Pussy Riot Is on Trial Today

Pussy Riot

Have you heard about Pussy Riot? They’re Russian. They’re feminists. They’re largely anonymous. They’re a punk-rock collective of about a dozen women. And several members are facing up to seven years in jail for their “blasphemous” protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral.

Pussy Riot formed last September in the wake of Putin’s announcement that he would run again for President. According to NPR, the young women “were galvanized originally by their opposition to government policies against women.” If you know about the Riot grrrl movement in the ’90s, their ethic will sound familiar to you.

Wearing brightly-colored dresses and tights, even in winter weather, and with balaclavas covering their faces for anonymity, they’ve staged a handful of flashmob-style protests across Moscow in the last year to protest Putin’s policies. In January, eight members performed the punk song “Revolt in Russia” (also called “Putin Has Pissed Himself”) in the symbolic Red Square:

The members were detained and fined for the illegal protest, but they were released.

Their next performance carried a harsher penalty. In February, five members went to the front of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (an area women aren’t even allowed in!) to perform a protest “prayer” to the Virgin Mary to “throw Putin out.” (Video here.) The stunt lasted for about a minute and ended with guards leading the women away. The punishment was trivial at first, with one member’s husband saying, ”The police came and they didn’t even open a case.” But that changed in the following weeks.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which has a cozy relationship with the government, condemned Pussy Riot’s actions as “blasphemous” and called for the group to be punished. Head Patriarch Kirill said that the Church was “under attack” and 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 valour, as an expression of political protest, as an acceptable action or a harmless joke.”

The Guardian has this quote from the church’s spokesman:

God condemns what they’ve done. I’m convinced that this sin will be punished in this life and the next, God revealed this to me just like he revealed the gospels to the church. There’s only one way out: repentance.

A few weeks later, three women and the aforementioned husband were arrested. He was soon released, but the women face the charge of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility,” which carries a punishment of up to seven years in prison. According to The Economist, “[t]he official text of the indictment from the prosecutor’s office speaks of the trio’s ‘blasphemous acts’ that inflicted ‘weighty suffering on those persons who find their spiritual home in the service of Orthodox ideals’.”

The husband said, “It was only after [the video] appeared on YouTube under the name ‘Virgin Mary Chuck Out Putin’ and got all this attention—Patriarch Kirill watched it and, so the investigators told us, rang Putin and the head of the Moscow police—that it became this great big deal, that they decided that it was some sort of crime.”

There’s a lot more that can be said about the poor way the Russian government is handling this case. The women have been denied bail. They were arrested before the trial without any incriminating evidence presented, unusual for such charges. Amnesty International and other organizations have issued statements about the case, describing the women as “political prisoners” and “prisoners of conscience.”

I first heard about Pussy Riot in January after their Red Square performance; an article was posted on Facebook’s Blasphemy Day International page. Because trial started today for the three detained women, there’s been a recent flurry of media coverage. A gripping long article in The Guardian featured this short interview with three Pussy Riot members in hiding:

Seriously, if you just skipped over that video, please go back and watch it. Some quotes:

Pussy Riot means [garbled] women, feminists, and it means that women are fed up with the sexist regime, with the situation, with this political system, and with religion at the same time, with our Christian Church. So this means Pussy Riot.

We can show that it’s not so scary to do something, and that actions are changing the situation.

It’s really a very big problem that Russian society is very patriarchal, and we believe that Russia needs some feminist movement…

Russia has a complicated history and a culture shaped by several major political upheavals in the last few decades. Activists and progressives complain about the pervasive sense of apathy and powerlessness in the general population; they fear the Russian Orthodox Church’s resurgence as a political force. Many citizens don’t like Putin, but they also don’t think they can do anything about Putin. However, the government’s heavy-handed reaction to Pussy Riot’s acts of protest is creating more allies for the protesters. Opinion polls show that support for the women is growing. Even religious individuals have spoken out and joined demonstrations against the harsh punishments and unjust treatment. And international entertainment celebrities like Sting and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have taken up the cause.

