Pussy Riot, Russia’s Feminist Punk Band – and Political Prisoners

Posted on March 30, 2012

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Pussy Riot is a colorful all-female punk rock group making headlines in Russia, and perhaps soon, the world, as several of their members are now jailed and their lawyer is speaking of taking their case before the International Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The band first came to light last fall during the pre-election wave of anti-Putin protests, debuting in a series of unauthorized flash performances (they don’t seem to have any other kind) in two Moscow Metro stations and atop a public bus.

Their modus operandi is to quickly set up in a public place, perform, then depart in a hurry before the authorities decide to arrest them on the spot.  Here we have anywhere between three and ten women, loudly expressing political dissension in various public places:  in Red Square, in storefront windows, at a fashion show, even atop a jail building.  They are lightly dressed against the Russian winter, and their frantic dancing and arm-pumping probably has as much to do with keeping warm as with their punk style.  All wear colorful balaclavas to mask their identities.

And well might they wear masks!  Their songs are political protests, promoting feminism, criticizing Putin, and calling for Russia to mutiny and to free political prisoners.  They invoke verbal images of turning Red Square into another Tahrir.  And yet, protests against Putin alone were not enough to bring them down off their impromptu stages.  They had been briefly detained and fined after some of their previous performances, but they were not in real trouble until they launched their “Punk Prayer” criticizing the Russian Orthodox Church.

Pussy Riot staged their last public “concert” on 21 February, inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.  The Punk Prayer  called for the Holy Virgin Mother to drive Putin out, criticized the Church’s traditional position on women’s roles, and contained vulgar insults to the Church, the clergy, and believers.  And that got results that their purely political protests had not.  Two alleged members were arrested on 3 March for “hooliganism” and inciting religious hatred, and a third was arrested on 16 March.  All have been denied bail and will be held until 24 April.  If convicted, the women could face as much as seven years in jail.  Violetta Volkova, one of the women’s lawyers, is preparing to appeal their case to the European Court of Human Rights, as – in her view – the only offense was against the Church and not criminal in nature.  Hooliganism, under Article 213 of the criminal code, includes violence and destruction of property, neither of which occurred in the Pussy Riot performances.

Public reaction has been mixed since the performance in the Cathedral.  Some are deeply offended, but others believe the women are being punished much too harshly and that they don’t pose any danger warranting their continued detention.  Some are also calling upon Patriarch Kirill to push to have the charges dropped, but the Patriarch is having none of that.  In fact, the Church is now calling for legislation to make blasphemy a criminal offense – and that raises the specter of bygone days when Church and State were very much one and the same.  In fact, the Punk Prayer may have been staged in response to Patriarch Kirill’s February statements that people should not go out and protest, but remain at home and pray instead.  Both Pussy Riot and other observers see the Church as supportive of Putin’s regime.  And the government is equally supportive of the Church, with Foreign Minister Lavrov and Putin’s press secretary denouncing the group’s actions as “sacrilege” and “disgusting.”

In mid-February, in an interview with Henry Langston of Vice, several of the women explained that Pussy Riot is a constantly growing and changing group.  When asked if they were worried about police harassment, they responded:  “We have nothing to worry about, because if the repressive Putinist police crooks throw one of us in prison, five, ten, 15 more girls will put on colorful balaclavas and continue the fight against their symbols of power…. the state will think twice before trying to fabricate a criminal case and putting us away. There are loads of Pussy Riot fans in Russia’s protesting masses.”

Tough talk which was later overcome by events, but they do have their supporters.  As for other band members filling in the ranks of their imprisoned colleagues, time will tell.

Originally published at The Color of Lila, http://wp.me/p1e2qh-4V

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