What does it mean when a member of Pussy Riot shows up at a Christian arts festival?

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You’ve all heard of Pussy Riot, the defiant all-female Russian punk band that got headlines back in 2012 when several of them invaded the altar area  at the near-empty Christ Our Savior Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow with anti-Vladimir Putin chants. (Tmatt covered that here). 

Since then, these anarchist/feminists have been known for disrupting everything from a World Cup game to the Moscow subway. But they haven’t been particularly known for any religious sentiments, other than a song addressed to the Virgin Mary called “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away.”

So I was amazed to read a Religion News Service story about one of its members appearing at Greenbelt, a famous Christian music festival held in the U.K.

From its shock-effect name to its defiant activist tactics, little about the Russian band Pussy Riot would suggest that the punk group is on a holy mission.
But after an appearance last weekend (Aug. 26) at Greenbelt, the U.K.’s foremost Christian arts festival, Pussy Riot’s co-founder Maria Alyokhina explained that the act, beginning with the 2012 protest that resulted in two years in a labor camp, should be understood as a “Christian gesture.”
Pussy Riot is better known in the West for its feminism and political resistance -- which almost prevented Alyokhina from making her date at Greenbelt. The Russian authorities had barred her from boarding a plane earlier this month as she headed on a tour of British arts events, telling her she was forbidden to leave the country until she completed a 100-day community service sentence for taking part in an unauthorized protest in April.
But Alyokhina, 30, is not easily deterred. She drove instead, crossing at an unsecured section of the border, and kept going until she reached Lithuania, where she boarded a plane to Britain.

What the festival-goers in England got was Alyokhina and other members of her band putting on a show, called “Riot Days.”

With a live soundtrack of saxophone, guitar and drums, the band re-enacted their story in front of a screen that showed grainy footage covertly filmed during their original protest in 2012. ...
At Greenbelt, the show -- if that’s the word -- included documentary footage from the courthouse where Alyokhina was tried for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and film of the journey to the labor camp in the Ural mountains. Snow is featured heavily.
While some punk devotees in the audience pogoed to the rhythm, most people stood still, concentrating on reading the grim subtitles, applauding the moments of defiance, laughing at the lighter touches. (”We ate whatever God sent our way, which was usually pasta.”)

Finally, there is this note about Alyokhina’s own faith:

Alyokhina is frequently prevented from entering churches now, but she said that she identifies as a Christian, and added that suggestions that she is an enemy of religion make her angry.
The witnesses who spoke at her trial about how offended they’d been by the protest, she said, were mostly church security officials. She cited the persecution of the church under Stalin, when thousands of priests were murdered or sent to prison camps: “For this country to have a church which is now serving the KGB is a crime. For me this was the main reason (for going to) Christ the Savior.”

There are other fascinating tidbits in this short article and I was left wondering what branch of Christianity the performer might identify with.

When asked whether she was part of a larger Christian resistance in Russia, Alyokhina could only reply, somewhat uncertainly, “I hope so.
“Some of the people who supported us in 2012 were priests who left the church,” she said. “In the penal colony it was important to me to receive letters from people in the church to say they were supporting us.”

I’m wondering if she was brought up Orthodox, like the vast majority of Russians are. I found an interview with Greenbelt’s creative director in a British outlet saying that Alyokhina was the only known band member who is Christian.

"It's an easy thing to say -- to just go along with the government's line that they were arrested for inciting religious hatred. What they were trying to do in that initial punk prayer protest in the Cathedral in Moscow was call out truth to power -- they objected to the way the established church in Russia was in cahoots with and in bed with the power and the patriarchy of Putin's regime."
When asked if they were motivated by an anger against the church he said:
"In our dealings with them, and conversations with them and skype calls and emails, that's not what comes across at all."
He explained that one of the initial four protagonists in Pussy Riot would call herself a Christian and was at one time arrested for reading out the beatitudes in Red Square. 

I couldn’t find any news piece that described the latter. But Greenbelt is not alone in finding religious significance in Pussy Riot.

Back in 2012, the New Yorker called Putin’s actions against the group a “religious war.” The piece says that Alyokhina –- referred to as Alekhina –- by the New Yorker, was involved in “religious charities and environmental causes” before her 2012 arrest. What those religious charities were is anyone’s guess.

The RNS article doesn’t explain whether the quotes from Alyokhina are from an interview or whether she said them on stage or at a press conference. Did she say all the above in English, or was it interpreted? It’d be helpful to hear more facts about her faith.

So, are these women prophets or perverts or something inbetween? Nadia Tolokonikovov, one of the three women who got arrested at cathedral, had this to say six years ago about not being enemies of Christianity:

“Pussy Riot never means to show any disrespect to any viewers or witnesses of our punk concerts,” Tolokonikovoy wrote in an essay published on Free Pussy Riot. “The themes of our songs and performances are dictated by the present moment. We simply react to what is happening in our country, and our punk performances express the opinion of a sufficiently large number of people. In our song ‘Hail Mary, Expel Putin’ we reflected the reaction of many Russian citizens to the patriarch’s calls for vote for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin during the presidential election of 4 March 2012.”

She added: “We are not enemies of Christianity. We care about the opinion of Orthodox Christians. We want all of them to be on our side – on the side of anti-authoritarian civil society activists. That is why we came to the Cathedral.”

Maybe this performer in Pussy Riot may end up like the members of U2, an Irish band that voices Christian sentiments but doesn't identify with a specific set of beliefs (other than close ties to the band's evangelical Anglican chaplain, Father Jack Heaslip, who died a few years ago).

Here is where you need a Russian-speaking reporter to delve into just what Alyokhina believes. Where are the pros at Voice of America when you need them?

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