In this Robin Hood-esque drama, these young women have become a powerful symbol. Many are following the news carefully to see how far the government will go in its attempts to stifle dissent.

So…

You may be asking yourself why I’m writing about this. As an activist and organizer, I try to pay attention to other groups’ campaigns and activism efforts, whether populist or fringe, especially when led by young people. I’ll share a few of the reasons this situation is particularly interesting to me.

First, Pussy Riot is totally badass. Look at them! They’re waaaay cooler than anything I’ve ever done. They played punk protest music in sleeveless dresses in the middle of January in Moscow. Fuck yeah.

Second, I can’t believe how young they are. One source said that members range from 20–33 years old. The women interviewed in that video are young, and they’re standing up to an oppressive system to try to effect change. Fuck yeah again.

Third, I believe free expression is the cornerstone of a free society. I don’t just say that because I’m in America where free speech is a well-defended right we assume everyone should have. (As Yakov Smirnoff might say, “In Russia is freedom of speech. In America is also freedom after speech.”) Article 19 in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression…” The Russian Orthodox Church stifles “blasphemous” speech (as they’ve done in the past), while the Russian government stifles dissenting views—and they’re dangerous bedfellows. This group of young women came along utilizing music and art as tools for protest and rebellion, but the Church and the administration couldn’t have that. How far is modern Russia willing to go to silence them?

Fourth, Pussy Riot’s actions in that church were disruptive for the assembled—for a few minutes. But I feel that if a church or religious organization chooses to be entangled in politics, it’s appropriate to engage in political activism that involves that organization. I realize again that this might be an American perspective stemming from our ideas about church/state separation (example: Prop 8 and the Mormon Church), but still. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior is a symbolic location with a fascinating history where Pussy Riot’s actions were particularly impactful. Were those actions rude? Sure. Were they effective? Yes. Could they have been as effective somewhere else? I don’t think so. Were they inappropriate? I think that depends on who you ask and what their goals are.

Fifth and finally, I found these last few paragraphs from The Guardian article utterly inspiring, especially in light of recent events in the skeptic/atheist blogosphere. The paragraphs contain quotes from two of the interviewed Pussy Riot members. So I’m closing with these:

It’s extraordinary what Pussy Riot have done. How they have taken feminism to one of the most macho countries on Earth. How they have revealed the faultlines at the heart of the Russian state, the moral bankruptcy of the Putin regime. It’s hard to reconcile that with the women I met, with their skinny shoulders and thin wrists and lack of any weaponry bar guts and wit. The word absurd has been worn thin with use, but there’s no other way to describe what is happening in Russia today.

“Putin is scared of us, can you imagine?” says Squirrel. “Scared of girls.”

“It was just a prayer. A very special prayer,” says Sparrow.

“The most important dictator, Putin, is really afraid of people,” says Squirrel. More specifically, he’s afraid of Pussy Riot. Afraid of a bunch of young, positive, optimistic women unafraid to speak their minds.”

 


Here are my sources, if you’re interested in further reading:

Debbie is keenly interested in secularism, skepticism, magic and deception, LGBTQ issues, language and perception, and general geekery. She works at the Center for Inquiry as director of outreach, director of African Americans for Humanism, and intro-doer for Point of Inquiry. You can find her on Twitter: @debgod.

25 Comments

  1. Hasn’t dear Pooty-Poot heard of Barbra Streisand?

    • That was my first thought. +1

  2. Excellent and informative post, Debbie. Thanks for bringing attention to this. I had never heard of this until your post, and now I just heard a story about it on NPR!

    • Thanks! I wanted to help get the word out. I just added today’s NPR link to the list at the end—I hadn’t seen that yet.

