Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer [subtitled]

I knew very little about Pussy Riot before seeing this documentary. I knew it was some sort of opposition group in Russia—feminist, left wing, anti-Putin, I was pretty sure—that staged demonstrations and such, but that’s about it. I had the vague sense that it might be more of a movement than a discrete group, like the Tea Party or Occupy are movements.

Judging from Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, though, I think it is more, or at least started more, as a specific, identifiable small group of women—a punk band. The film is about specifically three of them who staged a protest inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow and then went on trial for it—evidently a highly publicized trial. I don’t know if these three were the original band, or the leaders, but I don’t think the group was all that much bigger, although later it may have become somewhat larger and more amorphous.

The three are Katia, Masha, and the really hot Nadia.

The band staged numerous protests and demonstrations leading up to the cathedral incident. Generally these involved playing musical instruments very loudly and screaming in some public place where they weren’t supposed to be, or at least weren’t supposed to be behaving like that. Some were a bit more interesting or clever, though. For example, throwing themselves at police officers and forcibly kissing them (mostly policewomen, judging from the videos). There was another where they—along with some male allies—made an explicit porn video inside of some museum. (Thankfully this included Nadia—who I may have mentioned is really hot—when she was about eight months pregnant, though the few seconds we see is kind of grainy and low quality. By the way, for a feminist group why is it all doggie style intercourse and blow jobs?)

The cathedral protest—which was fairly typical in that they just burst up into the altar area and played guitars and screeched political and anti-religious declarations—was especially controversial and offensive to many because of the emotional importance of that building, even compared to the typical house of worship, to many Russians. Of course the flip side of that is that that’s precisely what made it an appealing target for this kind of group that seeks to provoke.

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is, if not the single most revered cathedral in Russian Orthodoxy, up there among the most. It was built by the Czar after Napoleon was compelled to retreat from Moscow and the Russians eventually won that horrifically costly war. It was leveled by Stalin, and then after the fall of the Soviet regime it was recently rebuilt. So it is a source of great religious pride, but also has deep political resonance for many as symbolizing the defeat of the Napoleonic invasion and the rejection of communism and the political left.

The film notes that while Pussy Riot (that’s their actual name, by the way, not a translation from Russian; their name is in English using the Latin alphabet) gained considerable global sympathy and support from young people, celebrities, human rights organizations, anti-Putin groups, etc., in Russia they and their antics—especially this sacrilegious cathedral incident—are overwhelmingly disapproved of.

Granted, some of that disapproval is to their credit. The Putin regime hates them of course. And we see footage of various right wing religious nut cases—the Russian equivalent of the Taliban or American religious right or other such odious groups—ranting about how in the good old days such witches would have been condemned and burned to death for insulting God and country. But it’s not just them. The general public in Russia is pretty disproportionately against them as well.

Which isn’t too surprising. My understanding is that based on polls and other evidence, if Putin had to compete in fair elections, even though he wouldn’t win by the absurd margins he does now he’d likely still win comfortably. I think the bulk of the Russians like the things Pussy Riot opposes—Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church, the intermingling of church and state, a hard line against leftists, etc.

I have a mixed opinion of the group myself, both in terms of substance and method. On substance I’m mostly on their side, at least in the sense of being very much on the opposite side of their main enemies—the Putin regime and the more fascist, oligarchic elements of the political, economic, and religious establishment in Russia—but I don’t see much depth or sophistication to their views.

On method, I like that they’re not a violent group, at least in the most literal, crude sense. On the other hand, I wouldn’t say they’re principled Gandhians either.

I mean, there’s some overlap, but Gandhi was far more sensitive to the rights and dignity of those he opposed. He bent over backwards to keep his movements as free as possible of harm or insult to others; he believed that things should be arranged such that any suffering was absorbed by the protestors rather than the objects of their demonstrations or the general public.

