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BALACLAVAS AND RESISTANCE: PUSSY RIOT, RUSSIA AND HOW THE PUTIN REGIME SCREWED THE POOCH

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pussyriotedited.jpeg
Pussy Riot by Jean Smith of Mecca Normal (20 x 20 acrylic on canvas)

On August 17, 2012 three members of the punk protest collective Pussy Riot (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich)were sentenced to two years on a penal colony on the charge of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for the crime of a guerilla performance of a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s main cathedral in February of this year. While this sort of disruption and offense was reportedly  normally penalized with a fine, the three women faced up to seven years in prison in a trial where many of their witnesses weren’t allowed to speak and pressure appeared to be on from both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Krill of the Russian Orthodox Church to get a conviction. Thus, after a trail that appeared to be what we in the west would call (to use an old cliché) a “kangaroo court” and international pressure that included being named “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International, the verdict went to the recommended two years the prosecution wanted

Part of the state’s campaign against PR was exploitative. The Orthodox Church was urging its congregations to support Putin and Pussy Riot’s performance of a song that asked Mother Mary to cast out Putin was confrontational. By having state run media portray the performance as an orgy and that the three women acted out of “religious hatred” it was easy to cast them as “hooligans” rather than see the act as a form of protest. While it appeared many in Russia supported the verdict, a lot of people did find it excessive, including Putin’s own human rights ombudsman and Prime Minister Dimitry Mevdevev.  As I type the band is awaiting an appeal date on October 1st that could lighten their sentence or uphold it. While some would say the verdict was proof of Putin’s power and what awaits those who fight him, it shows without a doubt that the Putin regime screwed the pooch. 

How did they screw this up and possibly lose the perception war in the long run? Consider that Pussy Riot was a somewhat anonymous collective whose members performed with heads covered in “balaclavas.” While some of the media coverage made people believe this was the whole band, the collective had somewhere between 12 to 20 members. In addition, they sang in Russian and their total amount of work lasted roughly within 15 to 20 minutes total. When you add that together, it seems obvious that if the state had left this alone or at worst, just gave them a fine then Pussy Riot would’ve been a footnote in the world’s cultural and political consciousness. 

Instead, by sentencing three of its members to prison, Putin made the three women into martyrs and political prisoners. By doing this he not only highlighted the heavy handed actions the Putin regime has taken against their opposition (which ranges from Pussy Riot to chess champion Gerry Kasparov) but gave them a platform a band who sang angry political and feminist lyrics in Russian would’ve never had otherwise. With this move, Pussy Riot has gained the support not just of human rights groups such as Amnesty Int’l or Human Rights Watch but or musicians and artists ranging from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Madonna to punk pioneer Patti Smith and Green

Day to some of the original Riot Grrrl’s that influenced Pussy Riot. Thus, a man in his third term (at least) as President failed to take into account a simple maxim - that making peaceful or even confrontational (yet nonviolent) revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. Or to put it more plainly - if he and the church would’ve let this slide, nobody would’ve known. Now, they have the world’s attention (or at least a good chunk of it) not just on this case but on the country’s attacks on gay rights and dissent in general.

At this point, I want to look at the criticism both in Russia and elsewhere that focusing on Pussy Riot overlooks some other abuses of power in the world. However, some of the most nuanced writing I’ve seen on the band came from Jigsaw, the blog of former Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail, who’s posts on the band also point out the eroding freedom in the U.S. vis-à-vis raids on the homes of anarchists and police brutality against Occupy demonstrators.  It is the recognition that things are interconnected that mark Pussy Riot as probably carrying punk’s legacy socially into a stratosphere nobody expected, probably not even the band themselves.

 So what about the other members of Pussy Riot? As Nadya, Maria, and Katya await their appeal on October 1, the Putin regime’s search for the other two members involved in the church incident drove them out of Russia (and creating a video for the MTV Video Music Awards thanking artists for their support and burning a picture of Putin). In the meantime a new single was unleashed and the collective (calling them a band really is a little shortsighted) is somehow at a state of existence that could take things to new levels of drive them completely underground though they say their work will continue. 

And if the verdict is upheld. Since attention is focused on human rights and political prisoners in Russia as a result of this, how it unfolds will be interesting. Regardless of what happens as the three members said at their sentencing in a way they’ve “already won.”

Even when considering that factor in the larger picture, here’s hoping the unlikely happens- the sentence gets tossed out and Pussy Riot gets released from a injustice they shoud’ve never had to deal with in the first place.

- Boone

EDITOR’S NOTE: As this issue’s print edition went to press we have learned that on Friday September 21, 2012 Yoko Ono will award the 2012 LennonOno Grant for Peace to Pussy Riot.  MORE UPDATES TO COME!!!

Jigsaw Statement on Pussy Riot

Happy Birthdya Katya

Jigasw Statement August 31

Yoko Ono Awarded Annual Peace Grant to Pussy Riot

For More Information

All content this page © 2012, Boone Stigall/The Trouble With Normal