Reading the Pussy Riot Act

Pussy Riot!: A Punk Prayer for Freedom [Kindle Edition] BY Pussy Riot. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY. . $2.
The cover of Pussy Riot!: A Punk Prayer for Freedom [Kindle Edition]

Recent news from the department of feminist provocateurs, Russian division:

The three jailed members of Pussy Riot appealed their two-year jail sentences last week, with mixed results: Yekaterina Samutsevich (Katya) was released on a suspended sentence, because she was seized by guards at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior last February before she got to perform the group’s anti-Putin “Punk Prayer.” As for the other two defendants, Maria Alyokhina (Masha) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadya), who did manage to execute those high kicks that allegedly smashed to smithereens the morals and nerves of Orthodox believers across Russia, their sentences were upheld. They’ll probably be sent to penal colonies far from Moscow, where the state will attempt to “correct” them through work and discipline.

While the global Pussy Riot support network that sprung up in the wake of the verdict has quieted down a bit since the summer, the Russian Orthodox Church gained a new supporter this week when the Pope (according to Patriarch Kirill’s website) “expressed his solidarity with the position of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Meanwhile, Nadya has written a letter from prison saying that her husband, Pyotr Verzilov, has been illegitimately posing as a Pussy Riot spokesman, and that he doesn’t speak for the collective. “The only person who can legitimately represent the group is a girl in a balaclava,” she wrote.

A free woman for the first time since March, Katya has been giving interviews, sans balaclava, to outlets ranging from CNN to Rolling Stone, in which she’s spoken out against any attempt to simplify the group’s message: “Now we get letters from girls from many cities…” she told Rolling Stone. “They want to take part in actions. Since the group is anonymous, and any girl in a balaclava is Pussy Riot, sometimes people don’t completely understand the ideas of the group and distort them. They don’t know about feminism or art. They say we are against Putin and that’s it. I can’t prohibit it, but I don’t approve of it. I like that girls want to participate, but I would like more knowledgeability…. Any person can put on a balaclava, it’s all very good, but it’s important that the ideas are not warped.”

During Pussy Riot’s trial, the battle over the narrative was stark: Within Russia, the women were portrayed as anti-religious pranksters, and Russians tended to disapprove of their action: According to one poll taken this summer, 86% of Russians said they thought the group should be punished for its actions in the cathedral. Meanwhile, Western media cast them as principled (if occasionally uncouth) opponents of Putin’s autocratic regime, musicians welcomed them as a punk band under duress, and the human rights community embraced them as free speech martyrs.

But Katya’s comments hint at a more complex picture of Pussy Riot’s motivations and philosophy than any of these models suggest. Feminism and art—not just music—are central features of Pussy Riot’s dispositif, yet the relationship among these elements isn't easy to sum up. They’re frequently called a punk band, but they speak of themselves as a performance art collective that chose to use punk as a tool: “We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity,” Nadya said in her closing courtroom statement, “and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [the holy foolishness] of punk.” Most of the group’s songs include some mention of feminism, but this isn’t feminism as Americans have learned to see it, as a focus on “women’s issues”; rather, what shows up here is a focus on the repressive ideas about sexism, sex, and family life that so often show up as ideological linchpins of authoritarian regimes—and the idea that feminism can be a fulcrum for an Archimedean lever of revolutionary proportions.

Accordingly, Pussy Riot songs use a notionally feminist frame to critique Putin’s Russia, as in the delightful song “Kropotkin-Vodka,” which imagines a squadron of Dionysian housewives vanquishing the police state with a Sapphic orgy:

Occupy the city with a kitchen frying pan
Go out with a vacuum, get off on it,
Seduce battalions of police damsels
Naked cops rejoice in the new reform
The fucking end to sexist Putinists!

Some excellent English translations of the group’s lyrics are collected in the new e-book from the Feminist Press, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer for Freedom. (Several months ago, one of the only translations available on the Internet included the clunky lines “It’s time to disrupt & clash / A flock of females…sexist treatment,” which here become the far more singable “The time has come for subversive clashing / A pack of bitches from the sexist regime.”) Aside from the lyrics and a few tributes by the likes of Yoko Ono and Karen Finley, the book is made up largely of trial-related documents: opening and closing statements by Pussy Riot’s lawyers, letters from and courtroom statements by the three defendants, and a tantalizing patchwork of quotations from the trial transcript that makes me hope that the entire transcript will be published soon. (My own favorite exchange from the trial, in which a witness declares that he has decoded the group’s name—“I have a photocopy of a dictionary page! ‘Pussy’ is derived from ‘pus.’ This is horrifying. This means purulent riot.”—is missing from the compendium here; who knows how many other gems didn’t make the cut?)

There are many voices in the book, and they are all singing slightly different tunes, but the song as a whole rings through. At times the legal team decry what they call Russia’s lawlessness, the process that allowed them no time to meet privately with their clients, the inappropriateness of an ostensibly secular nation trying people for blasphemy, and the clearly political decision to arrest and prosecute Pussy Riot in the first place. At other times, the lawyers parse fine points of the legal code or dissect the specific ownership of the cathedral where the performance took place. Up against long odds, they’re casting about for any opening that might bring a shred of clemency.

The defendants themselves—the artists—have refused to repent or to show themselves broken and converted before the court, but this book does show a certain tailoring of a message under pressure: Masha depicts herself as a sincerely confused believer struggling to reconcile her Orthodox Christianity with her anti-Putin stance, and Nadya claims, straining credulity, that “we had no idea that our punk performance could hurt or offend someone.” There are also moments of great clarity, as when Nadya speaks out against “the scandalous dearth of political culture, which comes as the result of fear and is kept down through the conscious efforts of the government and its servants (Patriarch Kirill: ‘Orthodox Christians do not attend rallies’), and by the scandalous weakness of horizontal ties within our society.”

By conveying both Pussy Riot as they are and Pussy Riot as they think they need to be seen in order to win back their freedom, this stirring e-book shows us a picture of principles under duress. The legions of balaclava-wearing girls waiting in the wings will glean some important things from the pitched defenses, but they’ll have to make up the rest for themselves.

Sara Marcus's criticism, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in publications including the Los Angeles Review of Books, n+1, Artforum, The Nation, and the San Francisco Chronicle. The author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (2010), Marcus is a founding editor of New Herring Press.