Pussy Riot: Guilty of Crimes of Blasphemy or Being Feminists? By Michele Stopera Freyhauf


In a country that was willing to [sic] its secular court on a “religious” cause, Pussy Riot are true revolutionaries. Nonetheless, it was not until they delivered these closing statements that their supporters—and opponents—heard what these three brave women stand for. Although they are being crushed in the jaws of the system—and know it!—their courage and steadfast sincerity are sufficient cause for (impossible) hope. If not for the Russian state, then at least for the Russian people. —Bela Shayevich

“When religion puts people in jail it’s unjust” – David Gross 

The intermix of religion and politics are familiar, especially after this year’s presidential election.  Many supported Mitt Romney out of concern for religious freedom; a stance that had the potential to marry religion and politics in a dysfunctional union.  We also witnessed a veiled attempt by the Catholic Church to emphasize and sway the faithful to vote for the one true moral candidate; a stance contradicted by Obama’s ability to carry the Catholic vote.  I believe what we see in Russia is a shining example that shows what happens when regulations and laws do not segregate between secular law and church law.  Freedoms do not exist, rather, rules and restrictions are imposed creating an institutional prison.

The prosecution of an all girl punk band named Pussy Riot [i]  demonstrates a “complete fusion of the institutions of the state and church,” which devalues “women’s rights and freedom of speech.”Members of Pussy Riot are serving a two year sentence of hard labor for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”  What was their crime?  They went into a Cathedral in Moscow and started singing a punk prayer – “Mother of God, Chase Putin Out!”

(The translated lyrics)

From The Atlantic.com

Frm the Atlantic.com

Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!

Drive away Putin, drive away Putin!

Black frock, golden epaulettes

Parishioners crawl bowing [toward the priest, during the Eucharist]

Freedom’s ghost [has gone to] heaven

A gay-pride parade [has been] sent to Siberia in shackles

Their chief saint is the head of the KGB

He leads a convoy of protestors to jail

So as not to insult the Holiest One

Woman should bear children and love

Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit!

Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit!

Virgin birth-giver of God, become a feminist!

From AlJazeera.com

Become a feminist, become a feminist!

The Church praises rotten leaders

The march of the cross consists of black limousines

A preacher is on his way to your school

Go to class and give him money!

Patriarch Gundyay believes in Putin

Would be better, the bastard, if he believed in God!

The Virgin’s belt won’t replace political gatherings

The eternal Virgin Mary is with us in our protests!

Virgin birth-Giver of God, drive away Putin!

Drive away Putin, drive away Putin!

Original Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grEBLskpDWQ&feature=related

Finished Video (music added): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYzlaBPCM6c&feature=related

They danced, kneeled, and crossed themselves in front of the Church’s high altar.   This occurred the day before the re-election of Vladimir Putin.  While I do not support going into a sacred space with relics to make a protest, what I find problematic is their harsh sentence.  However, it should be noted that with the coverage of the trial and the outpouring of support received from many organizations, and musicians, they did manage to bring to the forefront issues surrounding the government and the Church.

INITIAL CHRONOLOGY OF THE CASE outlines the events that led to the charges and their arrest:

• On 21 February 2012 “Pussy Riot”, the Russian feminist punk band, performs a ‘punk-prayer’ with the chorus “Virgin Mary, Become Feminist / Virgin Mary, Hash Putin Away” at the altar of the Christ the Savior cathedral in Moscow. The ‘prayer’ lasts for less than a minute after which the band members are removed from the church by guards.

• The same day a montage video of the ‘punk-prayer’ appears on Youtube, going viral with over 600,000 views.

• In the following days the Russian Orthodox Church initiates a criminal case against “Pussy Riot”, charging the band with ‘hooliganism’, a crime that comes with a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. The Federal Security Service’s (FSB) Special Department on Terrorism takes on the case, while some Orthodox Christian activists report the names of the alleged band members online. A massive public smear-campaign against the “blasphemous women” starts.