  3. Fuck yeah, indeed! Rock on girls, rock on!

  4. Petitions, if you’re into that kind of thing:

    http://www.causes.com/causes/787323-free-pussy-riot-now-pussy-riot/actions/1666509

    The Change.org petition is closed, but the Amnesty Int’l and WCC petitions are still open for signatures.

  5. This is why american “punk” rock is a joke. These women are so cool.

  6. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is simply propaganda. When the western media and certain organizations choose to throw their spotlight on something “undemocratic” etc i’m at least sceptical about the truthfulness of what they’re saying. I bet we’ll never know but i do know two things: Their videos seem produced to me, also the whole thing seems soooo aimed at a western audience.

    Anyway if the facts are as presented then: Yeah, obviously these girls shouldn’t be imprisoned for playing punk-rock in a church.

    • Hi! I have a lot of questions after reading your comment, because I’m not sure what you mean.

      Their flash mob videos are produced. If you look up flash mob videos online, you’ll notice that many are well-done, most are produced, and some have extremely high production values.

      What characteristics led you to describe “the whole thing” as “aimed at a western audience”? As opposed to what kind of audience? Eastern? Again, I’m not sure what you mean. Is it because they play American-style punk? Or because their fashion and style resonates with European/American/Australian-type audiences?

      Who do you think this could be propaganda from?

      • Actually, it kind of reminded me more of “God Save the Queen”, or “London Calling”, but faster.

        Whatever, they RAWK!

        Or is rempetis trying to imply they are merely shills for Big Balaclava?

        • They seem to be suggesting this might be a buzz marketing campaign, just a way to get a deal. While that is possible it seems foolhardy at best given the Russian disapproval of descent.

      • ” What characteristics led you to describe “the whole thing” as “aimed at a western audience”? ”

        Actually i’m very careful about how i express myself, what i said was that “it seemed aimed at a western audience”, and yes it is obviously what the western audience would like to hear. If i remember correctly: Girls of which two are mothers, wrongfuly imprisoned, the video aspect, punk rockers, the fashion, the “free speech” / “freedom of expression” aspect which is something that especially Americans (but to a lesser degree Europeans too) are very fond of going nuts over etc etc.

        ” Their flash mob videos are produced. If you look up flash mob videos online, you’ll notice that many are well-done, most are produced, and some have extremely high production values ”

        That is not what i mean, what i mean is that it seems more like they’re posing for a videoclip that they edited later and presented to us (the western audience) online with the proper music soundtrack rather than presenting what actually happened.

        “Who do you think this could be propaganda from?”

        The media which represent the interests of the western bloc. At the very least i think that it is a part of their usual pick and choose which news to present to the world propaganda tricks. Meaning that they present only or mostly what suits us so that we paint certain countries / persons etc a certain way”.

        Here’s a very despicable example of such western media tricks… http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=30176

        Also, reading the story it seems to me that the full opinion of the russian state/church etc doesn’t seem to be presented.

        So, as i’ve said: “I wouldn’t be surprised if this is simply propaganda.” but “if the facts are as presented then: Yeah, obviously these girls shouldn’t be imprisoned for playing punk-rock in a church.”

        • I’ve recently been watching a really interesting documentary series on cold war propaganda, so I *think* I see what you mean – Westerners using this incident to highlight how terrible Russia is… just as the Russians might use a civil disobedience act in the US to show how that it isn’t all sunshine and lollipops, either.

          However it may be being used, though, it seems rather dubious to suppose they chose to spend several months in jail just to fire up western sensibilities. That concept seems almost egotistical – like protests are staged for the entertainment of the Western world.

          It’s not all about you.

        • If it’s aimed at a Western audience, why didn’t they perform the song in English? They speak English in the video.

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if this is simply propaganda.

      And what, pray tell, turns political speech into “propaganda”? If I (a USA-an) stand up in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (NYC) and condemn Mitt Romney, am I also engaging in “simply propaganda”? And if I have a friend who is a videographer who turns it into a Youtube video, is my protest suddenly meaningless?

