On The Guardian website today Carol Rumens has chosen as her poem of the week Punk Prayer by the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, three of whose members have just been sentenced to two years in a prison colony for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’.  Rumens has worked up her own version of the lyric which the three women performed in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour five months ago.

Rumens accepts that the performance was mildly shocking, but, she says, ‘loud, rude, up-yours protest is what punk is all about’. She treats the lyrics seriously – ‘they have something significant to say, which the careless translations slopping around the internet tend to obscure’ – and reminds readers that ‘the absurdity and dishonesty of the judgment … recall Joseph Brodsky’s trial, and also the fate of Irina Ratushinskaya, viciously punished, in part, for poems expressing her Christian beliefs’.

Rumens concludes:

How horrible to find that, post-perestroika, rampant capitalism and artistic repression are somehow able to cohabit. Pussy Riot have explained that their protest was not primarily against religion but against the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for Putin. The lyrics they wrote for Punk Prayer bear out the truth of this claim.

Here is Carol Rumens’ version of Punk Prayer – but do read her gloss on the words, too:

(Chorus)
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish him, we pray thee!

Congregations genuflect,
Black robes brag gilt epaulettes,
Freedom’s phantom’s gone to heaven,
Gay Pride’s chained and in detention.
KGB’s chief saint descends
To guide the punks to prison vans.
Don’t upset His Saintship, ladies,
Stick to making love and babies.
Crap, crap, this godliness crap!
Crap, crap, this holiness crap!

(Chorus)
Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Be a feminist, we pray thee,
Be a feminist, we pray thee.

Bless our festering bastard-boss.
Let black cars parade the Cross.
The Missionary’s in class for cash.
Meet him there, and pay his stash.
Patriarch Gundy believes in Putin.
Better believe in God, you vermin!
Fight for rights, forget the rite –
Join our protest, Holy Virgin.

(Chorus)
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, we pray thee, banish him!

Irina Ratushinskaya was arrested on 17 September 1982 for anti-Soviet agitation. In April 1983, she was convicted of  ‘agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime’, sentenced to seven years in a labour camp followed by five years of internal exile.  She was released on 9 October 1986, on the eve of the summit in Reykjavík, Iceland between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

While in prison, Irina continued to write poetry. While her previous works had invariably been concerned with themes of love, Christian theology and artistic creativity (not politics as her accusers insisted), the poems written in prison, were charged with questions of human rights, freedom, and the beauty of life.  They were written on soap until memorised and then washed away.

Give me a nickname, prison, 
this first April 
evening of sadness 
shared with you. 
This hour for your songs 
of evil and goodness, 
confessions of love, 
salty jokes. 
They’ve taken my friends, 
ripped the cross from its chain, 
torn clothes, 
and then with boots 
struck at my breastbone 
torturing the remains 
of hope. 
My name is filed 
in profile, full-face – 
a numbered dossier. 
In custody – 
nothing is mine! 
Just as you have 
no one, nothing! 
On the window’s grating 
here’s all of me – christen me, 
give me a name, prison, 
send off to the transport 
not a boy, but a zek, 
so I’ll be welcomed 
with endearments by Kolyma, 
place of outcasts, executions 
in this twentieth century. 
– 5 October 1983

I will live and survive

I will live and survive and be asked: 
How they slammed my head against a trestle, 
How I had to freeze at nights, 
How my hair started to turn grey… 
But I’ll smile.  And will crack some joke 
And brush away the encroaching shadow. 
And I will render homage to the dry September 
That became my second birth. 
And I’ll be asked: ‘Doesn’t’ it hurt you to remember?’ 
Not being deceived by my outward flippancy. 
But the former names will detonate my memory – 
Magnificent as old cannon. 
And I will tell of the best people in all the earth, 
The most tender, but also the most invincible, 
How they waited for letters from their loved ones. 
And I’ll be asked: what helped us to live 
When there was neither letters nor any news – only walls, 
And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies, 
And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal. 
And I will tell of the first beauty 
I saw in captivity. 
A frost-covered window! No spyholes, nor walls, 
And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies, 
And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal. 
And I will tell of the first beauty 
I saw in captivity. 
A frost-covered window! No spy holes, nor walls, 
Nor cell-bars, nor the long endured pain – 
Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass, 
A cast pattern- none more beautiful could be dreamt! 
The more clearly you looked the more powerfully blossomed 
Those brigand forest, campfire and birds! 
And how many times there was bitter cold weather 
And how many windows sparkled after that one – 
But never was it repeated, 
That heavily upheaval of rainbow ice! 
And anyway, what good would it be to me now, 
And what would be the pretext fro the festival? 
Such a gift can only be received once, 
And perhaps, it is only needed once.

In 1963, Joseph Brodsky’s poetry was denounced by a Leningrad newspaper as ‘pornographic and anti-Soviet’. He was interrogated, twice put in a mental institution and then arrested. Aged 23, Brodsky was charged with social parasitism by the Soviet authorities in a trial in 1964. His accusers called him ‘a pseudo-poet in velveteen trousers’ who had failed to fulfill his ‘constitutional duty to work honestly for the good of the motherland’.

At his the trial, this exchange took place btween Brodsky and the judge:

Judge: And what is your profession, in general?
Brodsky: I am a poet and a literary translator.
Judge: Who recognizes you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind?

