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How Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayers Became a Movement

February 11, 2016

Russian band Pussy Riot made waves in 2012 when they staged a concert in a Moscow Church. As a result, three members spent two years in a labor colony. They have become the symbol of a small, but growing anti-Putin sentiment in Russia. 

 

This article was originally posted on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016 on Crosscut.com.

Even for the non-religious, there’s a certain spirituality inside Moscow’s Church of Christ Our Savior. Its gold-leaf onion domes tower over the skyline of Russia’s capital city, visible from almost any vantage point. Inside, it is silent save for the click of heels resonating in the rafters hundreds of feet above. Small candles, lit in memory of the dead, fill the space with beeswax smoke. Men in sharp leather shoes and women with head scarves kneel before religious paintings – physical manifestations of prayer.
 
On February 21, 2012, a band of young women in pink, yellow and green balaclavas came to this church, which is as significant to Russian Orthodoxy as the Salt Lake Temple is to Mormonism. Instead of candles, they had guitars and amplifiers. Their message, which they bellowed into the hall, was wholly political: The church, with political sway more powerful than even the evangelicals in the U.S., was in cahoots with Russian President Vladimir Putin. As a result, the man they say silenced opposition and bankrupted their country would never face a real challenge in national elections.
 
In the hours, months and years that followed, the world would become intimately familiar with Pussy Riot. For their performance in the Church of Christ Our Savior, band members spent two years in prison, sparking international outcry over human rights abuses, restriction of free speech, and the Russian criminal justice system.
 
Two members of the band — Masha Alyokhina and Ksenia Zhivago — came through Seattle this week for a free-form event at the Neptune Theater promoting the various causes that they champion — LGBT rights, feminism, separation between church and state — and a broader vision for Pussy Riot as a movement and not just a band. Crosscut sat down with both before the event.
 
There’s no denying that Pussy Riot, founded by Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, has mastered a modern brand of social media activism. It is a punk group, but there is no set lineup, and musicality is not a pre-requisite. The band’s anonymous appearances, seen by some opponents as cowardice, de-centralize its power by allowing anyone to don a mask and become a member. Many have done just that, including Madonna, who wore a balaclava at a 2012 concert in Moscow.
 
Pussy Riot performances are often attended by fewer than 20 people, but they all have cellphones out recording. “When we were [in the Church of Christ Our Savior], the church was quite empty,” says Alyokhina. “There were probably 10 or 15 people there.” But in the days following, the video received millions of views. “I don’t think we made the people [at the church] angry. We made angry the administration of Putin.”
 
Since their release, Pussy Riot has ballooned beyond a musical group, dipping its toe in more traditional forms of media and advocacy. Zhivago, among the newest members of the group, directs its efforts to free people serving unjust prison sentences. They have also launched Zona Media (Media Zone), now among the most popular media outlets in Russia.
 
“When the three of us in Pussy Riot were arrested, it became a movement” says Alyokhina, speaking in Russian. She describes the outpouring of support and media attention that left them well positioned to broaden their mission. “You should not expect classical waves of actions which we made before,” she says, switching to English. “They of course will [continue], but we think to build a media and a human rights project is also a kind of action. …We have to make experiments.”
 
Masha Alyokhina of Pussy Riot spent two years in prison. She was in Seattle Monday.
 
The conversation around Pussy Riot’s tactics should sound familiar in Seattle. Russian laws around homosexuality are fiercely restrictive: Russians have to be careful even discussing the topic lest they risk being tried for propaganda. So when Pussy Riot forced the issue into the public view, many Russians criticized them for being reckless provocateurs.
 
In Seattle last summer, two Black Lives Matter protestors commandeered the microphone at a rally where presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was scheduled to speak. It sparked a fierce debate about race, who has the right to say what when, and the value of pushing people out of their comfort zones.
 
Alyokhina argues that questions of LGBT, women’s and prisoners’ rights must be raised, even — and perhaps especially — if they make people squirm.
 
“If you do not ask yourself or you do not ask your society uncomfortable questions,” she says, “you start to [get] stuck at the same level.”

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