What Pussy Riot's 'Punk Prayer' Really Said

Here's the first literal English translation of the lyrics, with an explanation of what they mean.

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The publicity outside Russia surrounding the Pussy Riot trial has focused on the band members' kinetic, sock-it-to 'em dance style and mocking prostrations before the altar of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, the colorful balaclavas they wore to perform their "punk prayer," their erudite, eloquent statements in court, and the sentencing of three of them, in August, to two years in a penal colony for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." (One sentence has since been overturned on appeal and a band member freed.) That the punk prayer began with the choral refrain that translates as "Birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!" has also been reported, of course, which words would seem to explain their conviction, if we assume their real offence was not "hooliganism" of one sort or another, but a brazen act of lèse majesté -- of insulting the ruler -- against Russian president Vladimir Putin.

42 percent of Russians consider the punk prayer an attack on the Russian Orthodox Church. Only 19 percent saw it as a protest against Putin.

The lèse majesté argument seems to hold sway outside Russia, but, rightly or wrongly, a plurality of Russians in the country itself disagree. According to polls conducted by the respected Levada Center, 42 percent of Russians consider the punk prayer an attack on the Russian Orthodox Church. Only 19 percent saw it as a protest against Putin. The difference may have a simple explanation: Unlike most in the West, the Levada poll respondents had probably heard the whole song before forming an opinion about it. In fact, the rest of the punk prayer's lyrics amount to an iconoclastic cri de coeur deriding popular Russian subservience to a clergy many regard as corrupt, denouncing (widespread, in Russia) conservative attitudes toward gays, assailing the increasingly tight relationship between church and the (constitutionally secular) state, as well ridiculing the age-old perception in Russia that rulers exercise power through a mandate from God (or, in the Soviet era, though a mandate from history, the Marxist version of which posited the death of capitalism and the triumph of communism). Putin, accordingly, was not Pussy Riot's only target. The band was challenging the entirety of the social and political order he has fostered since coming to power almost 13 years ago.


So what are the rest of the lyrics? If translations of varying accuracy can be found on the web, only one major media outlet (to my knowledge) has published them in their entirety (in the Guardian, available here), but the version suffers from the refined artistic talent of the translator, who turned Pussy Riot's staccato, elliptic verbiage (well suited to their now notoriously shrill and shouted style of delivery) into poetry and made a number of subjective interpretations regarding the meaning:

Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!
Drive away Putin, drive away Putin!

Black frock, golden epaulettes
Parishioners crawl bowing [toward the priest, during the Eucharist]
Freedom's ghost [has gone to] heaven
A gay-pride parade [has been] sent to Siberia in shackles

Their chief saint is the head of the KGB
He leads a convoy of protestors to jail
So as not to insult the Holiest One
Woman should bear children and love
Shit, shit, the Lord's shit!
Shit, shit, the Lord's shit!

The "golden epaulettes" call to mind KGB officers and military dress uniforms, and the juxtaposition with "black frock" is no accident. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russian Orthodox priests were denounced as having collaborated with country's most feared spy agency. In fact, the current Patriarch Kirill I stands accused by journalists, the Helsinki Group (a prominent Russian human rights organization), and, of course, Pussy Riot, of working with the KGB. (In her court statement, now free band member Yekaterina Samutsevich referred to him as Putin's "former colleague.") The group chose the cathedral as their locus of protest because, again according to Samutsevich, it had been "used openly as a flashy backdrop for the politics of the security forces."

Of gay parades: Moscow municipal authorities have routinely denied permits for gay pride marches, though certainly none have been "sent to Siberia in irons." Putin is surely "the chief saint" in line 7, but "the Holiest One" would be Patriarch Kirill, whose traditionalist stance on women's roles must not be offended. Since its inception in 2011, Pussy Riot, through its songs, has propagated an aggressive philosophy of feminism in a country where the word "feminist" carries a foul, overtly Western connotation.
 
All of which makes the Church, in Pussy Riot's spiteful parlance, little better than a pile of "the Lord's shit."

A second self-explanatory choral refrain then follows:

Virgin birth-giver of God, become a feminist!
Become a feminist, become a feminist!

Which segues back into lines about politics and corruption:

The Church praises rotten leaders
The march of the cross consists of black limousines
A preacher is on his way to your school
Go to class and give him money!

Patriarch Kirill has moved the Church ever closer to the Kremlin and, ahead of presidential elections last March, openly called on Russians to vote for Putin. The "march of the cross" refers to the ceremony (krestnyi khod, in Russian), enacted during Easter celebrations, in which parishioners form processions and carry crosses from local churches around town. Intended as a sincere expression of faith, the march has been corrupted, Pussy Riot implies, both by the Church's proximity to political power and by the Yeltsin-era privilege it once enjoyed (by presidential decree) to import luxury cars (as well as tobacco) duty-free. Hence the reference to "black limousines."

Patriarch Gundyay believes in Putin
Would be better, the bastard, if he believed in God!
The Virgin's belt won't replace political gatherings
The eternal Virgin Mary is with us in our protests!

Virgin birth-Giver of God, drive away Putin!
Drive away Putin, drive away Putin!

The Democracy ReportPatriarch Kirill's secular surname is Gundyayev. The Patriarch called Putin "a miracle from God" in his endorsement, thus making clear his faith in him. The Russian word used for my "bastard" was suka (bitch), which can't apply to a male subject, so I've made the corresponding change. The "Virgin's belt" seems to refer to the holy relic, the "Belt of the Blessed Birthgiver of God" brought from Mount Athos in Greece to the Cathedral some months before Pussy Riot's performance there. Thousands lined up in fierce cold to pay it homage, many in the hope that the sash purportedly worn by the Virgin while she was carrying Jesus might cure their ailments. Pussy Riot was, thus, saying "Don't look to God for help, you've got to get out on the streets and demand change!" The import of the next line is clear: The Virgin Mary, who is purported to stand with the downtrodden (and not, presumably, with institutions allied with authoritarian regimes), must, in Pussy Riot's view, support them in their fight for justice.
 
The punk prayer's lyrics have done much to highlight, even exacerbate, deep-rooted divisions in Russian society over faith, the exercise of personal freedoms, and the concept of justice. Acts of desecration and vandalism of church property began multiplying shortly after the band members' sentencing, with the result that the State Duma, with the Church's support, is pushing for legislation that would criminalize blasphemy. A mounting sense of conflict may be just what Pussy Riot intended. The band is, after all, an outgrowth of an earlier protest group called Voina -- War.


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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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