Pussy Riot is a female punk rock political collective based in Moscow known for their provocative guerrilla performances in well known public spaces. In February of 2012, they staged a demonstration to protest the union of church and state on the altar of the Russian orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior, for which they were arrested and held for 6 months without bail during a trial that many considered a sham. No one was hurt during the demonstration, and the actual performance was shut down by security within 40 sec. And yet the three young women, Nadia Tolokno, Masha Alyokhina and Katia Samutsevich, on trial were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years each in a labor camp.
Much has been covered in the press both inside and outside of Russia. Governments of the European Union as well as the United States have called the sentencing disproportionate. Amnesty International has labeled the women “Prisoners of Consciousness.” Public figures from Aung San Suu Kyi to Madonna have championed Pussy Riot’s commitment to freedom of expression. The directors of the documentary “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” Mike Lerner and Maksim Pozdorovkin have put together a film from court footage and interviews with the family in this story about about the group and the case. It premieres on HBO tonight at 9pm (June 10).
This lean 90-minute film has the challenge of weaving the court case and the backstories of the three women on trial with the political and socio-economic history of Russia since the 1917 revolution – a daunting task for any filmmaker to be sure. The film’s chronology is at times unclear; nevertheless, I hope the audience can absorb the historical content to give Pussy Riot an appropriate context. These women are the children of glasnost, a policy that called for increased openness and transparency in government institutions and activities in the Soviet Union. They have seen their country – where performance art and punk rock are relatively new concepts – stretched thin by its adaptation to capitalism and democracy.
Let’s be clear, Pussy Riot is not a group of musical geniuses. Songs such as “Putin Pissing Himself” and “Kill all the Sexists” are crude and absurd, purposefully provocative, and decisively antagonistic. However, such works also get people thinking about larger theoretical constructs such as authoritarianism and feminism. During an interview/interrogation (it’s unclear whether it’s a press or police interview), Katia is asked, “Don’t you have plans to get married? To be a mother? Why not?” She answers that from the time girls are children they are taught that they have to find a man and have to have babies, but not everybody shares that dream. This line of questioning shows that she is being vilified for challenging traditional roles of women within an environment of intolerance and fear.
It becomes clear during the course of the film that in the eyes of the court, the real crime that these young women committed is that they did not prostrate themselves in the courtroom. Instead, they looked amused by the ensuing media circus which underscored the group’s original message of the dangerous effects of conservatism and religious fundamentalism regarding freedom of expression. They know that the world media is watching, and their eloquent closing statements, which sharply contrast the vulgar lyrics of their songs, reflect that.
At one point, we get a clip of President Putin being questioned by the British press about the case. He answers chillingly, “The punishment must match the crime.” As the film marches toward the inevitable and disturbing court’s decision, one protestor shouts outside the proceedings, “I’m embarrassed for Russia.” I wonder what Mr. Gorbachev thinks of glasnost in his Russia today.