Pussy riot, the Russian punk band that has been setting the international newswire on fire since their arrest in February started their trial on Monday. They are a feminist punk-rock collective that stages politically provocative impromptu performances in Moscow on subjects like the status of women in Russia, and against the election campaign of Prime Minister Putin for president of Russia. They usually dress in brightly colored dresses and tights, even during the extreme Russian winters, with faces masked by balaclavas when they either perform or give interviews under various pseudonyms. The collective is about 10 performers, and about 15 people who handle the technical work of shooting and editing their videos which then get posted on the Internet. Their influences are based in the long history of punk, but it is clear that they are more influenced by the Riot grrrl movement of the 1990s started by bands like Bikini Kill. “What we have in common is impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse and a non-standard female image.”
February 2012, as part of the protest movement against Vladimir Putin, Pussy Riot performed a song in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. This particular song was performed in the Altar, which in Orthodox churches is a segregated, most sacred area in the church, where only priesthood is allowed. In the song, Pussy Riot pray to the “Theotokos” (Bogoroditsa) to “chase Putin out”. The words of the final christian liturgical hymn “Sanctus” (holy, holy, holy, Lord God) was changed by Pussy Riot to “shit, shit, shit of Lord God” and the patriarch in the song, mentioned earlier, is called a bitch. On March 3rd Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, two members of Pussy Riot were arrested by Russian authorities and accused of hooliganism, for which they face up to 7 years in prison. On March 16th Ekaterina Samutsevitch, who had earlier been questioned as a witness in this case, was arrested on similar charges. On June 4th they were presented with formal charges on an indictment 2 800 pages long, on July 4th they were suddenly informed that they would have to prepare their defense by July 9th. They announced a hunger strike in response, two working days in obviously an inadequate time to prepare a trial defense. On July 21st the court extended their pre-trial detention by another six months.
The members of Pussy Riot are recognized as political prisoners by the Union of Solidarity with Political Prisoners. Amnesty International has named them prisoners of conscience du to “the severity of the response of the Russian authorities”.
This has sparked a debate in Russia. The Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia 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 valour, as an expression of political protest, as an acceptable action or a harmless joke.” Thousands of Orthodox and Catholic believer, the believers of other religions and atheists have signed a petition to Patriarch Kirill, begging the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to stand up for the girls. Daniel Sandford of the BBC said :”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 Rolling Stones – butterflies being broken on a wheel.” By late June 2012, the girls are still without a trial date and concern over what is regarded as excessive and arbitrary treatment has led to the drawing of an open letter which was even signed by Fyodor Bondarchuck, a supporter of Putin, and actors Chulpan Khamatova and Yevgeny Mironov, both of whom have appeared in videos for Putin’s re-election campaign.
The trial of Pussy Riot started in Moscow on Monday. Charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility”, they face possible sentences of up to seven years of imprisonment. It is said that even the majority of people in Moscow oppose the trial, while a good part besides them are undecided. But most importantly, this trial underlines the corrupt alliance of church and state. It underscores the respective limits of polite discourse in the former Soviet state. Putin’s Russia, which increasingly is also the Mother Russia of the Orthodox Church, the cost of this transgressing of polite discourse as state-invigilated boundaries mounts.
The upping of the stakes is an outcome of cynical legalistic elegance: the formal alliance of Russia’s church and state (whose public faces are Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin) now makes it possible to cast civil disobedience as blasphemy, meaning an affront to the uncriticizeable sentiments and values of Orthodox Christians. Thus the formal charge of hooliganism, serious enough in itself, is being pursued with an added vindictiveness and cost fed on the outraged sentiments of believers — for example a church security guard who now claims to suffer from insomnia brought on by the trauma of a thirty-second punk rock performance.
So, Pussy Riot, or at least the three members of the collective, are being charged for playing the song “Punk Prayer” in a Moscow church, but exactly what are they saying? I am sure that most of you also do not read Russian, so here is the translation of a part of the song; I am sure that we can now see why the church’s higher-ups are so pissed off:
The head of the KGB, their chief saint / Leads protesters to prison under escort / In order not to offend His Holiness / … The Church’s praise of rotten dictators / The cross-bearer procession of black limousines / A teacher-preacher will meet you at school / Go to class — bring him money! / Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin … better believe in God instead ….
Why these lyrics are great and shocking at the same time is that they simply summarize all that is rotten in Putin’s dirty realm, I think that most people have been able to see this by simply just reading a newspaper once in a while, or they must at least now. This song, or prayer, has been denounced as irreligious, but this too is a piece of propaganda. The song is concluded with the lyrics “Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!” and given the record of the Patriarchate, they may be on to something.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has issued a statement asserting, “We aren’t enemies of Christians …. Our motives are exclusively political. If anyone was insulted, then I am prepared to accept that we made an ethical mistake.” She correctly observes however that this “ethical mistake” is not, and ought not to be, construed as a political crime. The only hope for these young women now is the moral authority and censure of the watching world, much of which is distracted by the spectacle of the Olympics. If the Russian state is able to make an example of these young women, it will be yet another discouraging marker along the criminal and hell-hound pathway of Russia’s dangerous decline.