A pussy is a riot

“They will put in their own comments,” says one of the arrested members of Pussy Riot in court as she watches the swarm of journalists and photographers taking endless shots of the women held in the glass cage, awaiting the verdict. “We’ll be just a background image. I don’t want to be a background image.”


Pussy Riot performing in Moscow Red Square in January 2012.

Whether we like it or not, we are living in the age where one revolution after another gets televised. Last year, human rights activists together with the liberal western public were holding their breaths, watching the trial of three members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot. In March 2012, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were arrested in the aftermath of their site-specific performance ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Away’ in the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Pussy Riot, a feminist performance art collective with strong punk influence, was established in September 2011 in direct response to a change in the law allowing Putin to run for the office of president for the third time in the upcoming election. The collective specialises in flash-mob-like interventions, performing punk protest songs with politically charged lyrics in colourful dresses, tights and with their faces always covered with balaclavas.

PR_poster.jpgPussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a documentary directed by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin of Roast Beef Productions, opens in UK cinemas on 5 July. The footage of the collective’s performances (including a famous Red Square gig in January 2012 that drew the filmmakers’ attention to the group) comes from the Pussy Riot’s archive. More archival material demonstrates Nadia and Katia’s performance art pedigree as it documents some of the actions of performance art group Voina (including Kiss a Cop), of which the two have been members.

They wanted to make an immersive portrait of the three arrested women

On 21 February 2012, members of Pussy Riot entered the Cathedral to deliver their fifth performance. Almost immediately, they were stopped and incapacitated by security guards, unable to finish the song. The directors Lerner and Pozdorovkin told me during an interview at Sheffield Doc/Fest last month that they arrived in Russia shortly after Nadia, Masha and Katia got arrested in March, so they knew the documentary would be one without any private access to its primary subjects.

As much as possible, the filmmakers aimed to let the women speak for themselves, using footage from both preliminary interrogations in the women’s detention centre and from the court. There are also numerous interviews with their families, giving the political and highly politicised story a personal twist. We see some reactions of the Russians quite literally on the street: most of them are negative and come from believers in religious processions, most prominently the zealous Orthodox Carriers of the Cross. There are short interviews with masked members of the collective who remain free, where they discuss their politics and reaction to the unexpected events.

While the clip of the prematurely terminated action went viral, the film includes a crucial documentation of the rehearsal for this performance, recorded by the BBC. Pozdorovkin explains how important it was to have this proof of how they were considering the political and feminist message of the performance, in order to counter the charges of blasphemy. We witness how despite impassioned speeches of three defendants and mounting international support, on 17 August 2012 all three get convicted, on the basis of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, and sentenced to two years in prison. After the appeal in October, Katia is released on probation while Nadia and Masha remain imprisoned in penal colonies in the east of Russia. Pussy_Riot_court.jpg

The process was followed by a massive media presence from the very beginning, even though Mike Lerner remarks in the interview how theirs was the only foreign crew during pre-trial hearings (“Lots of people wanted to know what we were doing there, they asked: ‘Why is it interesting to Brits?’ I said: ‘Britain invented punk rock'”). While some TV crews were making documentaries exploring the wider context in which both Pussy Riot’s protest activities and their trial took place, Pozdorovkin recalls how they quickly realised that what they wanted to make was an immersive, more private portrait of the three arrested women.

This decision has its merit but also results in certain shortcomings. As the focus is on the women, in part through stories about them told by others, the audience gets only the glimpses of the context. Historical background is explained in concise inserts about both the Soviets’ campaigns against the church after 1917 and Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s. Admittedly, this is enough to signal how seeking the historical origins of the present day always depends on where one is positioned: Pussy Riot’s performance and current predicament brings up memories and echoes of both the Bolsheviks desecrating the Cathedral and the victims of Stalinist-style mock trials.

“In the 16th century, they would have hanged them”

Putin’s political power is pictured in a sequence that could easily make it to an election campaign spot, featuring the cavalcade of black limousines speeding along broad Moscow boulevards and Putin marching, in a truly tsarist manner, down the red carpet in Kremlin, cheered on by supporters. No shots of a topless president on horseback, alas: this is a mighty emperor Pussy Riot takes on. Juxtaposed with this pomp and circumstance, the clip of the Red Square action powerfully reaffirms the collective’s punk DIY roots: neon balaclavas versus the fortress.

Family members interviewed include Nadia and Katia’s fathers and Masha’s mother, as well as Nadia’s husband (who seems to be cultivating a media career of his own). While they are very proud and supportive, other compatriots are not that impressed. Antipathetic prosecution lawyers accuse Pussy Riot’s excessively radical actions of bringing “irreparable damage to liberalism” and call them “intolerant fascists”. Most opponents seem to be motivated by the offense to their “religious feelings”, completely ignoring political dimension of the protest.

But it is with the ultra-religious Orthodox Cross Carriers (a group of bearded men sporting “Orthodoxy or Death” t-shirts) that the feminist politics of the situation comes to the fore most powerfully. One of the Carriers suggests that Pussy Riot should be translated as “Deranged vaginas”, and it is clear that the fact that it was women, not men, desecrating the altar, lies at the heart of their hatred. Chillingly matter-of-factly, the men agree: “In the 16th century, they would have hanged them.” In her statement early in the film, Nadia makes it clear that appearing on the altar as women was the central challenge of the performance. We witness as they get interrupted before they can sing a song which urges the mother of God to become a feminist.

Lerner emphasises that Russian society should not be castigated as extremely sexist and homophobic and contrasted to European ones to make us feel superior

Asked about their feminism during their recent incognito visit to London, members of Pussy Riot answered that while Russia is stuck between the first and the second wave of feminism, they’re promoting the third one, rejecting gender binaries and finding new ways to bring about gender equality. Their songs call out patriarchy and misogyny, sometimes in blunt metaphors, aiming to provoke discussion and make people challenge the values and arrangements they take for granted.

Lerner and Pozdorovkin’s film highlights feminist values at the core of the group which, according to its members, are key to their message. Even though the Russian context is unique and different to the UK’s, many issues seem familiar. At some point Katia’s dad, seeing her in court, tells her excitedly that people are planning to publish a CD of their music and call it Occupy Red Square. “Why not Kill all sexists?” asks Katia, referencing one of the group’s songs. Lerner emphasises that the Russian society should not be castigated as extremely sexist and homophobic and contrasted to European ones to make us feel superior. “Look at what happened in France,” he says, “100,000 people were on the streets of Paris protesting against gay marriage. Unfortunately, there’s a worldwide job to be done.”

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is informative for those not already familiar with the case and is at its best when the three women deliver their passionate speeches which are at the same time their political manifestos.

Paradoxically, the essential problem with the film is that by documenting the trial and sketching multi-dimensional portraits of Nadia, Katia and Masha, it departs from Pussy Riot’s preferred anonymity, the fact that they want to remain a loose performance collective of women sharing certain values and ideas, coming together in the instances of feminist punk actions. Here, neon balaclavas are removed to reveal three concrete faces, each with an individual story behind it. Indeed, these are three inspiring and courageous women. They should make us remember that the answer to people having a problem with either “pussy” or “riot” (or both) shall always be, as on Katia’s now iconic t-shirt, “¡No Pasarán!”.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer opens in selected cinemas on 5 July, check out full list of screenings.

The title of my review is borrowed from Selina Robertson’s poem included in Poems for Pussy Riot anthology we reviewed last October.

All images courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest, the second one (film poster) was taken by me.

Ania Ostrowska is Free Pussy Riot!