How Punk Band's 1-Minute Protest Disrupted a Nation

PHOTO: An upcoming HBO documentary follows Russian punk rock band, Pussy Riot, as they perform and are eventually arrested.
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They call themselves "jokers, jesters, holy fools," the moral conscience of Putin's Russia. One patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church calls them "deranged vaginas."

On Feb. 21, 2012, Pussy Riot, the feminist performance artist/punk rock group, donned pink and orange minidresses and bright neon balaclavas to conceal their identities, and entered Christ the Savior Cathedral, a garish spectacle of a church in the center of Moscow that for them symbolized an unhealthy, authoritarian relationship between church and state. And they did what they had been doing for the previous three months on the streets of Moscow, in beauty parlors and the windows of expensive boutiques, atop a garage rooftop next to a prison, outside the walls of the Kremlin: They performed.

As a priest with elaborate vestments and incense and a long beard offered sacraments to dutiful worshippers, Pussy Riot offered their own punk-rock prayer, "Mother of God, Banish Putin," dancing, screaming, punching the air, calling on the Virgin Mary to "become a feminist" and rid Russia of Vladimir Putin.

Their flash-mob-like performance lasted less than a minute before they were escorted out by security guards. Nevertheless, "it was like a bomb going off," said Mike Lerner, a co-director of "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," a documentary that will air tonight on HBO. "You've got five women in a cathedral, doing a vaguely absurd thing, and it causes this massive eruption in society."

Protests spun out not only in Moscow but in New York, Brussels, Amsterdam and Berlin. A video on YouTube of the church protest has received more than a million views. Madonna performed "Like a Virgin" in a balaclava and dedicated her performance to Pussy Riot in a Moscow concert in August 2012. Yoko Ono tweeted, "#PussyRiotTrial Mr Putin, you're a smart man and don't need to fight with musicians."

"Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" offers a highly engaging and informative romp through the formation of the group in 2011 to the trial and conviction of three of its members -- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadya), Maria Alyokhina (Masha) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (Katya) -- on a charge of "hooliganism driven by religious hatred." (The two other women in the cathedral protest fled Russia. As of now, Katya has been released on appeal, Nadya and Masha are serving two-year sentences in penal colonies and last month made headlines when Masha went on an 11-day hunger strike.)

Along the way, Lerner and co-director Maxim Pozdorovkin interview protesters in the street (both pro and con), members of the church and the women's parents.

While the filmmakers are decidedly on the side of the jailed Pussy Riot members and liken their trial to the show trials of the Stalinist era -- "a public spanking," Pozdorovkin calls it -- if you asked people on the streets of Moscow what they thought of the group and their actions, "I'm guessing 70 percent of the people feel they got what they deserved, and 30 percent think it's a moral outrage," Lerner, who is British, told ABC News.

"They were vilified on state television," said Pozdorovkin, who is Russian and now lives in the U.S. During the Soviet era, believers "had such a low status in Communism, they retained a moral high ground. For a lot of ordinary Russians, [the question they had for Pussy Riot was], Why are you messing with these people? They've suffered enough."

Yet the women and the filmmakers contend their intent was not to offend the religiously observant -- Katya even apologized in court to people she said she may have offended -- and the protest was not staged in just any church, but in a church that symbolizes the recent rise of Russian nationalism. Dynamited and destroyed in 1931 by Stalin and replaced by the world's largest outdoor swimming pool, it was rebuilt on the same spot as the world's tallest Orthodox Christian church in the 1990s. Putin attended Easter services there this past year, presided over by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Orthodox Church who has called Putin's rule a "miracle of God" and who vigorously pursued the arrest and prosecution of Pussy Riot members.

"This cathedral," says Nadya in the film, "symbolizes the union of church and state. That's not how it should be."

For Lerner, it was not Pussy Riot that was on trial in the courtroom, but "the regime." The women, whom he sees as "patriotic," are "trying to make Russia a better place.... I don't want to sound overly in love with the whole thing, but it was a great thrill."

Pozdorovkin said he "was showing the film to my mother, who didn't like them, and she still feels uneasy. At the end of watching the film, she understands how brave and eloquent they are," although, he added, "she doesn't accept that their means were appropriate." And like the filmmaker's mother, many in Russia who did not initially support the women came to see the crackdown on them as excessive.

For Pozdorovkin, as a filmmaker it was the "rich dramatic tension as you watch them go through this ordeal" that was so compelling. Their cathedral protest was "performance art plus the iconography of the Russian religious movement. They're performing a church service in some way, their idea of a feminist mass."

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