      Their videos seem produced to me, also the whole thing seems soooo aimed at a western audience.

      And how would the videos look different if they were aimed at a Russian audience? You don’t think Russians have come to expect professional-looking production work in the videos they watch? Or is your problem that they aren’t wearing babushkas and peasant dresses and doing the hopak while playing balalaikas, and publicizing their activities through icons and illuminated manuscripts?

      I don’t know if you are just clueless and patronizing about Russia and Russians or if you’re a shill for Putin & Co. (or for authoritarianism), but I think your objections say more about you than about Pussy Riot.

      • @amm1> You found me out, i’m a shill for Puttin because my opinion (which i expressed in great length) is an opinion you disagree with.

        @absinthia> I’m glad that you understand at least partly what i’m saying. Surely though i’m not suggesting that they chose to spend months in Jail for that, and that should be obvious because what you’re suggesting is not part of my lengthy argument.

  7. “Fourth, Pussy Riot’s actions in that church were disruptive for the assembled—for a few minutes.”

    This is special pleading. If an organization has the right to be free of activities (no matter how liberating), such as disruption of their rituals, then they have that right. Whether or not it was a feminist group doesn’t matter. This is about as convincing as the misogonists arguing that the elevator-kerfuffle involved only a few minutes on the part of Rebecca Watson, and therefore couldn’t have been that bad.

    • I just had to look up “special pleading” to try to figure out how it fit what I said. I’m still not sure.

      Comparing my “few minutes” statement to the elevator-kerfuffle doesn’t work here. I didn’t say their actions in the church weren’t disruptive. I said the opposite. Whether or not they have the right to demonstrate the way they did depends on who which governing body determines what rights they have. For example, they entered a space where women aren’t allowed. Did they have the right to do that? They disrupted a peaceful ritual. Did they have the right to do so?

      In the paragraph you quoted, I also didn’t ask whether they had those rights. I asked whether their actions were rude, effective, and/or appropriate.

      I pointed out that the actions were disruptive “for a few minutes” because the potential punishment, up to seven years of prison, doesn’t fit the actions, in my opinion. I also think it could be argued that the charge of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility” is inappropriate. (In fact, it looks like that’s the main argument for the defense.)

      So it’s true—I think that a few people demonstrating for a few minutes in front of a church isn’t as disruptive as, say, a hundred people demonstrating for an hour in that church. Is that special pleading?

      • Actually, I think @Leonhard has a point. The church attendees deserve to have their services uninterrupted just as any group should be able to hold a meeting without being shouted down. That’s not to say there is no place for descent, Pussy Riot should have been removed from the premises and arrested only if they refused to leave and even then significant jail time is ridiculous barring any physical harm or property damage, and especially not for blasphemy which simply should not be a law.

        I would liken it to a heckler at a stand-up show. They can heckle but if it is too much they are removed and only arrested if they refuse to leave or start a fight. We may disagree with the Russian government or the church but we must apply freedom to assemble (remember that part of the first amendment?) equally or it has no weight for anyone.

        Having said all that, I am basing that on US law which I think is a good place to start in this case but Russia is not the US. Just saying what I believe is fair.

        • “Freedom to assemble” is based on the rights we have from U.S. law, yeah? I agree with this: “Pussy Riot should have been removed from the premises and arrested only if they refused to leave and even then significant jail time is ridiculous barring any physical harm or property damage, and especially not for blasphemy which simply should not be a law.”

          Leonhard said, “If an organization has the right to be free of activities (no matter how liberating), such as disruption of their rituals, then they have that right.” I agree with this too! That’s why Pussy Riot’s actions were illegal. According to what I understand (but I may be wrong), they also didn’t have the right to protest in Red Square. Occupy protesters in NYC didn’t have the right to stay in Zuccotti Park. Rosa Parks didn’t have the right to sit in the white section of the bus. African Americans didn’t have the right to sit in restaurants’ white-only seats decades ago. Etc.

