trial does not so much narrow in on criticism, blame, or an indictment of closed-mindedness; instead, it opens up to inclusion and connection, returning again and again to motifs like dialogue, truth, freedom—and, unexpectedly, Jesus. It's replete with religious imagery and references to the Bible's vision of truth, justice, and authenticity, and Nadia takes heart from the growing numbers of Orthodox "believers" who pray for her, stand up for her, and promise their solidarity. There's no such thing, she reminds her accusers—and nation—as a monolithic group where everyone believes exactly the same thing, even within the church. And that's a good thing.

"We just need to make contact," she says. "To establish a dialogue and a joint search for truth, to seek wisdom together, to be philosophers together, rather than stigmatizing and labeling people. This is one of the worst things people can do and Christ condemned it."

It's the kind of truth-to-power trajectory that has the potential to override not just political oppression, but social fragmentation and even personal imprisonment. After all, we in the West may enjoy  freedom of speech, but we don't always practice it with a free spirit.

For those who prefer the Pussy Riot punk version: "Open the door / off with the shoulder-straps / join us in a taste of freedom."

Pussy Riot


Christa Hillstrom wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Christa is web managing editor of YES!

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