A Welcome Testimony in ‘Riot Days’

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Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina and her book, "Riot Days." Courtesy Penguin Randomhouse.

When a group of women performed its startling “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior on Feb. 21, 2012, it made international headlines.

While the story was newsworthy, first-hand accounts weren’t plentiful. Thankfully, one of the Pussy Riot band members, Maria Alyokhina, also known as Masha, has provided a published account of what happened, up close and personal.

A big question that never really got answered was why these musicians performed at that Russian Orthodox church in the first place. According to Alyokhina, the decision just happened. There was no strong intention towards any institutional figures, although the feelings about Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, this specific Orthodox Church building and Russian President Vladimir Putin weren’t hidden.

The funny thing is it wasn’t Putin who brought the performers to court. It was actually a woman in the church building, a person who had the responsibility for tending candles, who complained about the incident.

The book “Riot Days” brings to the forefront the idea of young people expressing themselves through song. Green Day is well-known for its song, “American Idiot,” which felt like a counterpoint to the George W. Bush presidency. Some American bands aren’t afraid to insert religion into their songs, recent ones being Thirty Seconds to Mars’ “Walk On Water” and A Perfect Circle’s “The Doomed,” the latter of which reverses the words of the Beatitudes from the Gospel according to Matthew.

The idea that a song — even one as strongly worded as the punk prayer (lyrics are printed in the book) — is a cause for judicial intervention really feels alien and foreign to anyone who understands contemporary music. You don’t see Eminem being put in jail for his extremely harsh songs.

What happens after Alyokhina’s arrest shows the severity of the Russian system of meting out punishment to those it deems to be in the wrong. An important source of comfort during the 21-month imprisonment for the book’s author was her supply of cigarettes. For Alyokhina, the most important thing to do was not to lose her sense of self, nor her sense of dignity as a human being, going to great lengths to complain about prison conditions, which prisoners in Russia don’t normally do, nor are they encouraged to do so.

Alyokhina shows that, in spite of the opinion of certain very religious people, she still believes that the Orthodox Church has a place in her life. She wanted to see an archbishop delivering a sermon when she was serving time but was barred from doing so. What ended the ordeal was amnesty from Putin, but she felt that other people, who were still serving their sentences, deserved it more than she did.

This punk prayer puts Alyokhina and other Pussy Riot members in the ranks of Russian authors who rankled the Soviet government, among them Boris Pasternak, Anatoly Rybakov and Anna Akhmatova — a sign that things haven’t changed much since the fall of the U.S.S.R.

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