08/22/12Posted in Features by L4LM

Everything You Need to Know About Pussy Riot


By Justin Charles

If you haven't heard of Pussy Riot at this point, for lack of a better expression, you may as well have been living under a rock. The feminist punk rock group based in Russia were recently sentenced to two years in prison for staging a controversial performance in a sacred part of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The trial and verdict have incited protests around the world and support from some huge names in music like Paul McCartney and Madonna, yet most of America isn't completely familiar with the group or their actions. This piece is not meant to be an editorial, I don't intend on sharing my opinions on all that surrounds the case and the band, I just want to inform you, the readers, as the what exactly has happened. We are a group of people who can spend hours discussing which version of Phish's Tweezer is the best; The Pussy Riot trials represent an interesting and relevant argument about free speech that should arouse a higher level discussion.

Background

Pussy Riot was born out of the radical Russian street art group Voina, who became well known for their controversial politically charged performance art. The group came to prominence for their 2008 performance 'Fuck for the heir Puppy Bear!', in which five couples undressed in Moscow's Timiryazev State Museum of Biology and initiated public sex acts in front of a banner that said 'Fuck for the heir Puppy Bear'. The performance was dedicated to the Russian presidential election, and 'Puppy Bear' was a reference to Dmitry Medvedev, who was preparing to be elected. In attendance was a heavily pregnant Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the three members of Pussy Riots arrested. Yaketerina Samutsevich, also arrested, was known to have participated in various Voina demonstrations as well.

Formation Of Pussy Riot

In late September of 2011, Vladamir Putin announced that he would return as President of Russia, which would seemingly signal a return of corruption, terror, poverty, and the loss of civil rights. In response to this, Pussy Riot was formed in an attempt to fight back at what they perceived to be unjust laws against women. In a rare interview with Vice.com back in February, one member explained "we realized that this country needs a militant, punk-feminist, street band that will rip through Moscow's streets and squares, mobilize public energy against the evil crooks of the Putinist junta and enrich the Russian cultural and political opposition with themes that are important to us: gender and LGBT rights, problems of masculine conformity, absence of a daring political message on the musical and art scene, and the domination of males in all areas of public discourse".

In the same interview, the group explained the name Pussy Riot: "a female sex organ, which is supposed to be receiving and shapeless, suddenly starts a radical rebellion against the cultural order, which tries to constantly define it and show its appropriate place". They also listed influences, both musical (Bikini Kill, the Riot Grrrl movement acts, Sham 69, among others) and in feminist theory (De Beauvoir, Dvorkin, Pankhurst).

Performances

As they are always described as a 'feminist punk rock band', the common perception of Pussy Riot is an average band with controversial songs and albums. This is not the case. Pussy Riot have only released six songs and five videos in their existence, eschewing the traditional sense of a rock band, and instead performing in un-orthodox performance spaces with invited guests to document the event. The band remains completely anonymous, their faces covered with balaclavas.

The group's first performance, 'Release The Cobblestones', was released on November 7th, 2011, which happened to be the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. The song was a reference to the rabid protests around Russia that were taking place due to Putin's landslide win in regional elections; elections that many critics claimed to be rigged. Pussy Riot enacted it's audience to throw cobblestones during the street protest, while the song's video depicts the band members singing atop subway cars and destroying pillows.

In the coming months, the band staged further demonstrations. 'Kropotkin Vodka' saw the band show up announced in expensive restaurants and boutiques. 'Death to Prison, Freedom to Protests' were a response to the massive anti-Putin protests that had taken over Russia – many protesters were imprisoned. Pussy Riot performed their song atop the roof of the pre-trial detention center where these protesters were being held. The performance that brought them to prominence, however, it was 'Protests in Russia, Putin Chickened Out', which saw the band perform in Red Square. As the band publicly lampooned Putin, eight members were briefly detained, giving the group media attention.

Church Protest

As the protests against Putin's re-election continued to gain steam, Putin publicly spoke of the need to tie the church and state together once again. In response to the protests, on February 21st, 2012, four members of Pussy Riot descended to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, which is one of the most sacred grounds of the Orthodox Church. The members crossed themselves, bowed to the alter, and performed a 'Punk Prayer', asking God to 'banish Putin'. In less than a minute, guards escorted the members outside of the building – but not before video of the performance could be taken to make a clip.

Arrest and Prosecution

On March 3, two members of Pussy Riot, Mario Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were arrested and charged with hooliganism. While being held awaiting trial, many spoke in the media of alleged mistreatment. On July 4th, they were told they had until July 9th to prepare a defense – yet on July 21st, they extended their pre-trial detention by six months. Pussy Riot's lawyers constantly spoke out against the government, accusing them of making this trial a 'show trial', which would gain massive media attention only to make an example of the band, in order to send a message to others who oppose.

On August 17, all three members were sentenced to two years of prison; the court ruled it was 'hooliganism motivated by religious hatred'. Pussy Riots' lawyers said the band would attempt to appeal the trial, however they expect the chances of the verdict being overturned are extremely slim.

Reaction

Initial world wide reaction was generally in disgust of the verdict. The United States embassy in Moscow tweeted "the sentence seems disproportionate to the actions" – a sentiment held by many in government around the world. The United States State Department also asked Russia to "review this case and ensure that the right to freedom and justice is upheld". Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a Russian historian and human rights activist, claimed the verdict was not "in line with the law, common sense, or mercy". Various protests took place around the world as well, including New York City, Kiev, Bulgaria, and Scotland.

While initial media reaction in the west was almost entirely pro-Pussy Riot, defending the freedoms of speech and speaking against the harsh treatment of the band, some recent media outlets are providing counter-arguments. Rachel Marsden of the Baltimore Sun compared the action to "If Justin Bieber or the Rolling Stones suddenly decided to stage an impromptu concert in a public place somewhere in America without a permit", asking if authorities would just shrug it off here. She even goes on to ask why the mainstream media has so much sympathy for the band. Simon Jenkins of The Guardian called the media attention a "hypocrisy", saying that if London courts can jail people for infractions such as dog bites and stealing water, then who are they to criticize Russia? Further criticisms come from Pussy Riot's association with Voila.

Conclusion

Barring a miracle judgement, the members of Pussy Riots will end up in a Russian jail for two full years, able to see their children only every six months, and receive only four phone calls a year. Russian prisons are notorious for their poor quality, and there is no 'maximum security' prison for women – so these girls will share space with murderers as well.

What do you think of the whole Pussy Riot phenomenon? Who is right? What do you think of the verdict? Is the western media showing too much unbridled support for Pussy Riot? Or is this an outrage that must be spoken of? Sound off in our comments section.

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