On February 21, the feminist collective Pussy Riot crossed the restricted threshold of the altar and began dancing and singing in front of the iconostasis of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. They delivered approximately 30 seconds of the "punk prayer" "Mother of God, Chase Putin Out," before being removed by security guards. The restored Cathedral, destroyed under Stalin and converted into a swimming pool under Khrushchev, stages the complicated relationship between the revival of Orthodox Christianity and the development of Russian nationalism and post-Soviet political sovereignty.
On August 17, three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a labor colony for hooliganism grounded in religious hatred. The media had a trial of its own, scrutinizing everything from the group's gender presentation to their musical abilities. But what, exactly, was on trial and what are the stakes?
On the day of the verdict, Eduard Bagirov, a controversial, Putin-friendly media figure, tweeted the following:
"Not a single normal Russian person would ever support the 'actions' of these cunts. Notice that support comes exclusively from immigrants, faggots, and Yids" (trans. mine).
As a diagnostic tool, Bagirov's comment reveals that on trial were the criteria for "normal Russian personhood" — defining who will count as Russian and who will be the constitutive other(s).
For Pussy Riot, the "punk prayer" aimed to undo the identification between "normal Russian personhood," Putin's regime, and the Orthodox Church. The mutual constitution of a unified "Russian people" and a unified "Orthodox Christianity" reinforce the legitimacy of Putin's sovereignty along with that of his former KGB colleague Patriarch Kirill Gundyayev. On trial, then, was also the possibility of religious contestation — i.e. that one might be critical of a religious tradition and nonetheless speak for it rather than hatefully against it. As one blogger for Women in Theology notes, the language of Judge Marina Syrova's ruling pits Pussy Riot's feminist commitments against the "antifeminism" of Christianity. Judge Syrova explains that "The court does find a religious hatred motive in the actions of the defendants by way of them being feminists who consider men and women to be equal. Now gender equally [sic] is asserted, maintained by the Russian constitution [...] At the same time, Orthodox Christianity, and Catholic Christianity and other denominations do not agree with feminism and their own values are not in line with feminists."
Playing a theologian or a historian, the Judge publicly establishes a uniform "Orthodox Christianity," whose constitutive feature is an opposition to equality between men and women, so much so that any challenge to this inequality constitutes an act of hatred. Since the Judge makes clear that sex-based discrimination is unlawful in Russia, one wonders why sex-based discrimination with religious "credentials" can become legally sanctioned. Is Orthodox Christianity an extra-legal space that represents "the Russian people" but is not subject to its laws?
The ruling's logic forecloses on the possibility of such questions in part because it figures "Orthodox Christianity" as a static object rather than a dynamic tradition, whose various claims to "orthodoxy" are themselves products of historical negotiations that could have turned out differently. Hence, even as the Judge claims divergence between Russian law and "opposition to feminism," she nonetheless discursively reconstitutes a unified "Orthodox Christianity," adding "antifeminism" to the chain of congruencies between Putin, "normal Russian personhood," and "Orthodox Christianity." The intactness of this discursive framework relies on the impossibility of interpreting Pussy Riot's performance as an act of religious devotion that effectuates disidentification between Orthodox Christianity and "the Russian people" on the one hand and Putin, antifeminism, and the Patriarch on the other.
"In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch's blessing, to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture, thus suggesting that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch, and Putin, but that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia."
The "punk prayer" inverts the locale of Christian authority, declaring the Virgin's solidarity with their countercultural project. They prayed, "Virgin Mary, mother of God, become a feminist." They pled that Patriarch Gundyayev renounce his idolatrous worship of Putin and worship God instead. During the performance, the group cloaked their faces with balaclavas to protect their identities but also to de-hierarchize the liturgical space. The "punk prayer" performance troubled the binaries between clergy and laity, men and women, leader and follower, and fame and anonymity. It appealed to the "feminism" of the Virgin Mary against the "antifeminism" of Putin and the Church elite and leveraged an improvisational, communal mode of prayer, without a frontman, against a highly-centralized, hierarchical liturgical modality. In their closing statements, Pussy Riot continued to draw a connection between their own actions and the biblical drama of the New Testament, where those persecuted for blasphemy turned out to be the rightful bearers of divinity.
Christian supporters of Pussy Riot see the "punk prayer" as an important attempt at elaborating a Christian counterculture. In a petition to the World Council of Churches, a group organized under the slogan of "Christians for Pussy Riot" presents the "punk prayer" and its colorful, disruptive accouterments, as continuous with the tradition of being a fool for Christ, a tradition that enjoyed a particular presence in Byzantine and Russian Orthodox Christianity. As Sergey Ivanov argues, holy foolery in Russia emerged simultaneously with the formation of czarism. Holy fools kept the gap between secular authority, however despotic, and divine authority from closing. The genealogy of the figure of the "holy fool" can be traced from the Paul of 1 Cor. 1-4 to Dostoyevsky's "idiot." While the criteria of "holy foolery" vary historically, one constant feature that Ivanov observes is that holy fools functioned as "cultural antennae" and rehearsed the hypocrisies, idolatries, and abuses of a religious community fallen into sin and decline.
Although Pussy Riot's performance has succeeded in capturing the countercultural religious imagination of some Christians, the "success" of their performance relies on the ability of "normal Russian persons" to read the difference between the critical voice of "holy foolery" and the destructive voice of religious hatred. Ultimately, then, on trial was the critical efficacy of their actions. In other words, what theological and political resources would their audiences need for their performance to generate a spark of countercultural world-building?
The question of efficacy has been at the forefront for those invested in radical politics. For some, Pussy Riot's statements, which portray the masses as conformist automatons, raise the specter of vanguardism. For others, the perception of elitism is problematic not for its antidemocratic implications but for its easy incorporation into Putin's anti-dissent strategies, where "normal Russian persons," whom Putin purportedly represents, are positioned against the intellectual and creative elites. The worry is that far from an instrument of disruption, Pussy Riot's dissent becomes a fine-tuned instrument for consolidating Putin's sovereignty.
The worry about efficacy also echoes in complaints about the ease with which Pussy Riot's highly fashionable cause has been embraced by the West. Exactly how countercultural can you be if "Free Pussy Riot" memorabilia is being sold at a Madonna concert and "support" for the group just means flexing your consumer muscle? Western cooptation testifies to the power of commodification. It also betrays a potent political fantasy about the nature of Pussy Riot's protest. As Vadim Nikitin points out, the West's outdated reflex to venerate any Russian dissenter as a "Cold War trophy" misses the point. Pussy Riot is not fighting for "freedom of expression" understood as libertarian "freedom" of rabid individualism and unfettered capitalism. Theirs is a radical politics targeting the corporatization of public institutions—church and state. In other words, the religious and political counterculture of Pussy Riot activism, which has a history and a future far greater than the "punk prayer," equally indicts American neoliberalism and its destruction of democratic culture by capitalist logics. And the West's support for Pussy Riot may be its own perfectly-calibrated exercise in absorbing radical political dissent.
As the appeals process begins and various international groups strategize about how to support Pussy Riot, the question of what "we" can do to help "them" might be helpfully displaced and politicized by asking a different question: What kinds of radical changes would need to happen in our own religious and political cultures for our own "punk prayers" to be answered?
*Translation from Russian sources are by the author of this Sightings essay.
Larisa Reznik is a PhD candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago, focusing on religious thought in the modern West. Her research interrogates the intersection of religion, politics, and gender.