Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom: 150 pgs. By Kevin Dunn

Pussy Riot is a complex phenomenon to wrap your head around. They gained international prominence on February 21, 2012 when five members staged an impromptu performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Dressed in balaclavas, they launched into a “Punk Prayer,” calling for the Virgin Mary to drive Russian President Vladimir Putin from power, with the chorus: “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away. Put Putin away!” After about forty seconds, security drove them out of the cathedral.

If you weren’t there to witness the performance, you can view it on YouTube because the performance was video-taped by members of Pussy Riot. This is important because it suggests that the intended audience wasn’t so much the church-goers in attendance at that moment, but a larger cyber-audience. The event and, more importantly, the videotape of it, gained notoriety and three members of Pussy Riot—Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich—were later arrested and charged with felony hooliganism motivated by “religious hatred.” In August, the Russian courts found the three guilty and sentenced them to two years each of hard labor, though Samutsevich eventually had her sentence suspended.

Many observers in the West have sought to define Pussy Riot based on their own perspective. Or, perhaps more correctly, they try to fit Pussy Riot into already established pigeonholes. For some, Pussy Riot is a feminist punk band holding aloft the ongoing banner of riot grrrl. For others, they are a feminist art collective in the tradition of the Guerrilla Girls. For others, they are liberal activists fighting against the increasing repression of the Putin state. All of these interpretations are understandable, and they are also completely correct. But they are also extremely partial. In reality, Pussy Riot is a feminist collective that is far more complex and radical, defying easy categorization. Even the label “feminist” becomes complicated when applied to Pussy Riot.

The complexity (and revolutionary potential) of Pussy Riot and Westerners’ partial understanding of the phenomenon is the over-arching and unspoken theme of Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom, recently published by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York. The first part of this slim paperback volume is a collection of writings attributed to Pussy Riot, especially the three defendants. We are presented with the lyrics to “Punk Prayer,” a few press releases from the group, several letters by the defendants written from prison, excerpts from the court transcript, and the fantastic opening and closing statements from the defendants. These shed light on the complexities of the collective, while also capturing their humanity. When I first became aware of Pussy Riot, I cynically assumed that they were rather naïve because of the simplistic nature of their lyrics (a problem faced by most bands trying to articulate a political philosophy within standard verse/chorus constraints). But this collection of writings illustrates a group with an impressive level of political analysis, historical awareness, and global perspective. They knew what they were doing when they walked into the Cathedral with the cameras rolling.

They knew, but we still struggle to make sense of it. This is clear from the second part of the book, which is a collection of tributes from Western musicians, scholars, and activists, such as Tobi Vail, Bianca Jagger, and Yoko Ono. These tributes are short, with most of them not really worth much of your time. What they all seem to pick up on is the intensity of Pussy Riot’s actions. As Vail points out “Pussy Riot’s punk is pure protest.” But these are tributes, not analyses. Which is fine. Because it is clear from the first section that Pussy Riot is both a purely Russian phenomenon of a specific time and place, but also much, much more. Part riot grrrl, part radical art collective, part liberal activists, wholly feminist, Pussy Riot is far more than the sum of its parts. This short little book begins to give their revolution a voice. –Kevin Dunn (Feminist Press at CUNY)