A Punk Band’s Prayer – Deliver Us from Putin

“Open all the doors, tear off your epaulets

Come, taste freedom with us.“

Pussy Riot

Russia’s literature and music has always had a political connotation to it. With no outlet to vent their frustrations, Russia’s artists, writers and poets have been some of their country’s greatest patriots and also its biggest critics. The recent controversy over the state’s punishment of a punk bands “concert” has ignited the passions of Russia’s youth about the issue of free speech. The band Pussy Riot performed a controversial anti-Kremlin concert in a Moscow cathedral to the delight of their fans and to the disgust of the authorities all the way up to Putin himself.

Hooliganism is an official charge that can carry a sentence anywhere between 3 to 8 years in prison and it’s the state’s official charge brought upon the bands member. It’s also likely to stick. This is Russia – and sometimes it shows just how different it can be.


What drives these young women’s hearts? Nadezhda Tolokonnikova explains in her closing statements.

“We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [holy foolishness] of punk. Passion, total honesty, and naivete are superior to the hypocrisy, mendacity, and false modesty that are used to disguise crime. The so-called leading figures of our state stand in the Cathedral with righteous faces on, but, in their cunning, their sin is greater than our own ” – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova


The road to free speech in Russia has long known the heavy hand of the state. Demonstrations have historically been met with riot police, tanks, tear gas and paramilitary police forces. Yet today’s tech-savvy generation has given dissidents a new voice through social media. With the ability to organize protests through online services like Facebook and Twitter, Russian authorities have a hard time in reacting to the growth of such gatherings. Pussy Riots lyric’s might be considered crude by some but they deliver a powerful message of dissent that Dostoevsky would be proud of.

In a way, the band’s usage of Orthodox imagery signals a return to a kind of pure spiritualism that was pervasive amongst Russian literary legends. The nihilistic search for truth, a kind of purity and transparency guides the band’s political and spiritual goals.

“It was our search for truth that led us to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. I think that Christianity, as I understood it while studying the Old and especially the New Testament, supports the search for truth and a constant overcoming of oneself, the overcoming of what you were earlier.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Pussy Riot’s case is easy to categorize as a simple matter of state vs. free speech, however Vadim Nikitin, a contributor to The New York Times in his article “The Wrong Reasons to Back Pussy Riot” points out that the band had a bad tendency to actually incite riots. Despite the apparent “Kangaroo Court” put on by the state, the band does have some legitimate criminal offenses to answer for. Nadezhda’s moving words in her closing statements seems to be an effective smoke screen for her participation in a public orgy – while pregnant as a form of protest – (Nadezhda’s profile). Vadim says,

“The members of Pussy Riot are not liberals looking for self-expression. They are self-confessed descendants of the surrealists and the Russian futurists, determined to radically, even violently, change society.”source.

He may have a point as the bands message promotes rebellion against all state organizations not just corrupt ones.

-source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grEBLskpDWQ

An American expatriate blogger in Russia, Почемучка aka “Pochemuchka” (the one who asks a lot of questions) disagrees. The bands more racy activism is irrelevant in the context of their message. She points out that the sheer bravery to stand up so defiantly to the government and corrupt church officials is the real message that needs to be taken away from this case:

“Almost every Russian will tell you outright that the democracy of their country is a farce. But many also support sending these women to prison. In my opinion, seeing these two things as solid opposites prevents any kind of cultural analysis. However, “it’s part of their culture, so it’s okay” is a statement that disregards any universality amongst human beings–like the idea of “basic human rights”… my opinion on the Pussy Riot case is that the sentence these women received for what I see as a logistically simple act of civil disobedience far outweighed the physical damage actually incurred against the church.

This case gives a very exciting perspective into the younger Russian activists and the culture that they are promoting. Despite obvious flaws in their incendiary approach, their message remains the important takeaway. That voice of dissent – delivered through, somewhat unorthodox means was heard loud and clear in the Kremlin. It is interesting to see a new generation of Russia’s warrior poets and their influence on Russia’s historically closed off society.  The question remains to be seen whether this unique approach to activism will lead to any changes in the Russian state’s attitude toward free speech and lend encouragement to others to voice their dissent.


Or will their efforts just promote a government crackdown while alienating themselves from the rest of Russia’s citizens?

Please comment and let us know what your views are on the subject. Is this type of behavior justified in the pursuit of free speech and how are these women punk rock activists unique amongst their community? Would this even be an issue in the United States or other countries?


– Dima

Interesting links regarding this topic:

Pussy Riot’s Twitter page

Pussy Riot’s Closing Statements

The Pochyemuchka Diaries – American Expat in Moscow

The Wrong Reasons to Back Pussy Riot – Vadim Nikitin’s Op-Ed in The New York Times

Punk Punishment: Pussy Riot’s ‘unholy prayer’ splits society – RussiaToday

Pussy Riot profile: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – The Guardian’s story on the Pussy Riot’s “Evil Genius”


7 thoughts on “A Punk Band’s Prayer – Deliver Us from Putin

  1. Pingback: IKEA Refuses to Make Political Statement in Russia | EuroKulture

  2. I think your analysis of this event is well-rounded and provided some great insight into the situation. To answer one of your questions, I think that this would be an issue in other countries — the sanctity of a space perceived as holy is certainly one of the concerns at play and an issue that is not limited to Russia. I think the response would have been much different in the States, however, because of First Amendment protections. I hope you discuss the recent release of the band members in an upcoming post (and some reaction to their release, too).

  3. I also wonder if this situation being made on such a global scale with make any affect or change with the freedom of speech in Russia. I wonder if this scenario alone will be enough to make any significant changes, or will more outbursts like this be needed for anything to change. It’ll be interesting far in the future to see how much, if any, has changed with free speech in Russia, and if this had any affect whatsoever.

  4. I think this is a good way to put the Pussy Riot mess in context. Your use of video was great for me to see what actually happened and the absurdist quality of Russia in general. I’ve tried to read a ton of articles about this, and have never been able to get interested, but your post actually got to me to A. Read the whole thing and B. Understand the story. Great job.

  5. Just like you, I wonder if their approach will lead to any changes in Russia’s attitude toward free speech. I think it will definitely lead to others voicing their concerns and hopefully it will ignite enough people that Russia is forced to make a change.

  6. I don’t think the Pussy Riot members did this in a church as a sign of disrespect. From Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s two quotes above, it seems as if they chose the church because they wanted to present a higher form of Christianity and humanity in general. They wanted to reveal the hypocrisy of the leading officials who regularly attend church there.

    I think the church also gave their act more public attention. The intent of the concert was to speak out against the suppression of free speech and other injustices. The more widespread their message becomes, the more successful they are at meeting their goals.

    I agree that it was a bold act and warrants praise.

  7. This blog entry brings up an interesting conversation. I was recently watching the VMAs and saw one of the band members of green Day sporting a Free Pussy Riot shirt, and this post brings it all into perspective. I guess I would need to have a better understanding of the relationship of the Russian Church and State, but in a normal Church and State separation , I would believe this was a little extreme to enter into a “Holy” place and perform a anti-establishment act; it’s disrespectful. They are highly unique women in their boldness to have no fear to stand up what they believe in. I think if people would stand up as these women did in what they believe in, more reforms would occur to fix corruption in Russia and other countries. I don’t believe this would be a mayo issue in the United States. It would definitely receive a lot of buzz of a free days and then die down after a while. I believe the cultural difference among Americans and European countries is other countries empowerment and strength to fight for rights that necessarily is not a big issue for America. I wish we had celebrities and musicians in our cultural who would stand up for causes and their beliefs through psychically actions rather than huge donations.

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