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Pussy Riot: The Punk Band That Isn't And The Concert That Wasn't

  • Brian Whitmore

Members of Pussy Riot during a court hearing in Moscow on July 30: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (left), Yekaterina Samutsevich (center), and Maria Alyokhina. They face up to seven years in prison.

Members of Pussy Riot during a court hearing in Moscow on July 30: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (left), Yekaterina Samutsevich (center), and Maria Alyokhina. They face up to seven years in prison.

Three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot have gone on trial in Moscow for an unauthorized concert they played in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February.

Well, sort of -- except for a couple of small details.

Pussy Riot isn't really a "punk band" (although they are feminists). And -- contrary to popular belief -- they didn't actually play a "concert" in the cathedral.

The Pussy Riot saga, which has been going on ever since their famous "Punk Prayer" video appeared on YouTube five months ago, illustrates the extent to which the Internet has altered perceptions of what we believe to be reality.

So what actually happened?

On February 21, some members of Pussy Riot entered Christ the Savior Cathedral. In order not to attract attention to themselves, at least initially, they wore modest clothing over their trademark short pastel dresses and tights.

Once inside the cathedral they went in the area in front of the altar, covered their faces with their now-famous colored balaclavas, and threw off their outer clothing.

Then they essentially mimed their performance -- dancing, jumping around, and playing air guitar while their collaborators videotaped them. One of the women mock-played an actual guitar -- which was not plugged into an amplifier -- while another briefly managed to turn on a music player until the women were finally evicted.

The whole process took a couple of minutes.

WATCH: The original video


They later produced and posted their video, with an added soundtrack of their "Punk Prayer" -- with its refrain "Mother of God, cast Putin out" -- that had been recorded elsewhere.

WATCH: The final video with soundtrack


Pussy Riot is more a performance art collective than a punk rock band in the classical sense. They emerged out of the underground anarchist art collective Voina -- itself notorious for its outrageous public stunts, most notably painting a giant phallus on a drawbridge in St. Petersburg facing the local FSB headquarters.

The idea for Pussy Riot emerged in the spring of 2011, according to media reports, when female members of Voina began studying the work of the U.S. "riot grrrl" feminist punk movement.

In the autumn of 2011, the group began staging public actions and posting them on YouTube. And just like Voina, "membership'" in the Pussy Riot collective is anonymous and rotating. In interviews, they gives names like "Squirrel" and "Sparrow."

"Membership in Pussy Riot is completely interchangeable," Petr Verzilov, a leading member of Voina and husband of jailed Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, told RFE/RL's Russian Service in a recent interview. "This anonymous status is part of the group's ideological core. A few dozen girls have participated in their five performances."

Prior to the "Punk Prayer" video in Christ the Savior Cathedral, the group's most famous action was a video of a "concert" on Red Square in January -- at the peak of the anti-Kremlin protests following December's disputed State Duma elections -- which showed them performing the song "Putin Wet His Pants."

The chorus of the song is: "Rebellion in Russia, the charisma of protest! Rebellion in Russia, Putin wet his pants! Rebellion in Russia! We exist! Rebellion in Russia! Riot! Riot!"

That incident was also widely reported to be a "concert." But a careful look at the video shows that there is no drum set (although there is a drum track in the song), no microphones, and no amplifiers -- suggesting the group followed a similar procedure as in their "Punk Prayer" clip. Two members of the group were fined 500 rubles ($15) each for the incident.

WATCH: The Red Square video


The "hooliganism" indictment of the three women on trial -- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich -- draws not only on what they did in the cathedral in February but also on what was in the video, as well as materials later seized from their computers.

It accuses them, for example, of intruding on a part of the cathedral reserved for priests, wearing clothing there "manifestly contradicting common church rules," and "revealing various parts of their bodies" in an effort to "openly express disrespect to the Christian world and the church canons."

Another part of the indictment draws on seized audio files on Verzilov's computer contained in a folder titled "sran gospodnya" -- or "holy shit" -- a phrase that is part of the punk prayer and is also audible in the original video.

"For anyone who really respects religion, it is inadmissible to use the phrase 'holy shit,'" the indictment read.

* The last two paragraphs of this story have been changed to clarify that the phrase in question is audible in the original video.

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