Pussy Riot’s Performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior

November 15, 2016

By  Emily Becker, Max Geissbuhler, and Christopher Johnson

The band that took on Russia…

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Figure 1: Pussy Riot’s Performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior

Who: Pussy Riot

What: Trial and Imprisonment for Public Performance

When: February 21, 2012

Where: The Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, Russia

Why: For criticizing the Russian Orthodox Church and Government

On February 21, 2012, a group of women only know by the name, “Pussy Riot,” marched into the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, Russia. Their goal? To demonstrate and publicly denounce the Russian Orthodox Church and its ties to the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. When the five balaclava-laden women began to sing, security guards immediately attempted to remove the women from the center of the church. Although their performance was cut short, the women were able to sing the majority of their song, “Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away.” Although the Cathedral was almost empty, the video of Pussy Riot’s performance and violent removal from the church became popular online, boosted by social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube.

One week later, Russian authorities detained three members of the group, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Ekaterina Samutsevich. The trio was imprisoned for six months before being presented in court, where they were convicted of “hooliganism.” In Russia, criminal hooliganism “is a crime characterized by flagrant violation of public order, accomplished using weapons or objects used as weapons, and allegedly motivated by religious, racial, national, political, or ideological hatred toward a particular social group” (Schuler 11). From this definition, Pussy Riot was not guilty of such a crime, as no weapons were used in their demonstration. However, their sentencing was not about whether rules were broken; it was instead about making a public display of the consequences of speaking out against the Russian government. Russian lawyers Genrikh Padva, Yury Schmidt, and Tatyana Nozhkina even released a statement during the trial declaring that “bringing criminal charges against these women is contrary to Russian law and is clearly legally erroneous” (Schuler 15).  During the trial, the women presented a weak defense, with only four witnesses who simply testified that the band members were not harmful to society. The judge immediately dismissed all of the defense’s evidence, and sentenced the women to two years of confinement in a labor camp. At the end of the trial, Tolokonnikova gave a final statement on behalf of Pussy Riot:

Who could have supposed that history, in particular the still recent history of Stalin’s terror, would not be taught at all? It makes you want to weep, looking at how methods of the medieval inquisition reign over security and judicial systems in the Russian Federation, which is our country. From the moment of our arrest we could not weep anymore, we have forgotten how to cry; we shouted in despair at our punk concerts, as we could and as we knew how, about the lawlessness of bosses and of power, but now they’ve stolen our voices (Pussy Riot’s Fourth Day of Trial).

In her emotional speech, Tolokonnikova summarizes Pussy Riot’s mission statement. She describes the group’s desire for the right to free speech in Russia, and its desire to move Russia away from the fearful culture that was originally imposed by Joseph Stalin 70 years prior to their trial. Her speech reaches out to Russian citizens, and begs them to question the government’s use of censorship as a means of preventing its citizens from speaking out against the government.

An important dynamic in understanding the censorship of Pussy Riot is Russian culture, and its differences from American culture. In his cultural study, “Pussy Riot, Putin and the Politics of Embodiment,” professor Andrew Wiget notes:

Unlike many Western democracies, whose political traditions are grounded in Enlightenment assumptions, Russia never embraced the notion of natural human rights, but only rights specified by positive law; individuals have no rights as persons, only as citizens (Quoted in Rourke 243).

As a result of these political ideas, it is difficult for the citizens of Russia to publicly demonstrate against the government. This concept is further supported by the events at the Sochi Olympics. Over the span of three days, both Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were arrested 3 times for publicly renouncing the Russian government (keep in mind that they had only been freed from prison several weeks prior to the Winter Games). During her final statement at her sentencing trial, Tolokonnikova remarked on how her experiences in prison made her realize how prison is a microcosm of Russia as a whole: “In the detention facility, as in our country, everything is aimed at depersonalization of a human being, reducing it to a function, whether it’s a function of a worker or a prisoner” (Tolokonnikova).

In this culture where citizens are coerced into strictly following and obeying the government’s rules, a band such as Pussy Riot cannot fit in. However, this does not mean that it should be ignored. Its messages have implications throughout the Russia, encouraging citizens to better Russia through social and political change. Unfortunately, not all Russian citizens are supportive of Pussy Riot and their performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Figure 4: Original Footage of Pussy Riot’s Performance and Subsequent Detainment

Many Westerners, however, viewed Pussy Riot’s actions as revolutionary, inspirational, and a form of protest comparable to the works of American social pioneers, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Yusupova 606). Nonetheless, many Russian citizens viewed the Moscow incident and its outcome in a far less-accepting light.  After the band members’ final trial, a poll was taken among citizens of Russia to gauge their attitude toward the group:

68% of Russians stated that they were aware of the trial of Pussy Riot. Forty-four percent considered the trial of Pussy Riot as just, impartial, and objective, while only 17% disagreed with that statement . Some 78% of people polled in September 2012 believed that the two-year sentence in a general regime penal colony the group members received was an adequate or light punishment, while only 2% said that such actions should not be criminally punishable. (Levada Analytical Center 2013, 123)

