Have you been following the story of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot and their so-called “punk prayer protest” against Russian President Vladimir Putin? The band, whose highest-profile members are three young women now facing a three-year prison sentence, has vowed to continue its protests against the Putin regime despite harassment from the Kremlin and church authorities.
The story fascinates me on several levels. First, the group itself is just bizarre. They wear brightly colored balaclavas, short skirts, mismatched tights, use nicknames and invoke plenty of shocking profanity to cause most any babushka (grandmother) great distress. Then, there are the strangeness and shock value of their form of protest. In February, they protested Putin’s re-election by showing up at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour of the Russian Orthodox Church and performing a politically provocative song and dance. Having myself visited this hallowed, tourists’ pilgrimage site and marveled at the beautiful intricacy of the architecture and the prescribed holiness of the building’s interior, I can only begin to appreciate the glaring shock of the scene in such a revered place. In their song, the women asked “Theotokos,” or the “Mother of God” (the Virgin Mary) to “chase Putin away,” and accused the Russian Patriarch and head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill I of Moscow, of believing in Putin rather than in God.
Wow. The question is, is this courageous protest or sheer “hooliganism,” as some have called it? Maybe the line is somewhere in between, but I’m inclined to think there is more of courageous protest here than of the latter.
Because at heart there is something in this story that invokes another narrative some of us have read before, about a young boy, David, and his sling and stone, and a great, big Philistine giant: three young women, still “adolescents” by modern-day standards, facing up to a powerful, middle-aged dictator who runs his country with an increasingly tighter iron fist; three punk rocker girls whose only “weapon” are their music and their voices and a video camera, facing up to a church hierarchy that throughout Russia’s history has almost consistently colluded with corrupt governments: from the Stalinist regime to earlier tsars before Stalin, the Russian Orthodox Church has been as “religious” about being on the side of governing power as it has been about its icons.
Now these punk women have earned the epithet of “anti-religious” from the church hierarchy- and I can’t help but applaud them for it! If it is “anti-religious” to protest a church that throws its weight so squarely on the side of the Caesars of this world, rather than rendering to such Caesars only what is their due, not more, then I hope Pussy Riot wears their new epithet with pride.
To be sure, the women’s protest in some cases has been laced with profanity. Whether or not such R-rated material is necessary to issue a real wake-up call against the injustices of an autocrat, I don’t know. But, another question is this: is it possible that this sort of punk rocker performance actually constitutes “prayer” (hooded singers in mismatched tights, singing and dancing around a cathedral, asking for divine intervention to remove Putin)? If prayer can be a form of social action, can it not also be social protest? If so, what might this look like? Is a “riot in the cathedral” one incarnation?
What do you think? Leave your thoughts below.