When reading through the proceedings, articles, and transcripts, I have to ask the question – is their crime blasphemy or being a feminist?  To answer that question, one needs to review the transcript of the Judge‘s speech before handing down the harsh two-year sentence to two of the band members to hard labor in the two “harshest prisons” in Russia – Perm and Mordovia – and away from their small children (and families):

“The Court cannot agree with a lack of hate motive. The defendants position themselves as supporters of feminism, that is, the movement for equal rights for men and women. But the state guarantees equal rights. Belonging to feminism is not a crime, but is incompatible with Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Islam.  Although feminism is not a religion, it intrudes into areas that are significant to religion.”

The Eonomist describes how the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin’s government work with each other:

The Russian Orthodox church, which has long found itself in a symbiotic embrace with Mr Putin, has become a central pillar of legitimacy in this political struggle. Svetlana Solodovnik, who studies the Orthodox church, says that religious leaders work “to nurture a paternalistic mood” among the population and “to teach people to rely on the state and to be grateful for its care.”

Yekaterina Samutsevichm, one of the band members, makes a statement about the corruption in the political system and insitutional church.

Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” violated the integrity of the media image that the authorities had spent such a long time generating and maintaining, and revealed its falsity. 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.

Perhaps the unpleasant, far-reaching effect of our media intrusion into the cathedral was a surprise to the authorities themselves. At first, they tried to present our performance as a prank pulled by heartless, militant atheists. This was a serious blunder on their part, because by then we were already known as an anti-Putin feminist punk band that carried out its media assaults on the country’s major political symbols.

In the end, considering all the irreversible political and symbolic losses caused by our innocent creativity, the authorities decided to protect the public from us and our nonconformist thinking. Thus ended our complicated punk adventure in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

I now have mixed feelings about this trial. On the one hand, we expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial.

Carole Cadwalladr gleans across the crimes this group is charged with to point to the bigger issue – they are being punished for an ideology – one that threatens the status quo:

It doesn’t matter which of them got arrested. That’s the point – that they’re not individuals, they’re an idea. And that’s the thing that has gripped Russia and caught the attention of the rest of the world, too: that the Russian government has gone and arrested an idea and is prosecuting through the courts with a vindictiveness the Russian people haven’t before seen. An idea perpetrated by three young, educated, middle-class women, or devushki (girls), as the Russians call them.

Another band member, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, conveyed this same idea in her closing statement:

Essentially, it is not three singers from Pussy Riot who are on trial here. If that were the case, what’s happening would be totally insignificant. It is the entire state system of the Russian Federation which is on trial and which, unfortunately for itself, thoroughly enjoys advertising its cruelty towards human beings, its indifference to their honour and dignity, the very worst that has happened in Russian history to date. To my deepest regret, this mock trial is close to the standards of the Stalinist troikas. Thus, we have our investigator, lawyer and judge. And then, what’s more, what all three of them do and say and decide is determined by a political demand for repression. Who is to blame for the performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and for our being put on trial after the concert? The authoritarian political system is to blame. What Pussy Riot does is oppositional art or politics that draws upon the forms art has established. In any event, it is a form of civil action in circumstances where basic human rights, civil and political freedoms are suppressed by the corporate state system.

Since the turn of the millennium many people, relentlessly and methodically flayed alive by the systematic destruction of liberties, have rebelled.

We were looking for authentic genuineness and simplicity and we found them in the holy foolishness of our punk performances. Passion, openness and naivety are superior to hypocrisy, cunning and a contrived decency that conceals crimes. The state’s leaders stand with saintly expressions in church but, in their deceit, their sins are far greater than ours. We’ve put on our political punk concerts because the Russian state system is dominated by rigidity, closedness and caste and the policies pursued serve only narrow corporate interests to the extent that even the air of Russia makes us ill.

We are absolutely not happy with—and have been forced into acting and living politically by—the use of coercive, strong-arm measures to handle social processes, a situation in which the most important political institutions are the disciplinary structures of the state – the security agencies, the army, the police, the special forces and the accompanying means of ensuring political stability: prisons, preventive detention and mechanisms to closely control public behaviour. Nor are we happy with the enforced civic passivity of the bulk of the population or the complete domination of executive structures over the legislature and judiciary. Moreover, we are genuinely angered by the fear-based and scandalously low standard of political culture, which is constantly and knowingly maintained by the state system and its accomplices. Look at what Patriarch Kirill has to say: “The Orthodox don’t go to rallies.” We are angered by the appalling weakness of horizontal relationships within society. We don’t like the way in which the state system easily manipulates public opinion through its tight control of the overwhelming majority of media outlets. A perfect example is the unprecedentedly shameless campaign against Pussy Riot, based on the distortion of facts and words, which has appeared in nearly all the Russian media, apart from the few independent media there are in this political system.

