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SUMMERMUSIC GUIDE
Pussy Riot: Fear, freedom and punk art in Putin's Russia
A new HBO documentary chronicles the punk trio's ordeal

By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music

Make sure to see Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin's "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," which debuted on HBO on June 10. If you don't have HBO on Demand, find friends who do, bring them dinner and make an evening of it. Whatever they think of punk rock, they'll be glad they just saw it -- reflecting the band's/collective's deep roots in visual/conceptual/performance art, both the film and Pussy Riot themselves look great. The editing and framing are clean and hard-edged to go with the evenhanded presentation, and the band's look contrasts strikingly with Moscow's grim grandeur, which cuts brute neo-Stalinist functionalism with Russian baroque. In a visual fusion of the two great European femme-punk bands, angular Liliput and Day-Glo X-Ray Spex, Pussy Riot flaunt dazzling monochrome dresses over dark leggings and a signature move in which an arm is raised in a solidarity salute and then lowered in a dirt-shoveling stoop. Plus, of course, those balaclavas. In black, the balaclava has been standard issue for the Russian secret police since the perestroika years, making it impossible for both criminals and dissidents to identify who just beat the crap out of them. In living color it says, "We're scared and we're proud."

Balaclavas off, the three members of Pussy Riot, whose faces we see because they got thrown in jail, are all beautiful, although only the most outspoken of these heartbreakingly articulate women has Hollywood features: the high cheekbones, dark eyes and full mouth of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova aka Nadia. It's one of the film's and the collective's feminist triumphs that open-faced, curly-haired strawberry blonde Maria Alyokhina aka Masha and square-jawed, casually unkempt straight talker Yekaterina Samutsevich aka Katia are no less attractive even if Nadia is clearly the charismatic one. And make no mistake: Feminism is the ideology at issue here.

As things turned out, Pussy Riot's 45 seconds jumping around the altar of the rebuilt Christ the Savior Cathedral gave Vladimir Putin's fascistic m.o. an international audience, and it's Putin who embodied everything the band hates about the post-Communist oligarchy. But "sexist" is their favorite term of opprobrium. And one thing the film makes all too vivid -- especially via the face time it gives the ultraconservative Russian Orthodox thugs and zombies who call themselves the Carriers of the Cross -- is that even in a modern nation with, how about that, female prosecutors, the state can put its oppressive muscle behind the forced labor of traditional motherhood and proffer de facto support to madmen who regard independent women as literal "witches" and "demons."

More: Paul McCartney writes in support of Pussy Riot

So in Russia no less than, for instance, Iran, feminism has the revolutionary potential it's long lost in the West. And the same goes for punk rock, which even when rock was a locus of Velvet Revolution and other anti-Soviet resistance had few adherents in prog-oriented Russia itself. These two factors make Pussy Riot a dream come true for left-leaning rock fans everywhere -- elders like Madonna, who's performed in a balaclava with the band's name written on her bare back; upstarts like Peaches, whose electroclash anthem "Free Pussy Riot" plays under the closing credits; and a worldwide community of ordinary punksymps. So far, the quality of Pussy Riot's music is hard to judge because we haven't heard that much of it. But for sure it's a return to the lost tradition of art-school punk. And although punk vigor signifies better when you can understand the words, in artists as smart as these women this tradition signals vigorous innovation.

I love the women of Pussy Riot and identify with their parents, who with a few reservations -- "Couldn't you have picked a better place to promote your strange beliefs?" -- proudly praise the heroes they've raised. These people are on my side and I'm on theirs. Spending two years in a prison camp because you "offended" -- the damning term that becomes the prosecutor's mantra -- a few dozen parishioners in your minute-minus on sacred ground is an obscenity that offends me and millions of others whose hurt feelings will never be redressed in court. Nevertheless, their parents question the efficacy of their heroism for good reason.

All three women claim they didn't mean to offend. But while I don't blame them for fibbing, they certainly intended to provoke, and aren't "offend" and "provoke" just two differently weighted ways of saying the same thing? Similarly, how clear, even to them, was the point of the song they so briefly performed, the crucial refrain of which -- thought up by Nadia's father, we learn -- went "It's God s---"? Looking back, Masha has an excellent explanation that's borne out by the historical outcome: They were attacking not religion but the alliance of a putatively secular Russian state with a revanchist Russian Orthodox church, which due to Pussy Riot's action is now impossible to miss. But early on Nadia speaks a deeper truth when she says Pussy Riot deploy "metaphor and art." Metaphor is an open-ended political instrument by definition -- and in fraught situations, as that refrain proves, often a blunt one, and sometimes a bomb that explodes in your face.

The three Pussy Riot members grew up in a demographic much tinier in Russia than in the U.S.: At least one parent of each is also an artist. Hence their sense of beauty, their reflexive nonconformism, their insistence on thinking for themselves. But though things are probably a little different in Russia, where the economy has never accommodated much of an artistic middle class, artists are seldom astute judges of larger political realities -- for instance, how much of the citizenry is actually on their side aesthetically or ideologically. Nowhere are the three young women more eloquent or attractive than in their closing trial statements, when each in her own way, and Nadia most forcefully, argues that a guilty verdict will not equal defeat. They have exposed Putin as a totalitarian fraud, and vindication will be theirs.

I hope so. But I very much doubt it will be soon. One drawback of the documentarians' artistry is that they eschew what one might call establishing shots. We cheer on Pussy Riot's supporters battling the police but never get a clue as to how many there are. We recoil at the Carriers of the Cross without realizing that they'd better not be confused with the Florida-based Christian hip-hop group of the same name because they are otherwise unknown to the search-engine gods. So who knows what the larger political realities are?

It may well be the case that as freedom lovers in a repressive state, Pussy Riot had no other recourse. And it's true enough that Katia got off on a technicality after six months, probably under circumstances more complex than the film can suggest. But of this we're sure. The week “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” debuted, the Russian legislature passed two laws. One makes it a crime to inform minors in any way that homosexual relationships exist. The other bans blasphemy per se, so that any copycat actions will be much easier to prosecute. Myself, I've never been comfortable with the revolutionary saw that things have to get worse before they can get better. In Russia, it sure looks like they're gonna.

Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.

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