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.