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Free Pussy Riot | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Free Pussy Riot

In his final interview as president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev was asked to comment on many of the issues one would expect—relations with the United States, Ukraine and Georgia, government corruption… and the Pussy Riot case.

While you might not have heard much, if anything, about Pussy Riot in this country, the feminist punk rock collective has roiled Russian politics. Back in February, on the eve of Russia’s presidential election, it gave an impromptu performance of “Punk Prayer” on the pulpit of Christ the Savior Cathedral—Moscow’s Russian Orthodox equivalent of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. The performers wore ski masks, jabbed and kicked at the air and genuflected to verses imploring the Virgin Mary to “get rid of Putin, get rid of Putin, get rid of Putin.”

 

It seemed a feisty—perhaps to some tasteless—musical prank, amplifying the demands of thousands who’d protested in Moscow’s streets since December. And it probably wasn’t the most tactful way to attract a broad spectrum of supporters to the opposition’s views. But these punk rockers have been around for a couple of years, taunting authorities with their flamboyant performance art and music. On video, their action almost has the feel of a flash mob—and a small one at that—albeit at the nexus of power between church and state.

But the authorities didn’t view it as so benign. On March 3—one day before the presidential election won by Putin— two members of Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were arrested “by heavily armed police officers” for allegedly participating in the performance. Two weeks later, another band member, Irina Loktina, was arrested.

All three women have been charged with “hooliganism” and face up to seven years in prison. Despite the fact that two of the women are mothers of young children, they are all being held in pre-trial detention, which was recently extended from April 24 to June 24. According to the New York Times, “There is every indication that it will be extended again, with a trial unlikely to start until the fall.”

The women have written to President Medvedev and asked that he look into the legality of the decision to open a criminal case against them. Amnesty International has declared them prisoners of conscience. (There are only two other well-known prisoners of conscience in Russia—former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev.) Their case has led punk rockers, women and feminists in the United States to try to raise awareness and support for Pussy Riot too. Indeed, the Free Pussy Riot campaign has gone global.

But in Russia in particular, key (even conservative) newspapers, Russian women and protesters who filled the streets before the parliamentary and presidential elections have taken up their cause—signaling a real backlash against the government for its harsh response.

Muckraking blogger, lawyer and protest leader Aleksei Navalny called the arrests “senseless and horrible cruelty, which is much worse than their very stupid but small offense”—an offense which he said “obviously cannot be punished harsher than five days of arrest.” He noted a recent case of an election commissioner’s daughter who “ran over two people,” one of whom died and the other was “maimed.” The sentence was three years “in a settlement colony”—and it was suspended for fourteen years because the woman is the mother of a young child.

The case has also illuminated and exposed divisions in the Russian Orthodox Church itself—between the hierarchy and many in the rank and file. The church has been at the forefront in calling for all involved in the Pussy Riot performance to be punished for their “blasphemy.” In fact, according to the New York Times, priests said they were “ordered to circulate” a letter calling for the punk rockers “to be punished as severely as possible.” The Moscow patriarch denied it. But a senior Orthodox cleric said the performers “have declared war on Orthodox people, and there will be a war.”

Many in Russia view the actions and hyperbole the church is engaging in as a thinly veiled effort to deflect attention from its own corruption, power and immense wealth.

Indeed, when I was in Moscow in early April, a story broke that the Orthodox Church had photoshopped Patriarch Kirill I’s Breguet watch worth at least $30,000 out of a photo on its website—but neglected to remove the reflection that was still visible on the table where the patriarch was seated. The patriarch also won a $600,000 lawsuit for dust damage to an apartment he owns in an expensive building, and bloggers allege that he has a “large country house, a private yacht and a penchant for ski vacations in Switzerland.”

Many Russians feel that this kind of bad publicity was the real motivating factor behind the church’s organizing a massive demonstration in front of the cathedral last week. Crowd estimates range between 30,000 and 65,000 people—large by any measure—as the church called on supporters to help it “defend itself” against a “campaign of blasphemy,” including the Pussy Riot performance, the Times reports. The church bused in people “from over a dozen dioceses,” including “the Night Wolves, a group of nationalist motorcyclists.” It was a real show of strength—as big or bigger than any of Moscow’s pro-democracy demonstrations—and priests who opposed the gathering were denounced by Patriarch Kirill I as “traitors in cassocks.”

Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute of Social Movements and Globalization and a keen observer of Russian society and politics, writes: “The Pussy Riot affair has turned into a PR disaster for the Russian Orthodox Church, adding to the scandals with the Patriarch. The women are under arrest and much of the religious Christian community is disgusted with the position of the hierarchy which is behind the persecution. The mass rally organized to pray for the church [for being] ‘attacked’ and even ‘persecuted’ by Pussy Riot made things even worse. Some priests publicly protested against the policies of the Patriarch—for the first time in many years. Now we have a growing movement to defend secularism, which wasn’t there even a month ago.”

The Pussy Riot case has revealed real fissures between the secular and more conservative elements of Russia, and within the Russian Orthodox Church itself. Medvedev didn’t quite seem to comprehend the significance—despite the fact that the issue came up in his final interview—responding that the women “got exactly what they were seeking—popularity,” and refusing further comment.

Maybe they did want popularity. Or maybe they simply wanted to do exactly what they did—make a bold political statement without physically damaging the church or harming anyone. Either way, detention and up to seven years prison for these actions seems riot-worthy. It’s time to free Pussy Riot.

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