After a busy day and a nice run home, what’s better than watching documentaries about political protest in Russia? Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer has been on my list for a while, so I finally committed to watching it.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Formed in August 2011, Pussy Riot wrote songs criticizing Putin and the patriarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church while championing feminism and LGBT rights. They became YouTube sensations by staging unauthorized performances in Red Square and posting videos. One performance in particular, however, sparked a reaction from the government. On February 21, 2012, five members of Pussy Riot took over the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and performed before they were detained by church officials. The documentary centers around Nadia, Masha, and Katia, the three members who went on trial. While Katia was released, Nadia and Masha were sentenced to two years in separate prisons; they were given amnesty just prior to the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. Members of Pussy Riot, including Nadia and Masha, performed to protest the games, but the group later issued a statement declaring that Nadia and Masha were no longer members.
Photo courtesy of BBC.co.uk
The documentary delves into the pasts of the accused, but also questions whether or not the cathedral performance was effective. Religion is a touchy subject in Russia; after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, practicing religion was outlawed. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was demolished in 1931 and replaced by a swimming pool, but was rebuilt following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pussy Riot’s performance touched a nerve within the religious community and, some argued, “Now people think that all liberals are intolerant fascists who don’t listen to the opinions of others.” I wondered how much of that statement was true and in which communities it resonated.
I was also reminded of just how quickly the media latches on to story and then discards it when it no longer generates interest. Throughout Nadia’s sentence, a steady stream of articles documenting the prison’s conditions, her ongoing hunger strike, and her exchange of communication with her husband and family. The media cast Masha aside and latched onto Nadia as the face of Pussy Riot. But when the pair were released, media coverage subsided dramatically. While the group’s activity is difficult to find in English media, Nadia and Masha continue to speak at festivals and universities; to find these sources, though, you have to do some digging.
By the end of the film, I found myself drawing parallels to the current protests in Ferguson and wondering how it is possible to affect change within such a rigid system. Documentation is such an important part of the process because without it, movements can be denied and expunged from history. I think of the important work generated from photographers like my friend Lucas or the constant Twitter dialogues from journalist Shaun King that keep the conversation alive. While major media outlets move on to other hot ticket items, there is still work to do.
I don’t know what will happen to Pussy Riot any more than I can predict the outcome of the protests in Ferguson. But I do agree that a critical element of progress is keeping that drive alive. For her closing remarks, Masha faced the court and declared:
“You can only deprive me of my “so-called” freedom. Nobody can take my inner freedom. And when this is heard by thousands, this freedom lives in every person who is not indifferent and inside those who hear us in this country, for every person who recognizes a piece of themselves on trial. As in the works of Franz Kafka and Guy Debord, I believe that honest and thirst for truth will make us all a bit more free. We will see this.”
I feel as though this quote extends well beyond the context of Masha’s speech. When the freedom of others is denied, we’re all on trial. Stay thirsty, my friends.