Pussy Riot: Hooligans or Prisoners of Conscience?

by JoHarrington

Three members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot are in prison. The rest of the band have fled the country in fear of the same. That was one Hell of a gig.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and several world governments are amongst those calling for the release of Pussy Riot.

The list of celebrity endorsements of the punk protestors reads like a showbiz Who's Who. Madonna and Bjork have both offered to perform gigs with them, once they are free.

Even Russia's Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has gone on record stating that keeping the women incarcerated would be 'counter-productive'. Yet not everyone is on their side and their actions continue to divide opinion in their own country.

For the three women imprisoned, the charge sheet actually reads 'hooliganism'. It's a tag which doesn't sit well with the ever-increasing numbers of international activists fighting their cause.

For them, the trio are prisoners of conscience, in the IK-2 and IK-14 penal colonies because they dared to publicly criticize President Putin and embarrass the Orthodox Church.

I learned about the case in the usual way. I received a notification for action from Amnesty International. But my reaction wasn't an ordinary reporting to duty. I stared at the details, researched the group, listened to the music and whooped!

Riot Grrrl was back!

Amnesty International's Free Pussy Riot! T-Shirt

Free Pussy Riot ! TShirt

Pussy Riot is Riot Grrrl Come Back!

Forgive a quiet moment of glee and anticipation. I remember this the first time around!

In the summer of 1993, I sat in a bedsit room in a converted Victorian vicarage.  With my newly dreaded hair and combat trousers, I was ready to save the world.

It was in this context that my friend Julie first handed me V for Vendetta (the graphic novel) and played Bikini Kill's Rebel Girl.  My mind was duly blown and the two have been interlinked in my head ever since.

A whole wave of Feminist Punk Rock bands passed through my Walkman.  L7, Bikini Kill, Hole, Huggy Bear, they were all present and correct.

Then it just all seemed to fizzle away.  Maybe I got older.  Maybe they did.  But the idea remained.

Only this winter I bumped into a lady of my generation.  Somewhere along the way, Riot Grrrl was mentioned in conversation. I looked at her and she looked at me. Our eyes locked in a secret smile.

Kids today.  They have no notion of how exciting that was.  Or at least I thought, in my smug, rose-tinted nostalgia kick.

But then, I don't recall Huggy Bear ever being thrown into a reconditioned Gulag in Mordovia.

It's the summer of 2012 and Riot Grrrl is back, this time with balaclavas.  Though I maintain that the music was better back in the day.

Books about the Riot Grrrl Movement

'When she talks, I hear the revolutions; In her hips, there's revolutions; When she walks, the revolution's coming; In her kiss, I taste the revolution...'
Girls Guide to Taking Over the World:...Girls to the Front: The True Story of...Riot Grrrl: Revolution Girl Style Now!

Pussy Riot: Pro-Feminist Punk Rock Protest Singers

Their gigs are all illegally staged and they are quickly broken up, as the authorities react to the chaos.

That moment of reminiscing isn't as random as it seems. Pussy Riot have self-identified as Riot Grrrls, citing Bikini Kill as their inspiration. It was not a movement which had its equivalent in Russia, until now.

It's in this riotous context of empowered femininity, striking out against stereotyping and kicking down taboos, that Pussy Riot acted. 

Their shows were never in ticketed halls, but illegally grabbed sessions on governmental steps and in public squares.

It was mostly street theater.  In your face, punk rock with a huge dash of what society deems obscene and inappropriate for young ladies.  That's kind of the point.

(In my day, it was a member of L7 removing a blooded tampon from her body, and throwing it at a heckler live on television.  This was Riot Grrrl.  It was designed to shock and kick against the norm.

Riot Grrrl never asked politely for the glass ceiling to be removed. They took sledgehammers and smashed it to smithereens.)

On a pro-Feminist platform, Pussy Riot performed raucous songs proclaiming against patriarchy; particularly as represented by President Putin and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill I of Moscow.

It's all activism.  It's all protest.  Every lyric that they yell is attacking those they perceive to be causing the repression of women and other societal ills.

On one occasion, members of the twelve piece band forced their way into a high end fashion shop. They were simulating masturbation in the window display, while the rest of the group performed their music outside.  On another, they climbed onto scaffolding in a Moscow subway, raining feathers from a pillow down on trains, as they played.

Their gigs don't tend to last long.  Their songs are only two minutes long, probably as insurance against actually completing one before the police arrive.

Then came the action in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. 

Pussy Riot T-Shirts

A whole crop of these t-shirts have been created to show solidarity with the Russian punk band.
Limited Edition: CBGB Pussy Riot TeePussy Riot We Are Slim-Fit T-ShirtFree Pussy Riot Men's T-Shirt Dark T-...