The Russian citizens’ opinions of the band members’ imprisonment as “adequate” (Levada Analytical Center 2013, 123) signifies a major social difference in Western and Russian ideals. The Western definition of feminism—”the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)—contrasts that of feminism in Russia. In Russia, feminism is not as blatant or public as it is in western countries, an observation that Suvi Samenniemi made: “Much of women’s lives are ultimately constructed as regulated by and mediated through men” (101).  Despite several liberal leaders in Russia expressing their opinions that Pussy Riot’s band members were being jailed unlawfully, a majority of citizens believed that the band had broken the law, and its members were deserving of their punishments.Some women even felt offended by the band’s lyrics and actions. Valeria Sperling, a political science professor notes that after the band members had been jailed, many women in Moscow that she interviewed “characterized Pussy Riot’s lyrics as embracing power and the abuse of violence, rather than specifically promoting a nonviolent feminist agenda” (592). Sperling’s study raises an important question: how are women’s opinions toward Pussy riot subconsciously impacted by oppressive cultural attitudes toward women? With this question, Pussy Riot has an answer. Through promoting the rights of women throughout Russia, Pussy Riot aims to upend the Russian government’s oppression of citizens and allow for women to formulate and express their own original opinions.

The effects of the coercion of citizens into submission in Russia are explored by Marina Yusupova, an East and European studies professor at the University of Manchester, who stated, “the public reaction and the locus of debates about Pussy Riot in Russia and in the Western countries were vastly different, not to mention diametrically opposed” (604).

Figure 5: Pussy Riot Speaks Against the Russian Government After Their Release

As a result of Pussy Riot’s censorship many western countries have looked down on Russia for its response to the band’s performances, as the treatment and censorship of the band has made the suppression of individuals in Russia a mainstream discussion. The release of Nadezhda and Alyokhina, most likely a public relation ploy, became a catalyst for them speaking out against human rights abuses in Russia. During a CNN interview Nadezhda asserts about the Russian government that “We are going to change this” (Nadezhda).

However, the Russian government was not the only entity who was offended by Pussy Riot’s demonstration, as The Russian Orthodox Church was also offended. Several priests were so upset by the performance that they protested outside of the court where the trial took place (Fig. 4)

One reason why they took offense to the demonstration comes from the verses of “Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away” (Pussy Riot), which state that “Their chief saint is the head of the KGB,” and that “a gay-pride parade [has been] sent to Siberia in shackles.” In challenging the Russian Orthodox Church—a prominent entity in Russian culture—Pussy Riot was doomed to be censored. But why would Pussy Riot protest against the Church? The answer lies within the political ties of the Russian Orthodox Church to the Russian Government, as well as its support of homophobic legislature. Several of Pussy Riot’s lyrics refer “to the Church-supported laws banning homosexual propaganda that had recently been passed in several Russian cities. This legislation ‘effectively prevents the LGBT community from organizing public events’” (Sperling, 599). Thus, Pussy Riot faced the same censorship by the government as the LGBT+ community when its performance was cut short and its members arrested.

In conclusion, through its performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and subsequent arrest and trial, Pussy Riot exposed the Russian government’s corruption and mishandling of its laws. Much like American social pioneers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Susan B. Anthony, the members of Pussy Riot face much opposition from the government, as well as lack the support of the Russian public. Despite its limited public support, Pussy Riot and its members are dedicated to their work. With their continued efforts, they may spur on social and political change to Russia.

Works Cited

Alyokhina, Maria. “Pussy Riot: Maria Alyokhina’s Closing Statement.” Critical Legal                            Thinking 20 Aug. 2012. Web.

“Feminism.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.

Mullen, Jethro, Diana Magnay, and Jason Hannah. “Imprisoned Pussy Riot Band Members            Released.” CNN. Cable News Network, 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

“Publications | Levada-Center.” Publications | Levada-Center. Levada Center, 2013. Web. 08          Nov. 2016.

“Pussy Riot’s Fourth Day of Trial – Live Updates.” RAPSI. Russian Legal Information                        Agency, 2 Aug. 2012. Web. 9 Nov. 2016.

Rourke, Brian, and Andrew Wiget. “Pussy Riot, Putin and the Politics of Embodiment.”                  Cultural Studies 30.2 (2016): 234-60. Web.

Schuler, Catherine. “Reinventing the Show Trial: Putin and Pussy Riot.” TDR: The Drama                Review 57.1 (2013): 7-17. Web.

Sperling, Valerie. “Russian Feminist Perspectives on Pussy Riot.” Nationalities Papers 42.4            (2014): 591-603. Web.

Yusupova, Marina. “Pussy Riot: A Feminist Band Lost in History and Translation.                              “Nationalities Papers 42.4 (2014): 604-10. Web.

Keywords: Russia, Vladmir Putin, Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow, Pussy Riot, Sochi 2014, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Ekaterina Samutsevich

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