Pussy Riot

Jamie Reid

Pussy Riot is a Russian feminist punk-rock collective that stages politically provocative impromptu performances in Moscow on Russia’s current political life. In March 2012, during an improvised and unauthorized concert in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, three women from the band were arrested and charged with ‘hooliganism’ and their trial began in late July.

The band members have gained sympathy both within Russia and internationally due to allegations of harsh treatment while in custody and a risk of a possible seven-year jail sentence, and have also been criticized in Russia for offending the feelings of religious people. Alexei Nikiforov, a federal prosecutor, has demanded prison for the trio because they ‘abused God.’ Pussy Riot’s lawyers said that the circumstances of the case have revived the Soviet-era tradition of the ‘show trial.’

The collective’s usual costume is brightly-colored dresses and tights, even in bitterly cold weather, with their faces masked by balaclavas, both while performing and giving interviews, for which they always use pseudonyms. The collective is made up of about 10 performers, and about 15 people who handle the technical work of shooting and editing their videos, which are posted to the Internet. The group cites punk rock and Oi! bands as their most important musical inspiration. Oi! is a working class subgenre of punk rock that originated in the UK in the late 1970s. The band also cite American punk rock band Bikini Kill and the Riot grrrls (an underground feminist punk rock movement) of the 1990s as an inspiration. They have said: ‘What we have in common is impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse, and a non-standard female image.’

As a part of a protest movement against re-election of Vladimir Putin, three women from the group came to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, crossed themselves, bowed to the altar, and began to perform a song. After less than one minute, they were escorted outside the building by guards. The film of the performance was later used to create a video clip for the song. In the song, the group asked the ‘Theotokos’ (Mother of God, i.e. the Virgin Mary) to ‘drive Putin away.’ The song also describes the Russian Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow as someone who believes in Putin rather than in God. Kirill showed open support for Putin as a candidate before the presidential election.

Kirill I condemned Pussy Riot’s actions as ‘blasphemous,’ saying that the ‘Devil has laughed at all of us … We have no future if we allow mocking in front of great shrines, and if some see such mocking as some sort of valor, as an expression of political protest, as an acceptable action or a harmless joke.’ Singer Alla Pugachyova appealed on the women’s behalf, stating that they should be ordered to perform community service rather than be imprisoned. According to BBC correspondent Daniel Sandford, ‘Their treatment has caused deep disquiet among many Russians, who feel the women are – to coin a phrase from the 1967 trial of members of the rock band The Rolling Stones – butterflies being broken on a wheel.’ It can be taken as referring to putting massive effort into achieving something minor or unimportant, and alludes to ‘breaking on the wheel,’ a form of torture in which victims had their long bones broken by an iron bar while tied to a wheel. In July 2012, sociologist Alek D. Epstein published a compilation of artistic works by various Russian artists entitled ‘Art on the barricades: Pussy Riot, the Bus Exhibit and the protest art-activism’ in support of the trio.

The defendants are: Maria Alyokhina, a 4th year student at the Institute of Journalism and Creative Writing in Moscow; she has a history as a humanitarian volunteer and environmental activist with Greenpeace Russia. She is 24 and has one young child. She played an active role in the trial: cross-examining witnesses and aggressively questioning the nature of the charges and proceeding. Yekaterina Samutsevich is a computer programmer interested in LGBT issues. She is a graduate of the Rodchenko School of Photography and Multimedia in Moscow. And Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a philosophy student at Moscow State University with a history of political activism with the street-art group Voina.

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