Faith International News Top Stories Women's Spirituality

Anti-Putin punk group Pussy Riot headlines UK Christian music festival

Pussy Riot perform at the Greenbelt Festival on Aug. 26, 2018, in England. Photo by Ali Johnston/Greenbelt Festival

(RNS) — From its shock-effect name to its defiant activist tactics, little about the Russian band Pussy Riot would suggest that the punk group is on a holy mission.

But after an appearance last weekend (Aug. 26) at Greenbelt, the U.K.’s foremost Christian arts festival, Pussy Riot’s co-founder Maria Alyokhina explained that the act, beginning with the 2012 protest that resulted in two years in a labor camp, should be understood as a “Christian gesture.”

Pussy Riot is better known in the West for its feminism and political resistance — which almost prevented Alyokhina from making her date at Greenbelt. The Russian authorities had barred her from boarding a plane earlier this month as she headed on a tour of British arts events, telling her she was forbidden to leave the country until she completed a 100-day community service sentence for taking part in an unauthorized protest in April.

But Alyokhina, 30, is not easily deterred. She drove instead, crossing at an unsecured section of the border, and kept going until she reached Lithuania, where she boarded a plane to Britain.

There she joined the current members of Pussy Riot, which describes itself as a collective, with no fixed roster. Their latest escapade was to invade the pitch during the World Cup final in July dressed in police uniforms. “Protest is fun,” Alyokhina told Religion News Service.

The story told in her current show, “Riot Days,” is not fun. With a live soundtrack of saxophone, guitar and drums, the band re-enacted their story in front of a screen that showed grainy footage covertly filmed during their original protest in 2012.

It was that 40-second performance, at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, that made Pussy Riot international celebrities. At the time, Vladimir Putin was on the cusp of being elected for a third term as president with the full support of the Orthodox Church, whose patriarch called him a “miracle of God.” Pussy Riot took to the altar of the cathedral, shouting “Mother of God – Banish Putin!” from behind balaclava masks.

Yekaterina Samutsevich, from left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Maria Alyokhina, members of feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, sit behind bars at a courtroom in Moscow on July 20, 2012. The trial of the feminist punk rockers who chanted a “punk prayer” against President Vladimir Putin from a pulpit inside Russia’s largest cathedral divided devout believers, Kremlin critics and ordinary Russians. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)

Fewer people recall now the price Alyokhina paid for those 40 seconds: she was sent to a labor camp 3,500 miles from her home and from her young son. Her two fellow protesters also served long sentences but Alyokhina is the only one of them who made it to Greenbelt.

At Greenbelt, the show — if that’s the word — included documentary footage from the courthouse where Alyokhina was tried for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and film of the journey to the labor camp in the Ural mountains. Snow is featured heavily.

While some punk devotees in the audience pogoed to the rhythm, most people stood still, concentrating on reading the grim subtitles, applauding the moments of defiance, laughing at the lighter touches. (”We ate whatever God sent our way, which was usually pasta.”)

The act ended with a challenge to the audience: “Freedom doesn’t exist unless you fight for it every day.”

Alyokhina is frequently prevented from entering churches now, but she said that she identifies as a Christian, and added that suggestions that she is an enemy of religion make her angry.

The witnesses who spoke at her trial about how offended they’d been by the protest, she said, were mostly church security officials. She cited the persecution of the church under Stalin, when thousands of priests were murdered or sent to prison camps: “For this country to have a church which is now serving the KGB is a crime. For me this was the main reason (for going to) Christ the Savior.”

Maria Alyokhina performs with Pussy Riot at the Greenbelt Festival on Aug. 26, 2018, in England. Photo by Ali Johnston/Greenbelt Festival

“We didn’t do anything against Christianity,” she said. “When you have massive machines of propaganda working against you on TV, calling you the enemies of Christianity, you find it necessary to understand for yourself and to explain to people that this is a Christian gesture that we have done.

“What we are doing is criticizing the establishment elite of the church.”

When asked whether she was part of a larger Christian resistance in Russia, Alyokhina could only reply, somewhat uncertainly, “I hope so.

“Some of the people who supported us in 2012 were priests who left the church,” she said. “In the penal colony it was important to me to receive letters from people in the church to say they were supporting us.”

Alyokhina is now preparing to return to Moscow. It’s not clear what consequences she will face for breaking the travel ban. Is she afraid of Putin?

“I’m not afraid because – not just with Putin but with any system which oppresses — the base of oppression is fear,” she said. “It is they who are afraid.”

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Rosie Dawson

ADVERTISEMENTs