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REVIEW: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer for Freedom

REVIEW: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer for Freedom

It's been over a year since Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich performed their "punk prayer" in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. February 21, 2012, was the date they chose to perform their spontaneous prayer on the altar that is normally a space preserved exclusively for male clergy. They only lasted 40 seconds, before churchgoers and security pulled and grabbed at them as they continued to dance and get on their knees to pray for Virgin Mary to join them by becoming a feminist and driving Putin away. Those 40 seconds turned into a criminal charge of two years in a penal colony for Nadya and Masha.

The compilation of documents in the book serves as an archive for primary source documents from the trial as well as writings in support of the release of them by artists, musicians, and activists. Reading the personal letters and statements from the trial provides an insider's perspective and knowledge that you can't get from simply reading news articles about the trio.

One of the most incredible parts of this book, which is more an anthology of documents than a narrative, is a letter Nadya wrote while in detention, where she details how the women she is imprisoned with question her about why she is there: "'I don't understand 80 percent of what you are saying,' said a young girl booked for narcotics . . . when I tried to explain to her why I participated in meetings and took part in political actions. 'You've been brainwashed,' 'Who is paying for all this?' 'Surely you have smart men who are organizing all of this!' is what I constantly hear from those booked for narcotics . . ."

Amy Scholder, the Editorial Director of Feminist Press, says in her preface, "Is it possible for a punk to pray? Can a renegade, someone who believes in insurrection, also believe in a higher power? Isn't that what prayer is--a belief that something exists beyond the visible or material world, to which or to whom we can appeal for justice or relief?" In the context of punk rock and performance, people don't usually associate the act of prayer in connection with either.

The prosecution tried to argue that Pussy Riot was mocking religion, but their intentions did seem legitimate--they wanted the church to support them in their endeavor to get Putin out of power.

If you take the performance independently and try to imagine simply the gesture behind the act, it is remarkable to see four women singing and praying to Virgin Mary: "Become a feminist!" Pussy Riot has stated again and again that they are not agitators for attention's sake, but that they see the language of punk rock performance as a way to communicate their ideas for a better, and more transparent Russia.

The criminal charge that the prosecution charged the three women with is "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," which when translated into English sounds like a mockery of itself. I can't help but to think of The Smiths song "Sweet and Tender Hooligan": "He was a sweet and tender hooligan, hooligan/and he said that he'd never, never do it again." Except that when it comes to Pussy Riot, I'm sure that as soon as the two remaining members are released, we can all expect that they will continue to perform as Pussy Riot.

 

Although three members of the feminist punk art collective were arrested, many more remain active. Pussy Riot is less about the 'characters' within the group than the idea behind it.

All three members are clearly influenced by philosophers, writers, theorists, poets, and as we see in Masha's letter, where she alludes to Orwell, Kafka, and Foucault. Nadya references the avant-garde OBERIU poets, who were influential in creating waves of dissent during the Soviet Union. She also compares the prosecution of their act to the pushback Jesus Christ and Socrates received in their own times. They don't seem hopeful of justice in the Russian system in their letters from prison, but they do seem to have faith in their supporters, and the philosophies that inspired the performance in the first place.

The phenomenon of Pussy Riot is such that no one, even themselves, seems to have expected the scale to which the world came out to support them. Particularly in the United States, many protests and groups formed to ally with and work to end their imprisonment. But where have these people gone? As the members stated in the book, "Whatever Pussy Riot's verdict is, we are already winning. This is because we have learned how to be politically angry and vocal."

Currently, two members are still imprisoned, while their appeals for parole are consistently denied by judges in Russia.

In her closing statement, the eloquent Nadya says, "We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [the holy foolishness] of punk."

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