Pussy Riot’s jailing: the full story

As three members of the Russian anti-Putin feminist punk band are sentenced to jail, we tell you what you need to know about one of 2012's wildest, saddest and most inspiring stories.

Earlier today, before Pussy Riot’s jailing was announced but long after it was a foregone conclusion, sympathisers pulled bright balaclavas over a World War II memorial in a Moscow underground station. The primary-coloured masks soften the austere bronze faces: it’s a statement of brightness, violent in its transgression, turning these Russian saints of the Great Patriotic War) into feminist superheroes, a pop art happening signing them up for the next battle – against the regime of Vladimir Putin. The three members of the group that made these vibrant hoods world-famous symbols of protest were sentenced at 3pm today in Russian courtroom on charges of hooliganism, and it’s the latest, saddest chapter in one of the year’s wildest stories.

Six months ago, 30+ strong feminist punk band led by Moscow-born philosophy masters student Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Pussy Riot were performing agitational and really fun-looking guerrilla gigs, such as the one below, shot inside the Church of Christ the Saviour, one of Moscow’s largest cathedrals:

This gig – a “punk prayer” titled Hail Mary, Redeem Us Of Putin – was performed on the 21st February 2012, Pancake Day. If you’d like to singalong, the lyrics are below on the Youtube page description in cyrillic. This Google translation is a little shaky, but gives an idea of the song’s message:

Theotokos (nb: the Orthodox word for “Mother Of God”) Virgin, Putin out out Putin, Putin out black robe, gold epaulets – All parishioners are crawling on the bows of Phantom Freedom in Heaven Gay Pride sent to Siberia in chains head of the KGB, their main holy Leads protesters in jail under escort to His Holiness not to offend women should give birth to love Holy shit, shit, Holy shit Holy shit, shit, shit the Lord (Chorus), Theotokos, Virgin, become a feminist Become a feminist, a feminist stand (end chorus) Praise Church rotten vodzhey procession of black limousines In school, the preacher is going to you Come to class – bring him money! Patriarch Gundyaev believes Putin is better to be in God, bitch, believed Belt virgins will not replace meetings – On the protest with us Ever-Virgin Mary! (Chorus), Theotokos, Virgin, Putin out Putin out, out Putin (end chorus)

This got them into a lot of trouble, and two of the three now imprisoned were arrested on the 3rd March, with computer programmer Yekaterina Samutsevich joining soon after. Hunger strikes followed their arbitrary arrest. Apparent legal malpractice – from severe treatment to extended pre-trial detention – abounded, but it was the “unjustifiable” collapsing of peaceful political protest into a charge of hooliganism that led Amnesty International to term them prisoners of conscience and demand their release.

An ex-KGB strongman and judo fan, Vladimir Putin has held the state’s executive as either president or prime minister since 1999. He’s no fan of press freedom, as Steven Harding of the Guardian tells in his sobering book Mafia State.

The system of ‘managed democracy’ is a strange mix. A state based on centralisation, nationalism and authoritarianism under the auspices of a cheery post-structuralism, its intellectual architecture was brilliantly described by The London Review Of Books’ Peter Pomerantsev, in a piece which serves as an outstanding background to the strange, sad events unfolding right now. The “adoption of a fashionable, supposedly liberational Western intellectual movement and [its] transformation into an instrument of oppression” may have seemed grimly predictable given Russia’s past, but the open, often violent flaunting of liberal rights was by no means taken lying down, with everyone from ex-paratroopers to loggers joining the condemnation, as this New Yorker article helpfully details.

Amnesty were not the only ones who were inflamed at their arrest, with musicians from Patti Smith to Die Antwoord calling out in support. Now, from fighting Nazis to writing books to playing chess to being really good looking, Russians have a history of going above and beyond the call of duty. The #FreePussyRiot protests were no different. 28-year-old performance artist Petr Pavlensky joined over 100 cultural figureheads in signing an open letter against Pussy Riot’s impirsonment, and then sewed his mouth shut on the steps of St. Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral on 23rd July. He summed up the feeling in an interview with Dazed & Confused, presumably conducted after he cut the cords:

“Sewing up my mouth, I showed the situation of the contemporary artist in Russia, living in an environment where there’s a ban on publicity, the tightening of censorship and suppression of public statements in contemporary art. The whole story around Pussy Riot is a demonstrative example of this, carrying out the ritual punishment of young girls. This process is entirely demonstration in character, aiming to intimidate and keep society at bay.”

This protest is continuing now on the streets, even more explosive since their sentencing to two years in jail. There are currently pro-Pussy Riot protests in Paris, where demonstrators in Igor Stravinsky square are chanting “Freedom”, and in Kiev, women protesters sawed down a wooden cross in a central square. In London, more than 100 supporters are currently gathered on outside the embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens, The Independent reports. Larissa Exalto, 31, a Ukrainian accountant and artist who lives in Wandsworth, said: “I am Ukrainian but I feel for the girls. I am a professional person and I wouldn’t normally go to a protest but in Russia you can’t say anything, or something is going to happen to you.”

A key point of the trio’s hooliganism has centered around their “atheism” – protest against the state is apparently guaranteed by the Russian constitution, while religious offense, especially against the Orthodox Church, is not. An interesting discussion of this took place on the BBC’s Today programme earlier this week, with Rev Lucy Winkett noting that Their protest is full of Biblical allusions, quotations, and interpretations of religious themes… They express what one Christian theologian calls in the spirit of Mary Magdalene – ungovernable female energy. Indeed, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s closing statement is soaked in references to the bible and the church, but the allusion that most resonates is the first, whereby she compares her trial to a Stalinist show trial:

Essentially, it is not three singers from Pussy Riot who are on trial here. If that were the case, what’s happening would be totally insignificant. It is the entire state system of the Russian Federation which is on trial and which, unfortunately for itself, thoroughly enjoys advertising its cruelty towards human beings, its indifference to their honour and dignity, the very worst that has happened in Russian history to date.

If it’s not too crass or vulgar to drag anything as blase as inspiration from these events, another historical throwback could perhaps be brought to bear. In English and American music-writing circles, there has been a good deal of hand-wringing over the apparent death of music as an overt political force, and the demise of the transgressive pop band. Here, then, is a reminder that musicians are more than capable of acting as thorns in the side of power. And that, as long as dull, sad regimes are intent on martyring their people, thank God some can make a damn loud racket.

For more on how to show your support, contact Amnesty International. or contact your local Russian embassy

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