Brodsky was sentenced to five years hard labour and served 18 months on a farm in the Arctic Archangelsk region, three hundred and fifty miles from Leningrad. His sentence was commuted in 1965 after protests by prominent Soviet and foreign cultural figures, including Vladimir Yevtushenkov, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Jean-Paul Sartre as well as Anna Akhmatova.  Brodsky became a cause celebre in the West also when a secret transcription of trial minutes was smuggled out of the country, making him a symbol of artistic resistance in a totalitarian society, much like his mentor Akhmatova.

May 24, 1980 is a poem written on the occasion of Brodsky’s 40th birthday; this is his own translation:

I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages,
carved my term and nickname on bunks and rafters,
lived by the sea, flashed aces in an oasis,
dined with the-devil-knows-whom, in tails, on truffles.
From the height of a glacier I beheld half a world, the earthly
width. Twice have drowned, thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.
Quit the country the bore and nursed me.
Those who forgot me would make a city.
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
I’ve admitted the sentries’ third eye into my wet and foul
dreams. Munched the bread of exile; it’s stale and warty.
Granted my lungs all sounds except the howl;
switched to a whisper. Now I am forty.
What should I say about my life? That it’s long and abhors transparence.
Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit.
Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx,
only gratitude will be gushing from it.

Brodsky’s link to Anna Akhmatova takes us back to the era of Stalinist repression. Akhmatova’s poetry was condemned and censored by Stalinist authorities for its personal and religious elements.  She chose to remain in Russia, acting as witness to the atrocities around her. Her perennial themes include meditations on time and memory, and the difficulties of living and writing in the shadow of Stalinism.  She was a close friend of fellow poet Osip Mandelstam, who was sentenced to imprisonment in one of the labour camps of the Gulag where he would die.

Akhmatova narrowly escaped arrest, though her son Lev was imprisoned on numerous occasions by the Stalinist regime, accused of counter-revolutionary activity. In her poem Requiem, written between 1935 and 1940, she describes waiting in line for hours outside a prison in Leningrad for news of her son. This is the opening of Requiem:

Not under foreign skies
Nor under foreign wings protected –
I shared all this with my own people
There, where misfortune had abandoned us.

INSTEAD OF A PREFACE

During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’.
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe
this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.

DEDICATION

Mountains fall before this grief,
A mighty river stops its flow,
But prison doors stay firmly bolted
Shutting off the convict burrows
And an anguish close to death.
Fresh winds softly blow for someone,
Gentle sunsets warm them through; we don’t know this,
We are everywhere the same, listening
To the scrape and turn of hateful keys
And the heavy tread of marching soldiers.
Waking early, as if for early mass,
Walking through the capital run wild, gone to seed,
We’d meet – the dead, lifeless; the sun,
Lower every day; the Neva, mistier:
But hope still sings forever in the distance.
The verdict. Immediately a flood of tears,
Followed by a total isolation,
As if a beating heart is painfully ripped out, or,
Thumped, she lies there brutally laid out,
But she still manages to walk, hesitantly, alone.
Where are you, my unwilling friends,
Captives of my two satanic years?
What miracle do you see in a Siberian blizzard?
What shimmering mirage around the circle of the moon?
I send each one of you my salutation, and farewell.

Pussy Riot may seem a long way from Akhmatova and Mandelstam, but as Carole Cadwallader wrote in yesterday’s Observer:

Don’t underestimate their bravery. The members of Pussy Riot whom I met, who put their balaclavas and colourful dresses in their bags when they go out to work or university, “like Batman”, were aware that bad things happen to people who dare to stand out in Putin’s Russia. Journalists die. Opposition politicians are beaten up. It’s no coincidence that Tolokonnikova, Alekhina, Samutsevich – Nadia, Masha and Katia – laughed and joked as they were sentenced on Friday. The trial was a joke.

They’re now going to pay the price. Russian women’s prisons are even harsher than the male ones. The women have been depicted on state television as evil satanists and their lawyers fear for their safety. It’s unlikely they’ll stay in Moscow; like Khodorkovsky, they’ll probably be shipped off to a far-off prison in Siberia away from family and friends, from their young children. It’s not a joke. It’s a brutal, nasty place, Putin’s Russia. And because of Pussy Riot, we all now know that now.

3 thoughts on “Pussy Riot: punks with antecedents

    1. Hi Robert, thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, I was aware of the PEN campaign, and the astonishing e-book of poems in support of Pussy Riot. Difficult to choose, but perhaps this from Jay Griffiths:

      Hooligan Truth

      You should, for your own good, have written a
      shapeless protest in grey ink, and shuffled it from hand
      to hand, under the scaffolding of a tenement not fit for
      purpose. Its echoes would have died with the hollow
      laughter of a dozen people, voiceless and invisible.

      Instead you beggared belief with a hooligan truth, told
      in gold. And it rang out all over the world, like
      cathedral bells.

      And the lovely, apposite dedication, from Anna Akhmatova’s ‘Requiem’:

      I would like to name them all but they took away
      the list and there’s no way of finding them.

      For them I have woven a wide shroud
      from the humble words I heard among them.

      I will remember them always, everywhere,
      I will never forget them, whatever comes.

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