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We Interviewed the Director of a Doc About Pussy Riot on Misconceptions of the Group and Religion in Russia

Maxim Pozdorovkin is one of two filmmakers behind Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a feature-length documentary that details the arrest and indictment of three members of Pussy Riot. We interviewed him about performance art, Nadya and Masha leaving...
February 13, 2014, 3:47pm

"Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" official trailer courtesy of HBO Documentaries.

Two years after their original performance of "Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!" in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and their much-publicized arrest and sentencing for "hooliganism," the women of Pussy Riot are back in the international news cycle. In December, Putin and the Russian Duma granted amnesty for 1,300 prisoners, including for the still-imprisoned Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadya) and Maria Alyokhina (Masha) of Pussy Riot, along with 28 recently arrested Greenpeace activists and Mikhail Khodorovsky, one of Putin's political opponents.

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Since receiving their pardon, Nadya and Masha have criticized the terms of their release, much of which is detailed in the VICE News documentary "Pussy Riot Goes Back to Jail." They've also transitioned into activists for prison reform, bringing light to abuse and corruption in the Russian penal system. But it hasn't all been progress since then. Last Thursday, the Pussy Riot collective issued an open letter to The Guardian emphasizing that Nadya and Masha, despite often being billed as "Pussy Riot" in the media, were no longer members of the group. They seemed particularly galled by the Amnesty Benefit Concert in New York, where an announcement claimed attendees would see the first "legal" performance of Pussy Riot.

Maxim Pozdorovkin is one of two filmmakers (along with Mike Lerner) behind Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a feature-length documentary that details the arrest and indictment of three members of Pussy Riot. Pozdorovkin and Lerner include extensive footage of the the trial, where Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were tried and convicted for hooliganism (although Samutsevich was released on appeal). But the film also provides context for the Pussy Riot protests, informing that the group is a performance art collective rather than simply a punk band, and detailing the cultural conflict between secularism and religious fundamentalism in Russia under Putin's rule.

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I had a chance to talk to Maxim from New York on Friday, the day after Nadya and Masha appeared on stage with Madonna at the Amnesty International Benefit Concert at the Barclay's Center.

VICE: So when did you first become aware of Pussy Riot and end up filming this movie?
Maxim Pozdorovkin: I was actually doing pre-production on another film and I started attending the trial. The thing is, I had heard about them before and I was interested because I grew up playing punk rock and being into Russian avant-garde art and things like that in Moscow. Mike and I, we had been trying to make something with someone else and we weren't sure where that was going so we sort of teamed up.

Did you know anybody involved with the band when you got involved?
Well, they're not a band… I actually knew one of them, but without knowing it, because they're anonymous. Later I found out through a mutual friend in common, but no, not before.

Yeah, I understand what you mean when you say they're not a band. Pussy Riot is more of a collective that does performance art, right?
They're also not just musicians. They see themselves as artists and performance artists, and ultimately the whole story is a lot more interesting if seen through the perspective of art. And that also points to the misconceptions about the story that exists in the West. In the West, the story they tell is that Pussy Riot is this punk band that sang a song against Putin and that's why they're in jail—which is absolute idoicy. If you look at what they did before, they sang "Putin pissed himself" in the Red Square and had nothing done to them. What happened in the Cathedral is this collision of two ideologies. One is this idea of performance art—using performance art to provoke public conversation—and then there are people who are resenting that on religious fundamentalist grounds and other reasons. It was really this perfect storm of different cultural layers. I just wanted to unpack that.

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So in Russia, was there an understanding that this is an artistic protest, as opposed to just a punk band disrupting things?
In Russia, they were portrayed as vulgar hooligans more than anything else. They were called a punk group, but I think people understand it a little bit more because the other performance art groups and Moscow—conceptualist stuff from the 90s that they were influenced by—is a little bit more well-known. And some of the actions of Voina [a Russian performance art collective that Nadya was a member of prior to Pussy Riot] and with the performances of kissing a cop or the orgy or any of those things, people knew that there was some sort of an overlap between the groups. As a result, they knew that these people were provocateurs and were trying to provoke society. So I guess they were a little bit more informed.

So do you think people offended by the blasphemous nature of lyrics like "God is shit," were aware of the intellectual basis underlying the performance?
They're really brainy. Pussy Riot are like these immediate, savvy, post-modern media artists. In part it's very theoretical and when you think about them, they are kind of bohemian intellectuals. Of course, people didn't understand that, they thought it was just someone being rude. But even if you explain it to them, I think that a lot of people think that what art is, is the song. So people dismiss it saying "Oh yeah, terrible song blah, blah, blah." But the whole point is that the art is the video they made and the public response. They're trying to find alternative ways to protest. It's something that confuses the officials and forces them to overreact, and by overreacting you expose some of the repressive tendencies that are part of the system.