Feminist Protest in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Pussy Riot shone a spotlight on the anti-women and pro-abuses of human rights policies of the Russian Orthodox Church. It didn't go down well.

On February 21st 2012, Pussy Riot entered Moscow's main cathedral, Christ the Saviour. They were dressed in overcoats, with their colorful balaclavas hidden in their pockets.

In addition to band members, a collective of fifteen technicians are associated with the band.

They follow with cameras and record everything. They mix their songs and publish them.

This is the geek element of Pussy Riot; and some of them were also present on the day.

Within two days, what they captured on film would be publicly available on YouTube. It would form the promotional music video for the band's latest release, Punk Prayer.

Once the party were inside the cathedral, the performers removed their coats and put on their trademark balaclavas.  They rushed to the central altar - an area usually reserved for high ranking clergy - and fell to their knees, crossing themselves.

Before church guards could react to their trespass, the women began a raucous, impromptu performance of Punk Prayer.

The Feminist lyrics beseeched Mary, Mother of God, to join them in the fight for female equality. They highlighted how the traditional place of women, under Church doctrine, was to 'birth and love'.  Basically they are baby incubators and little else.

But moreover, the song attacked the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church. It accused him of supporting a succession of dictators, despite the obvious human rights abuses going on. It was the intervention of the church which kept the people in check, so no-one would criticize 'gay pride sent to Siberia in chains' nor the 'cross-bearer procession of black limousines'.

Ironically, in light of subsequent events, the song also accused KGB leaders of leading 'protesters to prison under escort, in order not to offend His Holiness'.  The corruption ran both ways.

While nuns rushed to stop the camera women filming, security guards poured into the sacred center to pull Pussy Riot from their makeshift stage.  Worshipers and tourists merely stood around, staring in shock at all that was happening.

The action that you are about to watch led to the arrest of three women.  Maria Alekhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova each received two years in prison for 'hooliganism' and 'religious hatred'.  Other members of the group have fled Russia, so not to submit to the same.

Pussy Riot Video: Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!

It's actually called 'Богородица, Путина прогони', but the above is the translation. This is the moment which caused all of the trouble.

English language lyrics of 'Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!'
The Feminism element is evident in the refrain: 'Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist Become a feminist, become a feminist.' It's also there in a verse: 'Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin Bitch, better believe in God instead The belt of the Virgin can’t replace mass-meetings Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!'

Judge Rules That Feminism is Religious Hatred

According to a Russian court, the principles of Christianity are not pro-female equality; and challenging that is worth two years in prison.

In the Pussy Riot trial, Judge Marina Syrova out-lined the three areas in which the trio would be prosecuted.

Their hooliganism and religious hatred was evident in their choice of venue; their continuing performance, even after security guards and church worshipers tried to stop them; and the conduct of both the defendants and their accomplices in the aftermath.

She ruled that:

'People who consider themselves feminists presently struggle for actual equality [for women]. These activities are not considered criminal in accordance with the Russian law.

At the same time, Orthodox Christianity, and Catholic Christianity and other denominations do not agree with feminism and their own values are not inline with feminists.'
The Guardian: Pussy Riot jailed for two years - Friday 17 August

It was this opinion which added the tag of 'driven by religious hatred' to the charge of general 'hooliganism'. 

What are your Thoughts in the Christianity versus Feminism Debate?

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Judge Marina Syrova's religious hatred ruling wasn't correct, because...
Neil Pitts on 02/19/2015

It will always be Christianity vs. feminism, because of the way in which it evolved out of Judaism, structurally speaking, until the Church and Monarchy get away from Patriarchy, but, how can they, when Jehovah is the God of the Jews? We are going to need the whole of Christianity and the whole of Judaism to sit down, side by side, at a rage against the machine concert before this happens. So, feminism CAN'T push it too far, they have to be clever. Christianity CAN'T be oppressive, it's got to be benevolent. Do Pussy Riot represent the situation having come to a head? If so, then nobody could have seen what was going to happen. But, we can learn from it, and people can raise issue of the REAL problem this situation represents, and help to prevent it from happening again.

Verdict Read out in the Pussy Riot Trial

The three Riot Grrrls smirked, as they were each sentenced to two years' imprisonment. Supporters in the court yelled, 'Shame!'

Activists Unite for the Imprisoned Pussy Riot Women

For their supporters, the trial was a blow to freedom of expression. The women are prisoners of conscience.

The 'hooliganism' charge wilts somewhat in the light that none of the band physically hurt a member of the church, nor was there any criminal damage. The 'religious hatred' ruling only works if you concur that Christianity is anti-equality for women.

It's not a view accepted by Amnesty International, amongst others.  As far as the human rights organization is concerned, Maria Alekhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova are all prisoners of conscience.

