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The Power Of Pussy Riot’s Feminist Faith

By Betsy Phillips, Guest Contributor  

"The Power Of Pussy Riot’s Feminist Faith"

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The Soviets Destroy Christ the Savior Cathedral

You can see why Russians might be a little touchy about perceived threats to this church, since it's already been blown up once.

Like a lot of pop-culture loving feminists who grew up in the Riot Grrrl era, I’ve been keeping an eye on the whole Pussy Riot fiasco in Russia.  It’s kind of humbling to know that music that inspired me to get my ears pierced multiple times and to buy Doc Martens inspired these women to the kind of social protest that gets you thrown in prison. But while I certainly understood why they were arrested for making a video of them storming the altar area of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and singing their anti-Putin protest anthem, “Punk Prayer,” I didn’t really get why they were in the front of that church singing that song to begin with.

So, when I heard that Vanderbilt University was having a roundtable discussion on this very issue, I went over to hear what the experts had to say. I’m glad I went. The panelists were Timothy Beal, a professor from Case Western Reserve, Barbara Browning from NYU, Jen Gunderman from Vanderbilt, and Alex Spektor from Vanderbilt.  Joy Calico, also from Vanderbilt, moderated.

Professor Spektor went first and gave some context to why Pussy Riot picked that particular church for their performance. The cathedral was originally built to commemorate Napoleon’s retreat from Russia, and represented the power of God, and thus the Church, over Russian life. When the Soviets came to power, they destroyed the church. The symbolism of such an action is obvious. The Soviets then intended to build an enormous building commemorating Lenin on that spot.

The building never happened, but the foundation was built and the empty spot where the church wasn’t and where the Lenin monument was supposed to go took on a kind of symbolic power. In other words, even though the space was empty, everyone knew what had been there and what was supposed to be there. Khrushchev eventually turned the spot into an enormous swimming pool, to give the spot something to be other than just the emptiness where these important buildings weren’t. That, I would guess, did nothing to lessen the symbolic power of the spot. In 1990, the Russian Orthodox Church was given permission to rebuild the cathedral there and, in 2000, the cathedral was consecrated.

What Spektor explained was that the new church stands on a site of monumental rhetorical significance, a site that is always seen as meaningful by the people who have power at the time. So, it’s not just a church, not even just a cathedral, but a monument to who controls Russia. And the Church Patriarch has been incredibly supportive of Putin, seeing him as a man who is erasing the mistakes of history—in other words, erasing the erasure of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Pussy Riot, as Tim Beale later pointed out, is trying to disrupt this marriage of church and state, since the state uses religious leaders and religious symbolism to further the state’s agenda. Beale further went on to quote some from Pussy Riot about how they imagine religion as a “pool of creative wisdom” from which everyone is free to draw out what is meaningful and useful to them, whereas they see their opponents as using it as a political cudgel, which they think corrupts the Church.

Spektor then jumped in to point out that, because of the Church’s long and undeniably history of being oppressed under Soviet rule, this kind of critique within Russia isn’t really seen as being from a position of loving and wanting to save the Church, but just as an attack on it.

Barbara Browning pointed out that this isn’t unique to Russia. She made a direct comparison of Pussy Riot and the time ACT-UP protested the Catholic Church’s attitudes and policies towards gays and condom use by staging a die-in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. She pointed out that the protests upset a lot of people — including the mayor at the time, Ed Koch — since they saw it as sacrilegious or anti-religious, but that many of the protestors felt that what they were doing was a deep and strong prayer. (Koch, before his death, spoke out in favor of how Russia dealt with Pussy Riot.) Browning urged the audience to consider that what, from one angle, can look like desecration can, for the seeming-desecrator, be a holy act.

Jen Gunderman then gave a brief history of the musical traditions that Pussy Riot is pulling from (And, hey, if you ever want to feel old, sit in a room full of undergrads and watch their faces as they hear the Sex Pistols for the first time!)—the politics and snot-nosed rebellion of punk rock, the feminist DIY ethos of Riot Grrls, and the sound of the Pixies.

One thing that struck me, which Gunderman and I talked briefly about afterward, was that Pussy Riot does something I know of only one other example of in secular music — they, women, call on Mary for help specifically because they feel she should be in sympathy with them as a woman.

Pussy Riot  in the You Tube translation says, “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist,” “Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!” and “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away.” But Critical Mass Choir’s website has a translation from Carol Rumens that maybe gets at the spirit of the song better than a literal translation (It does for me, anyway, but my Russian is terrible) — ” Join our protest, Holy Virgin, please” and then “Virgin Mary, Mother of God/ Holy feminist, we pray thee/ Virgin Mary, Mother of God/ Be a fucking feminist, set Mother Russia free.”

It’s impossible for me to listen to those words and not hear the echo of Liz Phair’s “Help Me, Mary:” “Help me, Mary, please/ I’ve lost my home to thieves.”  She then goes on to list a bunch of misogynistic crap she faces from the men she’s most intimately connected to and finishes with “I’m asking you, Mary, please,/ Temper my hatred with peace./ Weave my disgust into fame/ And watch how fast they run to the flame.” And how many people, even if they acknowledge the genius of Exile in Guyville, still kind of dismiss it as being a self-indulgent whine of a middle-class gal who doesn’t have it so bad?

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, the two members of Pussy Riot who are in prison, are young enough to be the daughters of the woman in Liz Phair’s song. And I can’t help but thinking about what a difference a generation makes. Phair’s subject needed Mary’s help just to transform herself. Pussy Riot believes a song about Mary can change a whole country. It’s a good reminder of the power of pop culture, that what we dismiss as silly or stupid or bratty is, often, the thing that has the most real influence.

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