Even so, I can now state—despite the fact that we currently have an authoritarian political situation—that I am seeing this political system collapse to a certain extent when it comes to the three members of Pussy Riot, because what the system was counting on, unfortunately for that system, has not come to pass. Russia as a whole does not condemn us. Every day more and more people believe us and believe in us, and think we should be free rather than behind bars. I can see this from the people I meet. I meet people who represent the system, who work for the relevant agencies. I see people who are in prison. And every day there are more and more people who support us, who hope for our success and especially for our release, who say our political act was justified. People tell us, “To start with, we weren’t sure you could have done this,” but every day there are more and more people who say, “Time is proving to us that your political gesture was correct. You have exposed the cancer in this political system and dealt a blow to a nest of vipers who then turned on you.” These people are trying to make life easier for us in whatever way they can and we are very grateful to them for that…

Finally, closing Statements from Maria Alyokhina, the last member of the band to be charged:

This is especially traumatizing given the overall punitive tendency and the absence of any real psychological assistance. All interactions are based on the exploitation of the children’s feelings of fear and forced submission. And as a result, their own cruelty increases many times over. Many children there are illiterate; but no one makes any effort to battle this—on the contrary, every last drop of motivation for personal development is discouraged. The individual closes off entirely and loses faith in the world.

I would like to note that this method of personal development clearly impedes the awakening of both inner and religious freedoms, unfortunately, on a mass scale. The consequence of the process I have just described is ontological humility, the existential humility of socialization. To me, this transition, or rupture, is noteworthy in that, if approached from the point of view of Christian culture, we see that meanings and symbols are being replaced by those that are diametrically opposed to them. Thus one of the most important Christian concepts, Humility, is now commonly understood not as a path towards the perception, fortification, and ultimate liberation of Man, but on the contrary as an instrument for his enslavement. To quote [Russian philosopher] Nikolai Berdyaev, one could say that “the ontology of humility is the ontology of the slaves of God, and not the sons of God.” When I was involved with organizing the ecological movement, I became fundamentally convinced of the priority of inner freedom as the foundation for taking action. As well as the importance, the direct importance of taking action as such.

In Colin Jager’s article “Rethinking Secularism: Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer,” he points out that in 1950 several poets enetered the Notre Dame Cathedral and in the middle of the service, Michel Mourre, who was dressed as a Dominican Monk, from the pulpit started to read a sermon that condemned the Catholic Church for ‘infecting the world with its funeral morality’ then went on to announce “that God was dead ‘so that Man may live at last.”  Their sentence – serving 11 days in jail (not a prison camp) and then released.

A letter from 35 “prominent lawyers” asserted that “the Pussy Riot cathedral performance was no crime” and that although they do not think their actions were positive, their punishment was too severe.  Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated publicly (November 2, 2012) that the band should not be in jail – the time served is enough.

Cadwalladr further states:

It’s the severity of the penalty that has shocked most Russians. Even conservative, religious Russians who thought their act was silly or offensive. Very few defendants are imprisoned pre-trial. Certainly not ones with young children accused of non-violent crimes. More than 200 well-known public people signed an open letter condemning the trial, including many Putin supporters, and another 41,000 rank-and-file Russians have added their signatures.

President Vladimir Putin  flatly rejected on Thursday Western criticism of the imprisonment of the Pussy Riot punk protest band, saying its three female members deserved their fate because they threatened the moral foundations of Russia:

It’s extraordinary what Pussy Riot have done. How they have taken feminism to one of the most macho countries on Earth. How they have revealed the faultlines at the heart of the Russian state, the moral bankruptcy of the Putin regime. It’s hard to reconcile that with the women I met, with their skinny shoulders and thin wrists and lack of any weaponry bar guts and wit. The word absurd has been worn thin with use, but there’s no other way to describe what is happening in Russia today.

“Putin is scared of us, can you imagine?” says Squirrel. “Scared of girls.”

“It was just a prayer. A very special prayer,” says Sparrow.

