An authoritarian regime often forces dissidents to find new, creative means of resistance. A group of Russian feminists formed the all-female punk band Pussy Riot in late 2011 to protest against Vladimir Putin’s decision to return as president. They staged unannounced ‘flash’ performances in outdoor spaces and on public transport. Their imaginative interventions gained wider attention in January 2012, when they held a brief performance outside the Kremlin. Their lyrics included the lines ‘Revolt in Russia – the charisma of protest!/Revolt in Russia, Putin’s got scared!’ They were arrested and fined.
On 21 February 2012, four members of the band entered the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, wearing colourful outfits and balaclavas to hide their faces. They danced in front of the altar, singing a ‘punk prayer’ before being escorted from the building. The song criticised the close relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin, and included the following lyrics (translated into English by Sasha Dugdale):
The Head of the KGB is their big saint man
Loading the protesters in a prison van
If you don’t want to insult the most Holy Lord
Women! Know your place is in the birthing ward
The Church pays homage to degenerate bosses
A black limousine in the procession of the crosses
If a Priest comes to your school today
Take in your purse – you’ll have to pay.
Retribution was swift. Three members of the band, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were arrested in early March and accused of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. On 17 August 2012 they were sentenced to two years in prison under Article 213 of the Russian Criminal Code. They have always maintained that their performance was political and not an attack on religion. Their action did not cause physical damage to any person, building or property and would normally have resulted in a lesser punishment, such as a caution or fine.
According to Pussy Riot’s lawyers, the women were locked in a bulletproof cage throughout the hearing and denied food and water for long periods of time. The prosecution and its witnesses argued that the band’s act had betrayed a deep hatred of all Orthodox Christians and was not motivated by outrage at the Putin regime, as the women had stated. The defence was repeatedly denied the right to level objections, to call witnesses and at times even to speak.
Pussy Riot’s provocative act of resistance, which can be watched online, has struck a chord with thousands of people around the world. The band’s plight has become emblematic of Russia’s repression of free speech and has galvanised wide support, drawing protests from numerous PEN centres and other international lobby groups. Writer and editor Sophie Mayer, together with English PEN, has published an anthology of poems in support of Pussy Riot. Readers can download a copy by visiting www.englishpen.org/poems-for-pussy-riot-ebook. The women have also received support from mainstream singers calling for their release, among them Paul McCartney and Madonna, and Russian pop star Alla Pugacheva, who stated that a custodial sentence would be like ‘shooting sparrows with a cannon’.
Last month at the singers’ appeal hearing, Samutsevich was freed on a suspended sentence. However Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova remain in prison to serve the remainder of their two-year sentences in a penal colony.
According to Miriam Elder, writing in The Guardian, Samutsevich was freed when the judge ruled that she ‘did not engage in the “aggressive movements” that had offended Russia’s Orthodox believers’, as she had been escorted out of the cathedral before she could take part in the performance. Alyokhina told the court: ‘I have lost all hope in the court … but I want again and for the last time, because we probably won’t get another chance, to talk about our motives … Dear believers, we didn’t want to offend you.’
Although Putin denies having any involvement in the trial or sway over the case, in a television documentary aired just days before their appeal, he said that the imprisoned members of the band had ‘got what they asked for’.
Their names can be added to the list of other courageous women in Russia, among them Larisa Arap, Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova (LR, November 2006, September 2007 and August 2009), who have been imprisoned or killed for speaking out against the authorities. Many believe that state repression has worsened under Putin, with a return to Soviet-era tactics such as psychiatric detention and gulag-style prison camps to silence dissident voices.
Readers might like to send appeals welcoming the release of Yekaterina Samutsevich; protesting the upholding of the two-year sentences against Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and calling for their immediate and unconditional release; and pointing out that the harsh sentencing is in retaliation for the lyrics of a song that is critical of the Russian Orthodox Church and President Putin, and that their detention is in breach of international conventions, specifically Article 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which Russia is a signatory.
Appeals to be addressed to President Putin on the Kremlin website eng.letters.kremlin.ru
His Excellency Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko
Embassy of the Russian Federation
6/7 Kensington Palace Gardens
London, W8 4QP
Fax: +44 (0) 20 7727 8625
Messages of solidarity can be sent via www.freepussyriot.org