On July 31st, 2012 the trial of Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot started in Moscow. The court hearings have attracted a great deal of global attention: the U.S. State Department has called it politically motivated, while many world-famous musical acts, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sting, have voiced their support for the band. For Pussy Riot’s domestic and international supporters, the disproportionate reaction of the Russian authorities to a punk prank, a “prayer against Putin” performed in a Russian Orthodox church, appears ridiculous. Despite the serious charges against them, the punks seem to be stealing the agenda.
Feminist punk band Pussy Riot was formed in September 2011, following Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he and then-President Dmitry Medvedev would switch roles in the following term instead of participating in a truly democratic election process. This announcement incited the educated urban classes to participate in the largest protest rallies that Russia has seen in 20 years. In a sense, Pussy Riot is the fruit of Putin’s political mistake.
The band held several performances during protests last winter, but their most provocative act took place on February 21st,, 2012 at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. Wearing their trademark costumes of brightly-colored dresses, tights, and balaclavas, they snuck up to the altar (where only men are allowed) and started dancing and shouting their anti-Putin punk prayer “Our Lady, please chase Putin away!" They later explained that their intention had been to draw attention to the Orthodox Church's support for the Putin regime.
A YouTube video—with over 1.5 million hits—shows that the performance lasted less than one minute. The girls were ejected from the church by the security guards, but the police didn’t take action against them at that time. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina, three members of the Pussy Riot collective, were arrested several weeks later. Some say that the order came down from Patriarch Kirill, the head of Russian Orthodox Church, who saw the YouTube video, read the lyrics of the song (which mentioned him by name), and then presumably called the President and pushed for their punishment.
As the accused later said, they had not intended to offend anyone’s religious beliefs. Indeed, in their feminist, anti-Putin fury, they didn’t even think of causing this kind of harm, which, band members admitted, was an “ethical mistake” on their part. In any normal democratic country, their performance would have led to a simple arrest and the penalty would have been a fine or community service. Unfortunately, in today’s Russia, they have already spent five months in jail awaiting trail while being denied the opportunity to be released on bail or see their families. Two of the women detained are mothers of young children. They face the very real threat of being sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of “hooliganism based on religious hatred.”
The women have pleaded not guilty. Last week, the band addressed a letter to the public. “We’d like to point out that we do not support violence, we hold no grudges against anyone, our laughter is laughter through tears, and our sarcasm is in reaction to judicial lawlessness.” They also apologized for any psychological damage that their act might have caused believers, but insisted that “the harshness and rudeness of [their] opponents is still hard to understand.” Finally, they thanked their friends, family, and everyone who supports them.
The number of their supporters has grown dramatically since their arrest. Pussy Riot has attracted the attention of the human rights activists, opinion leaders and the media in Russia and abroad. On July 24th, about 200 prominent Russian cultural figures signed a letter of support for the band. So far, over 42,000 ordinary citizens have their added signatures.
It is important to keep in mind that in recent years, Russia has developed into a very conservative country, with the majority of the population supporting the values and authority of the Russian Orthodox Church. Many are genuinely outraged by Pussy Riot.
According to recent Levada Center polls, 48% of Russians know about the Pussy Riot case, with only 8% following it closely and 21% never having heard of it at all. Forty-two percent of those who have heard about the case think that Pussy Riot members were arrested because their performance at Christ the Savior Cathedral insulted the church and its followers, 29% believe that Pussy Riot is just being prosecuted for hooliganism, while 17% said that the trial was brought about by the band’s anti-Putin message.
However, even the Russian citizens who felt that Pussy Riot insulted the church have been changing their minds concerning the just punishment for the women. In March 2012, 46% of respondents said that 2 to 7 years in prison was an adequate measure, while 35% found it unreasonable. Today, the ratio has changed to 33% and 43%, respectively.
In July, the case made its way onto the international agenda. All major Western media outlets have published editorials criticizing Russian authorities and calling Vladimir Putin out for prosecuting Pussy Riot for political reasons.
The Financial Times wrote that this case proves “how much the Russian regime lags behind Europe in political self-confidence” and reveals “how poorly Mr Putin’s state reads the public mood“ seeing as it is the Kremlin’s reaction that “made Pussy Riot an international cause célèbre.”
Wall Street Journal editorial “Enemies of Putin,” also pointed to the insecurities of the regime that chose a punk group called Pussy Riot and a gadfly blogger (outspoken opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, who was charged with embezzlement on August 1st) as its enemies. “The answer is that, for all of his strongman bluster, Mr. Putin fears political dissent and truly free elections,” the Wall Street Journal wrote.