They are in the Mordovia penal colony because they dared to publicly condemn both the Patriarch and the President.

Amnesty's Free Pussy Riot campaign has already seen action on their behalf in cities across the world.  Meanwhile, Yoko Ono has awarded the LennonOno Grant for Peace to the group. They are just two of the prominent supporters of the women.

It's all playing beautifully into Pussy Riot's ideology, hence the defiant smirks as they were led away from the courtroom.  Their protest platform just got amplified beyond their wildest dreams.

Latest News about Pussy Riot

New York TimesA Warning for Americans From a Member of Pussy RiotNew York TimesTwo days later, I went to a little cafe here to meet with Nadya Tolokonnikova of the Rus...
ForbesPussy Riot on Surviving Trump: 'Think About People You Can Help. It Will Help You.'ForbesShe ended her speech with a screening of Pussy Riot's May 2016 video “Ma...
BillboardPussy Riot's Nadya on Surviving President TrumpBillboardNadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot warns Americans to avoid complacency during the coming years, especi...
Mirror.co.ukPussy Riot warns Donald Trump supporters they face Vladimir Putin-style crackdown on freedomMirror.co.ukPussy Riot political activist Nadya Tolokonnikova w...

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Updated: 11/02/2012, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 10/20/2012

Maybe it's because I was three for most of 1976, then turned four towards the end. I mostly remember it for having this little screaming baby thing that took my Mum and Dad's attention. *smirk* He's not much better now... >.>

But yes, I will look them up. I've been busy building a new computer today, hence not having chance to have listened so far. But keep the suggestions coming. I'm all for finding new and great music.

JohnTannahill on 10/20/2012

Sorry, that should have been the Slits, not the Slitz. Jo. I'm slightly surprised about that. Neither bands were obscure. X-Ray Specs had UK chart success and The Slits were the sister group to The Clash. I suppose you had to be around at the time though, and being British helps too. They were both 'punk' in the best way, the perfect antidote to ABBA and Fleetwood Mac. It was a time when it seemed like a radical thing to be female and not aspire to be glamorous. They were, quite frankly, a breath of fresh air. Around that time, Bob Marley was in the UK, and he loved them too. Sadly, both Poly Styrene of X-Ray specs and Ari Up of the Slits passed away quite recently. I'm sure you can find them on YouTube. Let me know what you think.

JoHarrington on 10/20/2012

I really am missing things in my musical history. I haven't encountered any of them before. But I'm certainly going to look them up. Thanks!

JohnTannahill on 10/20/2012

You mention earlier Punk Feminist rock bands from the 90s, but there were some from my generation too. The Slitz (Typical Girls) and Poly Styrene and X-Ray Specs (Germ Free Adolescents) were around over a decade before that. From what I recall their music was more anti-consumerist than big politics.

JoHarrington on 10/13/2012

I don't know. They're already in a penal colony, which was originally built as a Gulag. But the whole world is watching here, which makes things very awkward.

It's certainly going to be interesting seeing what does happen to Pussy Riot. They are representing a lot of prisoners, and they are in situ learning things and talking about them on an international platform.

Sheri_Oz on 10/13/2012

If Putin had been paying attention to what happened in some other countries nearby, he would have been able to predict that the Internet would go "viral". And lucky for the Pussy Riot, they will not be able to be sent to "mental institutions" or hard labour in Siberia.

JoHarrington on 10/13/2012

I think that the viral popularity of this action, around the world, has taken Putin's government by surprise. But such 'trials' never really ended, which was the point that Pussy Riot have been making in their songs. This has just washed away the veneer a bit.

Mind you, it's not quite as bad as it was in the past, if only in terms of scale.

Sheri_Oz on 10/13/2012

Yes, this has all been quite a mystery to me as I watched what happened (and, like Katie, I was wondering who would pick up the gauntlet here on wizzley and take on this topic). It reminds me of the "trials" and exile of activists and writers way back in the days of the Prisoners of Conscience in the former USSR.

JoHarrington on 10/10/2012

Hiya Hollie,

Pussy Riot set out to highlight situations just like these. That's what they were singing about, so yes, they knew.

I was very impressed with their deportment in court. Perfectly played and it did gain them a lot more supporters.

As for the Church in Russia, I don't know. Remember that this is a Church which has managed to survive a century of Communism!

HollieT on 10/10/2012

Hi Jo,

Before I scrolled down I just *knew* that the religious element would be the one that damned them the most. I watched intently when Pussy Riot's trial was on the news, the women seemed self assured, like they *knew* that whatever the courts handed down to them, would also serve as evidence to demonstrate to the rest of the world how the church and state are still determined to control society, especially women.

Those women have achieved so much, I really admire them. In contrast, I think Putin's a creep and the church on the run! A secular Russia in the future...Perhaps?


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