Pussy Riot's victorious defeat

The feminist punks get two years in jail -- but set off an international protest against Putin's Russia

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published August 17, 2012 3:18PM (EDT)
Members of the female punk band Pussy Riot               (Reuters)
Members of the female punk band Pussy Riot (Reuters)

In a decision as predictable as it was stomach-churning, three members of the Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot were found guilty Friday of hooliganism for a protest in a cathedral last winter. The judge declared that they had engaged in "homosexual propaganda" and "imitated demonic attacks." The women, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova -- who have already spent six months in jail -- received a sentence of two years imprisonment.

The case, which has gained the attention of the world as a litmus test for freedom of expression in Russia, began in February, when the band mounted an unauthorized action at one of Russia's most sacred spaces, Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Performing in their trademark tights and face-obscuring balaclavas, they belted out their "Punk Prayer" to "Mother Mary, please drive Putin away." They were swiftly accused of a "criminal act which violated public order" and "went against tradition and is a great insult to the church and people." All three women pleaded not guilty to the charge of hooliganism, but apologized for their "ethical mistake."

For their actions, the group have received support from a variety of quarters, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bjork and Sting. When Madonna performed in Russia recently, she did so with the band's name printed on her back, and she took time out of her performance to tell the audience that "I think that these three girls … have done something courageous. I think they have paid the price for their act. And I pray for their freedom." Paul McCartney wrote an open letter on his website stating, "I would like you to know that I very much hope the Russian authorities would support the principle of free speech for all their citizens and not feel that they have to punish you for your protest." And on Friday, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov was arrested outside the Moscow courthouse for protesting the verdict.

That cathedral protest had all the bratty swagger of classic punk – a deliberately confrontational move designed to stir up strong emotions. If you want to pick a fight, after all, a church is a great place to start. But it was, even more so, a stunning display of bravery. Pussy Riot's actions were no mere nose-thumbing stunt. The three women who faced trial, who range in age from 22 to 25, have now endured months under harsh prison conditions. Alyokhina, 24, has a son, Filipp; and 25-year-old Tolokonnikova has a 4-year-old daughter named Gera. Try to imagine making the choice to speak out for what you believe in, knowing it might rob you of two years of your youth, and also of your son or daughter's childhood.

In a closing statement earlier this month, Samutsevich eloquently explained the group's motives:

In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture and that of protest culture, thus suggesting to smart people that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch and Putin, that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia. I now have mixed feelings about this trial. On the one hand, we expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial. Once again, the world sees Russia differently from the way Putin tries to present it at his daily international meetings. Clearly, none of the steps Putin promised to take toward instituting the rule of law have been taken. And his statement that this court will be objective and hand down a fair verdict is yet another deception of the entire country and the international community.

Though they may be imprisoned, Pussy Riot are still being heard. Protests are planned in 48 cities around the world on Friday. As she was being led from the courtroom, Tolokonnikova said, "We are happy because we brought the revolution closer." But they didn't just bring it closer. They made it go so, so far.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Kasparov Arrested Madonna Paul Mccartney Protest Punk Pussy Riot Vladimir Putin