Grace Dent on TV: Storyville: Pussy Riot – a Punk Prayer, BBC4

Wave the flag for the fearless feminists whose anti-Putin protests have rocked Russia

The actions that skewered Russian protest group Pussy Riot, causing national trauma, are, to the British viewer, so minor that the footage is rather laughable. We watched during Pussy Riot – a Punk Prayer as the girls donned pastel-coloured balaclavas in the Cathedral of Christ Saviour, Moscow, then ran about dancing, singing and making some unsporting comments about Putin. In fact, most Brits wouldn't even find this laughable. More utterly unremarkable. If I were to go to Westminster Abbey this Saturday and leap about in a silly hat and no bra saying David Cameron was a prick, I'd have a bloody long wait for Sky News and the police to turn up.

The reactions, I'll wager, would involve: some Christian types who were mid-Mass tutting, someone in a Boden cardigan mumbling that this was a bit like when Jesus protested against money-lenders, some nuns on a day trip from Tring putting me on Instagram and then, eventually, a volunteer in a tabard from the tea shop bringing me a cup of milky PG Tips and a lavender slice.

What it would certainly would not lead to is national horror, mass rallys, calls for my hanging, my burning, my exorcism and my eventual transportation to Penal Colony Number 14 in Mordovia. As the documentary aired this week on BBC4, Pussy Riot member Nadia Tolokonnikova was being transferred to another unconfirmed colony. Nadia was, essentially, missing in the Russian prison system, which feels, to me, as disconcerting as the threats that the girls would “be killed in Siberia” for their unholy, feminist, anti-establishment actions that were heard during the trial footage.

Nadia is an enigmatic character. She is staggeringly beautiful and aware of the fact. She is emotionally ungiving and puts her feminist beliefs before her role as a mummy. She is wholly shameless about a previous protest she took part in where she had sex in a museum. She is calmly, aloofly and defiantly unrepentant about this whole Cathedral business. All of these elements – each and every one – so very very unbecoming in a woman, especially a Russian woman. The Orthodox Church, the media and her prosecutors detest her. The manner in which the Russian Orthodox Christians of 2013 quickly slip into calling Nadia, Masha and Katia “demons” or discussing how there must be a devil moving in them to commit this “sacrilegious act” feels like earwigging on footage of the Salem witch trials. But it's 2013 and they're holding the Winter Olympics there next February.

As we watched footage of the girls in their prison cage, being refused the right to see their children, being warned they might die in prison, while their ageing parents were jostled about by Orthodox thugs, it struck me how half-hearted and duplicitous the tone of tolerance and acceptance would be at the Sochi opening ceremony as compared to Danny Boyle's explosion of Great British free-thinking tolerance. Pussy Riot could have ran across Boyle's Green and Pleasant land topless with chainsaws and, in the grand scheme of things, no one would have cared.

“But don't you see, in Russia dancing in a cathedral is the equivalent of pissing on a war memorial?” someone Tweeted the other evening as I watched. And, yes, the documentary showed this too. It showed a country where religion was suppressed for many years and is thus now doubly sacred. But, more importantly, it showed a country with no history of performance or conceptual art protest; therefore, Pussy Riot playing bad electric guitar near an altar felt literally like the end of days. Like the Sex Pistols going on TV in the Seventies in Britain and telling Jesus himself to fuck off.

Meanwhile, in Britain 2013, we're bored to death with performance art, with Spiderman clinging to Buckingham Palace shouting about his rights as a father, or the Turner Prize exhibition full of child mannequins with cocks for faces or a whole array of passionate political fools who turn up daily on the green at Westminster in fancy dress as toilets, sheep, vaginas etc waving banners to make their point about clean water, EU quotas or chlamydia. In fact, we're so bored by the British equivalents of Pussy Riot that when laws are brought in to deplete our rights to protest, we don't really give a damn.

Whether one agrees with Pussy Riot's beliefs or their methods, A Punk Prayer's examination of the girls' fearlessness, their determination to shove feminist protest in the face of Russian Orthodoxy and their unflinching calm in the face of jackboots and holy water was wholly compelling. Before the girls were sentenced – their vows that they weren't being sacrilegious, weren't militant atheists and were in fact making a comment about state involvement in religion roundly ignored – they were permitted to give statements. Katia said: “I now have mixed feelings about this trial. On the one hand, we expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated.”

I'm not sure that the whole world knows Pussy Riot's story, but this Storyville certainly helped augment their growing legendary status.

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