Pussy Riot: The Story Behind The Russian Protest Trial

With reports that a Pussy Riot prisoner was rushed to hospital on Saturday, we take another look at the Russian punk band's anti-Putin protest that landed them in jail...
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With reports that a Pussy Riot prisoner was rushed to hospital on Saturday, we take another look at the Russian punk band's anti-Putin protest that landed them in jail...

In April a shitty punk band with the excellent name of Pussy Riot attained worldwide fame by performing their less than awesome track “Holy Shit” inside Moscow’s Church of Christ the Saviour, which until the mid-1990s was the site of an open air swimming pool.  “St. Maria, Virgin, Holy Mother, Drive Putin Out!” they sang, also filming the performance, which they afterward uploaded to Youtube.

Pussy Riot formed in late 2011, its members inspired by outrage at Vladimir Putin’s declared intent to pursue the presidency for a third time. Wearing colourful balaclavas, they staged a few provocations, including an impromptu punk rock “Revolt on Red Square” in January. When Patriarch Kirill described Putin’s 12 year rule as a "miracle of God" in a televised meeting the group decided to stage a protest in the biggest church in the country, located in the heart of Moscow.

No doubt it seemed like a good idea at the time. A few months earlier Pussy Riot had given an interview to Vice, and after comparing Putin to Kim Jong-un and Gaddafi two members declared that they had no fear of the state (while wearing masks and using pseudonyms, naturally):

Kot: We have nothing to worry about, because if the repressive Putinist police crooks throw one of us in prison, five, ten, 15 more girls will put on colorful balaclavas and continue the fight against their symbols of power.

Serafima: And today, with tens of thousands of people routinely taking to the streets, the state will think twice before trying to fabricate a criminal case and putting us away. There are loads of Pussy Riot fans in Russia's protesting masses.

And yet the state did not think twice, for shortly after the Holy Shit incident three members of the group- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich- were arrested on charges of “hooliganism by an organized group” that was “motivated by religious hatred”. Denied bail, they face up to seven years in prison if convicted. That’s right- for singing a crap punk song in a church without permission Pussy Riot could lose the best years of their lives and contract TB as a bonus gift from the Russian state (there is an epidemic of the disease in the country’s prison system).

A bit harsh? Of course. But this is nothing new, or surprising. Indeed, reading the Vice interview I wondered how old the members of Pussy Riot were, as the last decade offers plentiful evidence of what the Russian state does to would-be merry pranksters. In Russia, the courts will use a sledge hammer to destroy a banana split.

For instance, one of the current leaders of the Russian opposition movement is the author Edward Limonov. Nowadays he might sound reasonable when talking to an old bore like David Frost about human rights in Russia, but in the 1990s he founded the National Bolsheviks, a conceptual art project masquerading as a radical nationalist political party. Its members would march through Moscow chanting “Stalin, Beria, Gulag!” while waving flags which looked exactly the same as the Nazi flag, only the hammer and sickle had replaced the Swastika inside the white circle. Limonov was also filmed accepting a gun from Radovan Karadzic, who then cordially invited the celebrated Russian author to take some pot shots at Sarajevo below. He also wrote a political manifesto entitled The Other Russia in which he advocated polygamy, training kids to be warriors, and lots of other nonsense besides.

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But I digress. In the early 2000s Limonov served two years in jail after being charged with trying to buy guns so he could invade Kazakhstan (he was ultimately found not guilty of most of the accusations). In jail he wrote a couple of excellent books and evidently did some serious thinking, because when he got out he was much less outrageous, declaring that the National Bolsheviks were now analogous to Greenpeace. His following of teenagers and young adults- most of whom were on average around 40-50 years younger than him- staged political pranks. They threw eggs and raided government offices, unfurling banners from the windows- the kind of hi-jinks that barely raise an eyebrow in Western Europe. And in Russia? Well, hooliganism scores you years in jail, and very soon a stream of young NatsBols were headed to prison cells, where TB, overcrowding and all the usual horrors awaited them.

I interviewed Limonov’s lieutenant, Alexander Averin, in 2005. He had posters of Che Guevara and the Ayatollah Khomeini on the walls of his flat because, he said, they were both “great revolutionaries”. His girlfriend was in jail for a mild political provocation- I can’t remember the details. Averin was an intelligent young man who knew his Lenin, and he expressed admirable defiance. But as I listened to him advance completely nonsensical proposals – that the USSR would reconstitute itself peacefully, for instance – I wondered: what is the point of your suffering? Limonov looked to me then like a pied piper figure, leading impressionable kids to jail with his seductive, poetic gibberish.

But perhaps in those days impressionable kids had to protest because adults wouldn’t do it- except for an assortment of old communists and discredited “liberal” reformers from the 90s, none of whom posed any threat to the Kremlin. And so perhaps it was inevitable that as Limonov became semi-respectable, a new opposition would emerge, their tactics even more puerile than those of the NatsBols.