“The most important dictator, Putin, is really afraid of people,” says Squirrel. More specifically, he’s afraid of Pussy Riot. Afraid of a bunch of young, positive, optimistic women unafraid to speak their minds.”

I will conclude with a question by Natalia Antonova:

At a time like this, would Jesus have retreated into the comfortable opulence of the church’s administrative offices? Or would he have gone knocking on the jailhouse doors?

I don’t need to think hard about the answer.  Do you?  I would like to hear your thoughts on this subject.


[i] The name Pussy Riot—they use a transliterated version of the English words—that combines radical performance with leftist ideas ranging broadly from anti-authoritarianism to feminism; the group cites figures such as Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva among their many sources of inspiration, as well as the American punk-rock band Bikini Kill and the riot-grrrl movement of the nineties.

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.   She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies, performed post-graduate work in History focusing on Gender, Religion, and Sexuality at the University of Akron, and is an Adjunct Instructor in the Religious Studies Department at Ursuline College.  Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://durham.academia.edu/MSFreyhauf.  Michele can be followed on twitter at @MSFreyhauf.



Categories: Abuse of Power, Activism, Art, Catholic Church, Ethics, Feminism, Gender and Power, General, Hierarchy, Human Rights, Justice, Politics, Resistance, Women's Agency, Women's Rights

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. Thanks for posting all of this. This is the first time I saw the prayer-song words. I don’t know what was in these women’s hearts, but the words of their song certainly can be read as an act of feminist theology, though not the good-girl kind. But then the church they are protesting may be colluding with a corrupt power system and preaching patriarchy, which could be construed as false preaching.

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  2. The similarities between Pussy Riot and Theresa Kane:

    They both challenged power in ways that “upset” traditional “decorum.”
    They both asserted the power of women to define theology.
    There were those who found Pussy Riot offensive.
    There were those who found Theresa Kane offensive.
    They both were vilified by traaditional authorities for playing “out of bounds.”

    The differences between Pussy Riot and Tereas Kane:

    Pussy Riot sang their prayer in a church,
    Theresa Kane posed a question to the popein a public gathering.
    Pussy Riot used “swear words.”
    Theresa Kane did not.
    Pussy Riot got jail sentences.
    Uppidy nuns are being investigated by the Vatican.

    One running clash between John Paul and the West was on women. The pope championed an anthropological concept called “complementarity.” The idea is that bodily differences give men and women different, but equally important, roles that “complete” one another. The concept was employed to support the ban on the ordination of women to the priesthood, and hence was rejected by Western progressives who saw it as a smokescreen for patriarchy. Yet some observers believe that “complementarity” offers untapped resources for justifying a greater role for women in all areas of church life, if the female perspective really is essential to “complete” the masculine. Some futurists even predict that if the Catholic church does one day ordain women, John Paul will be the pope who created the intellectual basis for doing so.

    If so, it would not be what he had in mind. In 1994, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, he wanted to close the theological debate over women priests. Gauged by the volume of ongoing debate (there is even a Web site, http://www.womenpriests.org, devoted to the cause), this was perhaps the least effective ambition of his reign.

    In 1979, an American woman religious, Mercy Sr. Teresa Kane, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, in a welcoming address, urged the pope to include “half of humankind” in “all the ministries of the church.” John Paul’s stony silence in response became a defining moment for many Catholic women. Kane herself was frozen out of future prominent roles in the church. In 1999, during a lunch in the papal apartments, John Paul asked another American sister to carry his regards to Teresa Kane. No public rehabilitation, however, was forthcoming.

    National Catholic Reporter obit of Pope John Pau II.

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  3. Slavoj Zizek in his `The True Blasphemy` calls Pussy Riot “the noblest kind of conceptual artists”. They have also been described as the apotheosis (so far) of the situationist detournement of public and commercial spaces…by feminist artists. As for the Biblical “abomination of the desolation” being Putin and Patriarch Kiril (now with added Pope) well that`s what it looks like to me. Evil men (small penis?) scared of girls with intellect and truth and art. Pussy Riot have `upstaged` the State and Church. The Miraculous Appearance of Pussy Riot in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour,Moscow, is now an eternal work of art free on the internet. It`s a shame Camille Paglia didn`t end her new book `Glittering Images` with pics of this.

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