The exception would be the “suffering” caused by a guilty conscience, or by having to face a difficult and ugly truth. Certainly it wasn’t forbidden to discomfit people by displaying for them the injustice and cruelty that they were directly or indirectly participating in—indeed, that was kind of the point. Pussy Riot’s defenders no doubt would insist that that’s what’s going on here, that they’re only angering and provoking people in that sense that is consistent with Gandhi’s methods. I think, though, that their tactics go somewhat beyond that.

But again, there’s considerable overlap, and they’re closer to Gandhian than are most political opposition groups.

Another point one could make is that even setting aside moral considerations, on a purely pragmatic level their tactics are ill-advised. As evidenced by their unpopularity, at least in their own country, their antics are mostly turning people against them and their cause. Perhaps Putin should be thankful that among those drawing the most attention opposing him are folks who can most easily be dismissed as unserious, insulting, vulgar clowns.

I don’t know though. Part of me reacts that way to them, but then there’s also a part of me that recognizes that those seeking radical change almost always come across poorly initially and are easy to ridicule or accuse of turning even potential supporters off with their disrespectful tactics.

If you look back at the counterculture, antiwar, feminist, racial justice, etc. groups and movements of the 60s, for instance, and you look at what was routinely being said about them at the time, it was mostly how they’re unwashed and unkempt, they scream a lot, they’re immature, they like to cause trouble for its own sake, they engage in absurd tactics that only insult and inconvenience normal people and thereby ensure they’ll never support them, and on and on. You know, there was that sense of “Even if there were some merit to what they’re saying, no one would listen because they’re being such assholes about it,” yet now the movements of that era are seen by a significant portion of the population as quite reasonable in terms of both substance and method.

It’s the “well-behaved women seldom make history” phenomenon. It may seem at the time like it’s counterproductive to make a spectacle of yourself and break the rules and violate conventions and all that, but sometimes you kind of have to to get your message across and initiate change for the better. (By the way, I read that the person who originated that quote about well-behaved women didn’t even mean by it what people who have adopted it since then typically mean, but I won’t pursue that tangent here.)

Like I say I’m kind of pulled in both directions. I understand those who are rooting on Pussy Riot in all their outrageousness—because I feel some of that too—but I also have both moral and strategic misgivings about the attitude their methods manifest toward those who disagree with them.

Interestingly, I was a little surprised that the Putin regime doesn’t deal with such folks considerably more harshly. I mean, they got away with a lot, and it’s not like even when they were finally taken into custody they were tortured and killed. In terms of a fair judicial process, the allowance of political expression, the right to have legal counsel and to present testimony and evidence, the transparency of the process, the severity of the sentence, the freedom of the press to report on the trial, and on and on, what we see is modestly worse than, say, the contemporary United States, but it’s way better than the regimes of genuine totalitarians like Hitler, Stalin, or Mao.

I know we’re supposed to be indignant about the injustice of it all and how it exposes the brutality of Putin and his minions, and yeah I felt a little of that, but frankly I would have expected far worse in that regard.

I thought it was interesting too that although for the most part the three remained defiant and reveled in their solidarity, when push came to shove one of them—Katia—found a way out. She got a different lawyer and argued that she really shouldn’t be treated like the others in that—as video of the incident revealed—she really never got around to participating in the incident because while she was fumbling around trying to get out her guitar she was grabbed and hustled away from the altar and into custody. No doubt she intended to do what the others were doing, but she didn’t actually do it. And that argument prevailed; she was let go and the others had to do prison time.

At least from what’s shown in the film, the other two initially didn’t take it as a betrayal and were all happy and congratulatory about her being freed. It seems like a somewhat shitty thing to do (and not consistent with a Gandhian willingness to accept the punishment for principled civil disobedience), though, and based in part on the little bit of reading I did online after seeing the film, I think it did ultimately cause at least some acrimony within the group.

The film itself is generally well done and easy to follow. I appreciated learning a bit more about the three of them as individuals through interviews with their families—their upbringing, what brought them to political activism, etc. I wouldn’t rank Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer near the top of documentaries I’ve seen, but it’s worthwhile.

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