“Voina” first gained widespread notice in 2008 when its members staged a public orgy in a Moscow museum on the eve of Dmitri Medvedev’s election as president. “Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear” (“Medved” is the Russian word for bear) was apparently intended as some kind of satire or something. But it was interesting only insofar as it revealed how close to Western standards Russia’s contemporary art scene had progressed. “Fuck for the heir” was the kind of thing you might find in Germany, only there the orgy would have been state subsidized and the artists would have been aggressively minging, with piercings, flab and abundant body hair. To me though, public fucking as “protest” just seemed so, you know, 60s. Voina’s “protest” was narcissistic posing designed to attract attention, provoke the (microscopic) bourgeoisie, and hopefully score the “artists” a spot at the Berlin Biennale a few years down the road. Tossing live cats into a McDonald’s "to break up the drudgery of workers' routine day" on International Worker’s Day was the act of smug ass-hats of the worst variety.

Voina’s “protest” was narcissistic posing designed to attract attention, provoke the (microscopic) bourgeoisie, and hopefully score the “artists” a spot at the Berlin Biennale a few years down the road

Some of Voina’s subsequent actions were much better, however. Beaming a skull-and-crossbones onto the façade of Russia’s parliament with a green laser was not bad, but painting a 65 metre long penis on the bridge that leads to the HQ of the Saint Petersburg branch of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB (and Putin’s former employer) was a stroke of genius. As an act of protest it was still extremely puerile, but it was the right kind of puerile, crudity on an epic scale. It was ridicule, raw and joyous, thrust directly in the faces of those who do not like to be ridiculed. Admittedly when I read the dreary art-bollocks that Voina member Alexei Plutser-Samo wrote to accompany Voina’s actions my respect for the giant schlong diminished somewhat, but I have since forgotten his cod-theoretical blather and now remember only a giant dick pointed at FSB agents when they went to work in the morning. The image remains, and it’s a powerful one. UK establishment stencil sprayer Bansky also approved: he gave them some cash to help with legal battles

A bit later, Voina members overturned an empty cop car. That too was performance art, apparently. Arrest warrants were issued, and somehow group leader Oleg Vorotnikov wound up on an Interpol list. Currently he is hiding out somewhere in Russia, but that has only enhanced the movement’s standing in the world of international contemporary art. Voina are currently associate curators of the 7th Berlin Biennale, open until July 1st.

And then along came Pussy Riot. I can’t say I think their song is on the level of Voina’s giant dick, which was aimed exclusively at the right people. Pussy Riot managed to offend both the powerful and hundreds of thousands of others who are weak, marginalized and powerless. I was present in Russia during the great die-off of the 90s and early 2000s, when millions were chased to the grave by poverty, despair and squalor. An entire generation was written off as collateral damage by both the Russian elite and the well-fed Western consultants who parachuted in to dispense advice and bang whores in luxury hotels. Having grown up in an open air prison, many old people were essentially expected to hurry up and die. The church was one of their few consolations, and so it remains for those who are not yet dead. And indeed, in Pussy Riot’s Youtube clip you can see several old ladies who look horrified. Nor is sympathy for the church restricted to the old- among young adults in Russia, only 5.9% say they have never believed.

As an act of consciousness-raising then, Pussy Riot’s “holy shit” stunt failed. In Moscow, tens of thousands of believers participated in a mass prayer in defence of the church in April; while a much smaller crowd of pro-Pussy Riot types were dispersed when bearded Orthodox biker dudes blasted them with holy water (while chanting “No Sodom”). Also in April, 10,000 people attended a mass protest against Pussy Riot in Krasnodar, which is hundreds of miles from Moscow. None of this is surprising- 70% of Russians consider themselves Orthodox (even if a fraction of that figure attends church regularly).

On the other hand, 90% of Russians think jail time is much too severe a punishment for Pussy Riot; two members have small children. A recent police inquiry also “…failed to find in the actions of persons at the Christ the Savior Cathedral motives of hatred and hostility". But the trial is going ahead, scheduled to start on June 24th. Patriarch Kirill is showing no sign of softening his stance, and in March he lashed out at those seeking to "justify and downplay this sacrilege…My heart breaks from bitterness that amongst these people there are those who call themselves Orthodox”. In April, Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina sounded very scared indeed: “If I cannot hear my child’s voice because of my criticism of the authorities, then welcome to 1937,” she said. 1937 was the year when Stalin’s repression reached its height. We are light years away from those days, but I’d be panicked in her place.

And where is Putin in all this? Early on he was reported to be taking an “active interest” in the case. Last week he signed off on a new law massively increasing fines on those who attend unauthorised rallies, and on 11th June the police raided the homes of prominent opposition figures the day before a scheduled anti-government rally. More and more Russians are protesting, including grown-ups who don’t think overturning a cop car, shagging in public or singing a crap song while wearing a balaclava in church constitute effective politics. And in response, the state is becoming more authoritarian. The signs do not look good for Pussy Riot.

Holy shit, indeed.