On February 21, five members of Russian feminist protest-punk band Pussy Riot performed a “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. With colourful balaclavas over their faces, they began crossing themselves and bowing to the altar, imploring the Virgin Mary to “drive away Putin” and “become a feminist.” They filmed their protest, later uploading “Punk Prayer” onto Youtube. As the video gained notoriety, the authorities took notice. Three members of Pussy Riot are now in the process of appealing a two-year sentence on a charge of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.
Pussy Riot’s goal was to further the protest movement in advance of the March 4 election – which Putin won – and to embarrass the Russian Orthodox Church’s close ties with the President. The Russian protest movement has long derided Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow for his unbridled support for Vladimir Putin – whom the Patriarch referred to as “a gift from God” – and for dictatorial Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Kirill allegedly worked closely with the KGB during the 1980s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian media accused him of using the church to make millions from a duty-free cigarette import scheme. The Orthodox Church under Patriarch Kirill combines the oppressive power of religion, capital, and an authoritarian state, making it an obvious target for Pussy Riot’s punk indignation.
“Punk Prayer” is perhaps the most memorable and successful act of political performance art in our time, and has arguably done more to damage the reputation of the Putin regime outside of Russia than almost any other single act. As a result of their detention and allegations of harsh treatment, Pussy Riot has spread their message through Russia, where, apart from Moscow’s liberals, it has largely been met with religious outrage. In Western countries, where anti-Putin sentiment runs high, Pussy Riot has found sympathy among musicians and politicians. Although some conservatives in the West have questioned the ethics of disrupting a holy space for political purposes, the unsavoury closeness between the Patriarch and the President mitigates this concern.
Other than incarceration, several elements seem to have converged to make Pussy Riot’s protest so successful. The lyrics to “Punk Prayer” are bitterly acerbic: “The Church praises the rotten Dictators/The cross-bearing procession of black limousines.” The song itself is simple and rough punk rock, though for the chorus, Pussy Riot sings in a mock-Gregorian harmony, imploring the Virgin Mary to “drive away Putin.” Both culturally appealing and politically specific, “Punk Prayer” was more effective at arousing a global emotional reaction than the 2012 protest movement’s eloquent public speeches.
Of course, the question of gender is also intrinsic to the shock value of Pussy Riot’s performance, especially in the Russian context. As an all-female feminist punk band, Pussy Riot has positioned themselves against the male-dominated establishment. Many critics argue that women’s rights have regressed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox Church does not ordain female clergy, and even though women outnumber men in Russia, they make up only 14 per cent of the State Duma, the national parliament. Pussy Riot’s perceived attack on Orthodox Christianity was rendered more striking because its members were all female; moreover, their bright balaclavas and long clothing both desexualized and playfully militarized their image.
Perhaps the most important lesson from Pussy Riot’s protest is that the internet has created a new forum for political performance art with global reach. Subversive Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who has been under house arrest in Beijing since his release from prison in 2011, decided to mock the authorities last April. In recognition of the 15 surveillance cameras pointed at his house, Ai set up a further four webcams in his residence, allowing the public to become voyeurs into his life. Ai attracted 5.2 million views before his project was shut down by Chinese internet censorship. Despite Pussy Riot’s incarceration, the future looks brighter for subversive artists in repressive states, who are able to use the internet to disseminate their work.