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I think a lot of people in the West didn't realize the extent of the role of the Orthodox Church in the controversy. Can you tell me a bit about the conflict between religious fundamentalism and secularism in Russia?
On the left, Pussy Riot and a lot of their circle really represents this very radical activist revolutionary sort of sect and it's probably at odds with mild liberalism as it exists. At the same time, a lot of the religious fundamentalists on the Christian side saw these things as an affront. That segment of the population saw themselves as a political voice for the first time. It kind of activated them, and that's what the Biker Priests you see in the film are. For the first time, these people who had been significantly oppressed during Soviet times see themselves as having a voice and it's a voice that can be represented on a major platform in government.

In terms of how this relates to Putin and the government, Putin was and still is popular, but is losing that popularity, especially with the middle crowd that liked some of the stability that had come with him. Rather than standing up for secular principles in this kind of issue, he has aligned himself much more with the Church and with religious fundamentalism, even though he isn't much of a believer himself. But I think it was politically advantageous, so that's the backdrop.

Let's talk about those Biker Priests, supporters of the Church who wear black shirts with skulls and crossbones and engage in demonstrations to support the Church. How did you get involved with them?
They were around the trials and they were easy to get. In a way they're like a bizarro world Pussy Riot. They're sort of performance artists in a way. One of the things I had to cut from the movie was a video of them performing a sacrificial burning of a Madonna poster and describing how the poster was resisting the flame, with a supporter narrating it. It was just so absurd and so surreal. Later, I was on NPR, and I got in trouble with some people for referring to them as the "bizarro world Pussy Riot," so I called them the Dick Squad. Apparently, you can say "Pussy Riot" on NPR, but you can't say "Dick Squad," which is a really funny double standard when you think about it.

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So, you can say "Pussy" but you can't say "Dick"? Did they give you those guidelines?
No, I said it, and then I looked and the producers in the booth were like "No!" and I looked at Leonard [Lopate] and his face went ashen. I was like, geez, he was really annoyed by that. I don't even think they bleeped it because I don't think they got it in time. But obviously you can say "Dick," like I think you can say Dick Armey, or if it's a proper name…

One of the "Dick Squad" calls Nadya a "demon with a brain." Did she ever see that?
Yeah! They've heard it all, they've seen it all. One of the things I was going to mention in response to your earlier question is that Russian Orthodoxy is a great deal more Pagan than Western Christianity. One of the ways its more pagan is that the idea of tarnishing a holy place, or if you see why people carry icons, it's this idea that objects can be holy and they can be tarnished. They can be tarnished by demons, and that's why he was talking about demons. There's a certain sect of the population that will speak of demons in this way. So it's ludicrous, but it's not quite as ludicrous as it sounds.

What did the group think about the extreme, high-level public response to their art, like the international reaction to the case and Madonna saying "Free Pussy Riot" at a concert in Moscow?
They were really happy for all the international attention because it brought so much attention on them and what they were doing, what their words were, and the messages they were espousing. So they've really been able to push these ideas of prison reform and prisoner rights both in jail and now out, as a result of the public support and media attention that they get anywhere.

On Friday, the Pussy Riot collective issued an open letter to The Guardian distancing themselves from Nadya and Masha, who are no longer a part of the collective, claiming that ticketed events like Thursday's Amnesty Concert were antithetical to Pussy Riot's existence as an anti-capitalist group. What do you think is causing the rift there? Is the collective not happy with the level of exposure that Nadya and Masha are getting?
I'd almost rather not answer this question… My feeling is that it's actually Nadya and Masha figuring out how they can continue to work together and what that means. Originally, Pussy Riot was this idea of a project that was basically open-sourced. Everyone that wanted to do it could partake in it. But once it became so huge, a lot of the original members felt a claim to it, because there were all these imitators and people who were doing it for different reasons than the initial intention of the group and promoting their own agendas, so there was an urge to rein that in. Masha and Nadya came out of prison with a clear sense of what they wanted to do in terms of human rights work, and like the letter says, it wasn't really clear how that fit in with their performance art background. What they'll say is that since they've basically had their masks removed, they almost can't be members of Pussy Riot. But, of course, when they're billed anywhere in a news story or a TV show or anything else, they're represented as Pussy Riot.

What do you think is the motive behind Putin's decree that released Nadya and Masha?
What happened was the Twenty Year Anniversary amnesty bill was discussed for a long time, probably even before the Olympics. Of course, it was a PR move to a certain extent, but it was also that this was discussed for a long time, I think especially [former tycoon Mikhail] Khodorkovsky was a bigger gamble, but then it wasn't clear whether amnesty would cover hooliganism, which is what both the Greenpeace people and Pussy Riot were charged with. So the decision to include them was an addition to appease Western criticism.

@alanjonesxxxv