The Washington Post stressed the same issue, saying that seven years in prison would be “ridiculous for a prank.” “Mr. Putin ought to free the judicial system to punish the real lawlessness and corruption around him,” the newspaper concluded.
The Guardian editorial described the Pussy Riot trial as “theatre of absurd.” “No political leader enjoys being made to look foolish. Throughout history, authoritarian leaders have vigorously and often cruelly defended their dignity. <…>It may not look quite like that to the three members of the performance art outfit Pussy Riot. <…> They wanted to use art to undermine the power of Vladimir Putin. Instead, predictably, he has turned it on them. Beyond the border, he looks ridiculous.”
Also in The Guardian, well-known Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen wrote about the Pussy Riot phenomenon: “The three women do personify the essence of the protests: they have no articulated political agenda, they offer no detailed critique of the regime; they are just very loud and very expressive about wanting an end to the stifling rule of Putin and his cronies. They have been in jail for five months and face years more for this: being loud, irreverent, and very, very clear about what they want.” She also quoted some Russian opposition commentators, who disapproved of the band’s shock tactics and assumed a“condescending attitude toward them” saying that “they should be spanked, but not jailed.”
Earlier this month in the New Yorker, Masha Lipman, editor-in-chief of Pro et Contra magazine (published by the Moscow Carnegie Center) shrewdly observed that “the prosecution of the Pussy Riot women is more than an act of absurd injustice and cruelty; it is a sign that the Russian state is increasingly lashing out against those citizens it sees as overly modernized. Vladimir Putin has often said that modernization is the goal of his regime, but its policy is increasingly slipping toward something egregiously anti-modern, obscurantist, even medieval. The Pussy Riot case is a telling illustration of Putin’s political crackdown—and of his increasing reliance on the Russian Orthodox Church as a resort of the most conservative societal forces.”
It is clear that the regime has free reign to come down on Pussy Riot as hard as it pleases. However, the momentum that the international campaign in support of Pussy Riot gains with each passing day is a cause for hope. Even if it’s not obvious yet, the tide is turning. The punks are stealing the agenda. On August 3rd, Putin finally commented on the Pussy Riot case, stating that although the women deserved to be punished, saying that the verdict should not be “very severe.” The group’s lawyers said this was a sign that there could be a major shift in the trial.
Amnesty International has recognized Pussy Riot as prisoners of conscience. In a July 31st press briefing, the U.S. State Department cited the case as an example of a “politically motivated prosecution of the Russian opposition.” On July 22nd , the Red Hot Chili Peppers performed in Moscow and the band’s front man Anthony Kiedis wore a Pussy Riot T-shirt to show his support for his imprisoned colleagues. Other world-famous musicians voiced their support, including Sting and Peter Gabriel, and bands such as Faith No More and Franz-Ferdinand.
In the most comprehensive article about Pussy Riot so far, Carol Cadwalldr of The Guardian compared the band to The Sex Pistols. She quotes one of the British documentary makers that she’d met in Moscow: “It's just the most incredible story. It's just so rock 'n' roll. It really is punk. What they did was as shocking as what the Sex Pistols did. Maybe more so. Because it was against this dictator. It's punks against Putin."
This trial is, as Cadwallfr puts it, “so incredibly visual: the women sit in a cage in the middle of the court.” She even compared Nadia Tolokonnikova to Simone de Beauvoir. “They're all so cool, but you should see Nadia walk into court in her handcuffs. It's an incredible sight. She's like Simone de Beauvoir. I'm romanticizing a bit, but she's Simone de Beauvoir. And Peter [Tolokonnikova’s husband] is Russia's Sartre."
Cadwalldr writes that many have noted the similarities between this case and the Dreyfus affair, when, in 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer of Jewish descent was wrongly charged with treason and, following a clandestine trial, sent to prison. The case evolved into a lengthy political scandal because of the fierce essay J’accuse (I accuse) by Emile Zola, the most respected French intellectual of the time. The essay marked an important change in the European public mindset: intellectuals now supported the opposition to the authorities and proved capable of reinstating justice for the condemned officer.
Cadwalldr also quotes Artemy Troitsky, Russia’s foremost rock critic, whose words, “The three girls might be the ones to break the spine of a tyrant,” sound like a prophecy. We’ll just have to wait and see.