          I think pinkpixel’s comment below sums up what I was thinking. It’s a really thoughtful look at the question. Point is, I think we generally agree but have some disagreement about the level of impropriety of Pussy Riot’s actions in the church. I have mixed feelings about it, which is why I wrote, “Were they inappropriate? I think that depends on who you ask and what their goals are.”

          • I believe we agree even more than you think, I was simply pointing out that he was right about special pleading, I disagree with his comparison to the elevator incident though.

            If something is illegal it is illegal, the severity of the disruption is important only in determining the harshness of the punishment not in determining the legality of said actions. Speeding 5 miles over is just as illegal as speeding 20 miles over but your chances of being punished are much less with the former.

            Your comparison to OWS and civil rights protests is particularly apt since the people who were involved in those movements knew there would be risks of being removed, harassed, moved along, or even arrested (as I believe PR most likely realized). They accepted those risks in order to prove their points, the biggest issues came when the reprisals were more than they expected and wholly disproportionate to their actions. While they expected push-back they didn’t necessarily expect nightsticks, pepper spray, and fire hoses. That is what is really at issue here, the response was so out of proportion to the acts committed as to be comical if they weren’t so serious.

            @pinkpixel’s point that the church is a quasi-governmental body complicates the situation, but only a small amount. If you disrupt a governmental place, say a library, you will be subject to the same sorts of punishments as you would if you disrupted a private business (with the possible exception of trespassing, but IANAL). As to whether the church has rights that protesters are morally obligated to recognize; well no obviously not, but they do have to legally recognize them.

            We may not agree that the church is entitled to respect but they are entitled to a reasonable space to gather. Just as we would expect a PTO meeting to not be interrupted by those who are against public schooling.

          • @mrmsconception, great explanation! This stood out to me: “As to whether the church has rights that protesters are morally obligated to recognize; well no obviously not, but they do have to legally recognize them.” When we talk about “rights,” I think that’s a crucial distinction to make.

            I have a question, though. I might be shaky on the definition, but I’m not sure: how is what I said an example of special pleading?

    • Ah, but it begs the question – does the church have a right to be free of disruption, a right that protesters are morally obliged to recognize? One could argue that, in Russia, the church’s involvement with government renders them, in a sense, a public entity rather than a private institution. Should public entities be immune from the disruptive effects of protest? Most people would agree that protesters have no moral obligation to avoid disturbance of the legislature, for example, so long as their disturbance isn’t so prolonged or extreme as to prevent the legislative body from conducting business altogether. Glitter-bombing, likewise, is considered by many to be a legitimate form of protest when directed toward prominent political figures, despite the fact that it often disturbs, momentarily, the normal course of a speech or press conference. The intent and effect of such actions is to call attention to an injustice or to give voice to a structurally-suppressed perspective, and to do so in a quick, effective and non-violent way. If you can think of a way to do this without disturbing anyone or anything, I bow to your genius. Traditionally, when cultural and political changes happen bottom-up, they often involve illegal non-violent actions that disturb business as usual (Think of the Occupy movement, various civil rights movements etc.). They even may go so far as to disturb, briefly and non-violently, the business-as-usual of privately-owned-yet-publically-supported churches and corporations. And usually the protesters know that they can be arrested, and they accept that outcome willingly, ready to cooperate even when they consider themselves in the right.

    • @DebGod – The way I am reading it, and I may be wrong, you are saying because this church has inserted itself into politics and because the protest lasted only a few minutes that Pussy Riot should not expect as harsh a punishment.

      If you believe that in a “normal” church it would be fine to expect that reprisal but in this church (because of these political ties and because the protest was only a few minutes) the same response is inappropriate, that is special pleading.

      If that’s not what you are saying then my mistake. In either case the punishment does not fit the crime.

  8. We had a benefit in my city a couple months back for their legal defense fund. I filmed all the bands, but this was the only one that came out good:

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