"Pussy Riot Secret Headquarters,” Revealed

AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev, File

"These people made all of you say it out loud," Vladimir Putin tells a foreign interviewer he's just discomfited by asking for a Russian translation of "Pussy Riot" in HBO's remarkable new doc, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, airing Monday and well worth your time. He thinks he's scoring a point against Western media's vestigial squeamishness, and he's actually got one: The New York Times might never have printed the word "Pussy" otherwise. Still, could activists ask for a better endorsement from their nemesis? "These people made all of you say it out loud" ought to be carved on a monument someday, and it won't be Putin's.

Pussy Riot, you'll recall, is a Moscow-based aggregation of female performance artists whose three foremost members got arrested in February 2012. They'd disrupted services at an Orthodox cathedral with an abortive—the whole thing lasted 30 seconds—rendition of "A Punk Prayer," which summoned the Virgin Mary to feminism while slagging the renewed coziness of church and state under Putin's regime. As of now, 23-year-old Nadezdha ("Nadia") Tolokhonnikva and 24-year-old Maria ("Masha") Alyokhina are still in prison, serving their two-year sentence for hooliganism. Their cohort, Yekaterina ("Katia") Samutsevich—at 30, she's practically Methuselan by Pussy Riot standards—got freed on appeal last fall.

Featuring precious video of Pussy Riot's count-'em five public performances before clang, clang went the jail guitar doors—along with extensive footage of the trial and much else—A Punk Prayer is the most moving political documentary I've seen since last year's How To Survive A Plague. Back in the 1970s, most British and some American punk rockers' fantasy of being enemies of the state was largely just that. Almost 40 years later, who'd have guessed their hyperbole would turn real—and in Russia, of all places? "We mean it, man"—Johnny Rotten's signature line in "God Save The Queen"—stacks up awfully flimsily compared to prison time for young women who were over a decade from being born when he sang it and didn't need to add a footnote about whether they meant it or not. But that's the wonder of pop culture: you never know what it will spawn.

Directed by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, the doc is unabashedly pro-Pussy Riot, and duh. (HBO isn't renowned for running stuff called Idi Amin: My Side of The Story, though I wouldn't put it past PBS if the Koch brothers kicked in enough funding.) For American audiences, however, the convolutions are fascinating and sometimes disturbing just the same. Because the Orthodox Church was repressed under Communism, one wants to sympathize with its believers. But brother, are they ever a bunch of reactionary kooks—above all the self-styled "Carriers of The Cross," a gnarly crew who wear biker gear and T-shirts emblazoned "Orthodoxy or Death." "In the 16th century," one of them says of Pussy Riot with palpable nostalgia, "they would have hanged them. They would have burned them."

The rhetoric that gets slung around as if it's business as usual at the old stand—"they're demons," "they're possessed," and so on—makes you think that not much has changed in Russia since Dostoyevsky's day. Even so, you can't easily dismiss the elderly Orthodox woman who explains, "If someone comes into your apartment and takes a shit, you wouldn't like that, would you?" On their end, even granting that they're staring prison in the face, our heroines are at their most disingenuous when they claim they didn't mean to offend anyone. Of course they did; from their name on down, isn't that part of what Pussy Riot is about?

Heroines is still the right word for them One reason they're such bracing ones is that their opposition to the regime is fueled and kept lucid by their analytical chops; they aren't just venting raw emotion. (Guy Debord, it turns out you might have had your uses after all.) When Masha explains that they were out to attack Orthodoxy and Putinism's mutually advantageous complicity—"not religion per se"—it isn't casuistry; it's right there in "A Punk Prayer.” "The Patriarch believes in Putin/He should try believing in God," is not at all bad in putting things in a nutshell, and calling on Jesus's mom to join the fight is both good agit-prop and, quite possibly, heartfelt. For that matter, one Carrier of the Cross pretty much makes their case for them when he says, "It always begins the same way—attacks against the holy altars and against the throne." Note that last word.

As articulate as the women (and their lawyers) are in court, the trial footage is most affecting when we're just watching their faces. That's partly because they're locked inside a glass-and-wood booth that turns conferring with them into a visit to the zoo. If Nadia, especially, doesn't seem altogether unconscious of the effect produced by her poise and wry intelligence in this demeaning setting, that's no surprise—she's a performance artist, for Pete's sake. (An uncommonly fearless one, too: the video of an eight-months-pregnant Nadia having public sex with her husband at Moscow's biology museum—a provocation staged in tandem with other members of Voina, the art collective from which Pussy Riot sprang—does make you feel a bit for her dad when he mutters that he might have watched if it had been any other girl, but. . . well, you know.)

In all honesty, it's also hard for an old Runaways fan to resist a doc that includes a scene captioned, "Pussy Riot Secret Headquarters." But when the group's non-incarcerated members take to the street for another guerilla performance, this time with full awareness of the potential consequences, the images—a blurry, balaclava-wearing guitarist on a rooftop, a Pussy Riot banner unfurling as Putin's photograph goes up in flames— are extraordinarily stirring. Pussy Riot lives!

If Wikipedia's to be trusted, the filmmakers can be faulted for leaving out a few latter-day bumps in the road. (There's considerable ambiguity about what Katia may have agreed to do to get sprung, for instance. Writing from prison, Nadia and Masha have accused Nadia's husband of taking over Pussy Riot without their consent, which he denies.) But overall, this is one documentary that no politico who believes in pop—and no pop fan exhilarated by political bravery—will want to miss.

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