Russian Documentary Highlights Narrative of Resistance
The images from Pussy Riot’s protest performances are iconic — women in multicolored balaclavas climbing on top of subway trains and scaffolding or using iconic public places as an impromptu stage, waving flags and smoke flares, playing loud guitar riffs and singing about corruption in the Russian government. The Russian feminist punk group was founded in August of 2011, when group members Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina (Katya) Samutsevich gave a presentation on feminist art and decided that, since there weren’t enough Russian musical protest groups to talk about, they should create one.
The documentary Pussy versus Putin, which was screened at the Apollo Theatre on Wednesday, was produced by the Russian film collective “Gogol’s Wives” and chronicles the group’s six-month evolution from a fictional group invented for Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich’s lecture into an internationally recognized political protest group — one considered so threatening to the state that some of its members were sentenced to prison for years.
Russian and East European Studies Program Chair Arlene Forman brought the film to Oberlin. After organizing a small showing of the film in the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies last Winter Term, she worked with the College to buy performance rights for the film. According to Forman, Oberlin may be the only college library to own a copy of Pussy versus Putin.
“The notion of showing that the protest goes on, the consequences notwithstanding, was possibly the biggest reason for me bringing the film here,” Forman said. “Oberlin’s politics are a little to the left, so I thought [students] would enjoy both the punk music and the overarching message of young women power.”
The group’s performative political statement against Russian President Vladimir Putin and the subsequent legal consequences put Pussy Riot in a league of musicians who use art for activism and political mobilization.
“I think powerful people are afraid of art and music because art and music speak to us in a way that authoritarian words can’t,” Visiting Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology Fredara Hadley, one of the organizers of last semester’s Music Activism teach-in, wrote in an email to the Review. “In other words, they can’t control art and music and how it inspires, confronts and changes people. And powerful people are often obsessed with control.”
Pussy Riot staged its first public performance three months after its founding from atop a scaffold in a Russian subway station, donning their now iconic colorful balaclavas and singing about the need to protest the upcoming elections. Two months later, eight members of the group performed in Moscow’s Red Square, which sits in front of the Kremlin, to speak out against Putin only to be briefly detained and fined. Just a month later, three group members were arrested during a show inside a cathedral, later getting one of the harshest sentence that had ever been applied to peaceful protesters in Russia.
According to Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and Anthropology Jennifer Fraser, who also participated in organizing last semester’s teach-in, activist music is an effective organizing tool because of its ability to create community.
“What’s certainly true is that music has the capacity to bring people together, to bond over a common cause, and if you experience [music] together, if you all have the same … personal experience or memory, that creates bonds,” she wrote in an email to the Review. “Certainly, having a clear message is important, but the power is really about evoking emotional engagement. That’s the power of music — to get people to set aside rational thought, because that might draw up counter arguments.”
The film clips used in Pussy versus Putin were entirely shot in the moment — the camera shakes as the person holding it climbs up the scaffold in the subway station, and later, viewers watch from a distance as the group climbs on top of a monument in the Red Square to perform. There are no scenes that cut away to somebody explaining or reflecting on the action in hindsight, as is often the case in documentaries. For a viewer not intimately familiar with Pussy Riot’s evolution, this can lead to a frustrating lack of context, and the importance of particular moments or actions isn’t always clear.
However, the documentary isn’t intended to educate people about the group. HBO’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, for example, offers a more informational experience. What Pussy versus Putin does is bring viewers into the moment with Pussy Riot in a way that mainstream news coverage at the time rarely did.
There are moments of surprising levity — when Tolokonnikova is escorted from the metro by a police officer, the camera captures her swiping his hat and putting it on her own head. Some of the clips were shot in truly extraordinary circumstances, including from the inside of a cell after members of the group were temporarily detained for their performance in the Red Square.
Russian and East European and Central Asian Studies scholar-in-residence Masha Gessen, journalist and author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, spoke and took questions after Wednesday’s screening.
“[One of the] most poignant moments to me in the film [is] when Nadia is saying, when they’re detained in January 2012 [after the group’s performance in the Red Square] … ‘You can hold me for 15 days. You can hold me for 15 days. That’s fine, I don’t care. You can’t hold me for any more than that,’” Gessen said. “And at the time, that was true. No one had been held for peaceful protest for more than 15 days. The members of Pussy Riot became the first people to get arrested for peaceful protest and get actual jail time.”
The documentary then shows the group rehearsing for its performance inside the cathedral, cutting to footage of the actual performance as five members of Pussy Riot enter the Cathedral and begin performing “Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away.” Despite the performers being escorted outside the building and subsequently arrested, Gessen argues that the performance didn’t end there.
“I think that the action that they performed with the Cathedral of Christ the Savior began at the cathedral and ended with the sentencing,” Gessen said. “Their entire trial … was part of the performance, and I think by the end … a large number of people who had initially responded with irritation … to the action in the cathedral — thinking it was too offensive, too confrontational, awfully impolite — came around to thinking that it was activism and it was art.”
The power of activist art’s influence on social movements was reflected in the documentary as well. The film included shots of the crowds that gathered in support of Pussy Riot, chanting “Free! Free!” as Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Maria (Masha) Alyokhina, another Pussy Riot member, were being transferred into the van taking them to the prison. The film also shows Madonna’s 2012 concert in Moscow, where she donned a black balaclava during her performance in support of the group.
“I think that anything that has media traction is a threat, and you can gain media traction in different ways,” Gessen added. “One way of course is to produce your own media, and that’s what [Pussy Riot] was doing. Their final product was always video documentation of their performances. I think video documentation is in a league of its own in terms of creating understanding and memory.”
The story of Pussy Riot especially resonantes in Oberlin, where many students can relate to the members of the collective as young activists speaking out against injustice.
“When they went to protest, they didn’t expect to go to prison,” Gessen said. “They didn’t know, really, what they were risking. They were college students in their 20s, Nadya and Masha, and when they came out they were seasoned political activists with the experience of a Russian prison, which was an extraordinary thing to have gone through.”