PORTLAND – At the urging of some of my students, I checked out a YouTube video of the feminist art collective and punk band Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” performed Feb. 21, 2012, in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
An HBO documentary about the arrest, trial and sentencing of Pussy Riot is airing this summer and presents a Western view of the case. I was shocked by what I saw and heard, finding my own reactions quite mixed, as I viewed Pussy Riot from two different sensibilities — the Russian and the Western.
The selection of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior for the protest is one of the issues complicating this case. First consecrated in 1883, the cathedral was funded by the czarist government, and stood as a monument to the union between a conservative Orthodox Church and a conservative, undemocratic state.
After the communist revolution, Josef Stalin, in need of funds for development, denuded the cathedral of the gold in its domes and removed the marble inside for the new Moscow subway. The cathedral was subsequently demolished in 1931. The foundation hole was transformed into the world’s largest open-air swimming pool during the 1950s.
In the waning days of the Soviet Union, the church received permission from the government to rebuild the cathedral with funding from the Moscow mayor’s office, newly rich oligarchs and, significantly, from about 1 million ordinary Muscovites.
Again, one could say that the church represents the union of a conservative Orthodox Church and a conservative government. It also represents the resurgence of religion in the post-Soviet period and a reminder of the violent repression of religion under the Soviet regime. The arrested members of Pussy Riot recognized this complex legacy when they apologized to believers for any offense they suffered.
There is much that is provocative and iconoclastic in Pussy Riot’s performance. The immodesty of their brightly colored dresses and tights, which exposed their legs and arms, flies in the face of acceptable appearance in an Orthodox church.
Their loud performance contained random gestures, dancing and mimicked genuflection. In addition, they performed their prayer in front of the altar, a space not open to women within the Orthodox Church.
Russian public opinion of the case was divided for obvious reasons. The Pussy Riot collective spells its name using Latin rather than Cyrillic letters — the official Russian alphabet. This fact alone would make the group seem foreign and puzzling to many Russians. The meaning of the group’s name — intended as feminist provocation — would not be comprehensible to most Russians either.
In the “prayer’s” refrain, Pussy Riot appeals directly to Mary, whose epithet in the Orthodox tradition, “birthgiver of God,” emphasizes her maternal qualities.
In Russian popular culture, Mary is seen as a motherly human figure with access to God, always at the ready to plead on behalf of flawed mortals. Pussy Riot’s direct appeal to her is totally iconoclastic because it requests her intercession in a purely political matter, the close alliance of the church with the state.
Also iconoclastic is commanding her to “become a feminist,” using an imperative form of the verb and the foreign-sounding word “feminist” (“feministka”). The word “feminist” has such a negative connotation that even Russians sympathetic with feminism usually avoid using it.
When asked about the feminist texts that have influenced Pussy Riot, one group member cited only Western feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir, Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millett and Judith Butler. Russian women’s writings citing Mary to support a feminist agenda rely on the tradition of her as a loving maternal figure, but not as a political activist.
Pussy Riot has freely used other words borrowed from English that many Russians would not understand, such as the word “sexist.” Thus many of their sources, their words and their methods — especially the use of social media — are Western in origin, yet the thrust of their “prayer” is aimed at a very Russian problem: the coziness between the Orthodox Church establishment and the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Most of Pussy Riot’s caustic lines take aim at the church rather than Putin, resulting in the Russian public’s negative reaction to the perceived attack on religion. Only a minority picked up on Pussy Riot’s political stance as a protest against Putin, and few took in its feminist message.
Russians questioned the harsh treatment of the three members who were arrested and detained long before their trial, especially given that two of them were mothers of young children. However, they generally did not view what happened as repression of artistic and political expression, as we have here in the West.
Charlotte Rosenthal is a professor of Russian at the University of Southern Maine.