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Pussy Riot Have Succeeded By Exposing Russia's Flimsy Democracy

by Dan Swinhoe
17 August 2012 5 Comments

The Russian judicial system has found Pussy Riot guilty of hooliganism and religious hatred but the rest of the world has found the Russian state guilty of oppression and injustice...

Funny how a few minutes can have such a big impact on things. In less than a minute three Russian girls went from underground punks with an attitude problem to national headlines questioning the very heart of their Government’s democracy. Not bad.


I’m talking of course about the Pussy Riot trials. A relatively unknown band who, up until February of this year, had been little more than a YouTube novelty. But thanks to a protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour against Putin’s re-election (for the umpteenth time) they are now on trial, and facing seven years in prison.

The three girls, Maria Alyokhina, 24, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, face charges of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ after storming the Cathedral and singing a naughty song full of swear words that beckoned the mother Mary to “throw Putin out.” As you can imagine, the rather conservative church didn’t take kindly to the ruckus; The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, accused them of blasphemy and being the Devil’s puppets, saying “the devil laughed at us” after he saw the footage of the protest.

Bearing in mind Russia is meant to be a democracy, it seems ridiculous they’ve already been held since February without bail, and reports of sleep deprivation and lack of food & water have circulated around the news.The prosecution argued they had to stay where they were, as they were a flight risks and could commit fresh crimes if let go. Unlikely, two of them are mothers, who probably haven’t spent time with their family since this happened. And it’s safe to say any sentence they do get handed won’t be counted from when they were first held. Bearing in mind less than 1% of Russian trials end in acquittal, it comes as no surprise that they have now been found guilty.

Pussy Riot represent everything the government doesn’t like; freedom of speech and opinion, dissidence, and anonymity.

The trial has been a joke. The defence labelled it worse than the Soviet-era. “Even in Soviet times, in Stalin’s times, the courts were more honest than this one,” the bands lawyer said. “This is one of the most shameful trials in modern Russia. In Soviet times, at least they followed some sort of procedure.” The judge has refused to listen to essentially every witness the defence has called, and when the defence asked for a new judge on grounds of bias, she refused (yes the judge decides if he/she is biased), while commentators (the Guardian has looked at this trial from every angle) have likened the trial to the Inquisition.

Officially the government has stayed out of the affair. The Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has said it’s up to the courts to decide, while Putin himself has said the women should not be judged “too harshly.” But with state TV running plenty of anti-Pussy Riot propaganda, chances are high that behind the scenes it’s more than likely strings are being pulled.

Pussy Riot represent everything the government doesn’t like; freedom of speech and opinion, dissidence, and anonymity. Before the trial the band members were all anonymous, playing in balaclavas and brightly coloured dresses. There were no fixed membership or roles, everyone could be in the band, and that was the point. The were protesting against a President most of them didn’t vote for, and venting their frustration at a church that openly supported the guy.

In very Punk fashion, the band have been unrepentant since their imprisonment. “Putin is scared of us, can you imagine?”

Opinion polls on the trial show the divides in the country. Half think they should be let go, around a third say they’re guilty, and the rest are unsure. If nothing else, the trial has highlighted a lot of the issues within the country; the relationship between church & state, the reach of the government, the divide between the church goers and secular, between democracy advocators and the Kremlin. It’s all got very messy.

In very Punk fashion, the band have been unrepentant since their imprisonment. “Putin is scared of us, can you imagine?” They told the Guardian. “Scared of girls. The most important dictator, Putin, is really afraid of people.” They didn’t stop there. “More specifically, he’s afraid of Pussy Riot. Afraid of a bunch of young, positive, optimistic women unafraid to speak their minds.”

Now might be a good time to say from a personal view, I’m not defending their actions. It was daft, immature, and no doubt offended a few nuns who were present. But they should be allowed to protest. If they were in the UK, they’d be unlucky to walk away with a fine and the story would’ve made the locals and maybe the novelty part of the nationals. But either way they should be allowed to protest. Russia is still a democracy, a shitty one yes, but a democracy none the less. They were unhappy about the re-election of a politician they didn’t like, one most young people in the cities don’t like.But because of the politics their little protest has become a global spectacle.

The music itself has been mostly forgotten under the rubble of politics and scandal. I don’t speak Russian, so maybe the message is lost in translation, but for most part it’s your average Oi Punk. But despite their averageness, they are easily the most important Punk band in Russia, and possibly the world right now. The Sex Pistols may have caused an outcry, but they were essentially harmless. Nothing more than some oiks with attitude problems sticking a couple of fingers up to the old ladies watching the BBC. Pussy Riot are protesting against a government perilously close to falling back into totalitarianism.


The celebs have been flocking to the girls’ cause; Russian  actors, directors and musicians all spoken out against their captivity, even ones generally seen as right-wing/close to the church, and closer to home the likes of Sting, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Franz Ferdinand and Madonna have all piped up. But in reality it’s no good. The trial isn’t in the UK or an episode out of Coronation Street; just having famous people voice their disapproval wont help, it might even be a hindrance if the authorities start taking offence (or funny if more start calling Madonna a ‘slut’). What they really need is firstly to stay in the public eye so people don’t forget about them, and secondly some politicians with clout to stick their neck out and say, or maybe even actually, do something to help them.

If the government had let this slide, it would’ve been forgotten about fairly quickly. A few days of amusing YouTube footage and nothing more. But because the authorities reacted it’s blown up in their faces. Not only does has it gone worldwide and pissed everyone off, it’s almost certainly going to fuel a million other copycats, just after they’ve managed to calm down everyone after the election raucous. They may have seen a chance to nip the band in the bud; to knock out the leaders of Russia’s punk movement, and to get rid of an annoyance. But clearly it has failed, and now they’re stuck.

The protests in reaction to today’s guilty verdict will be massive. The world is now watching their backs. In the band’s closing statement they got it spot on; “On the one hand, we now expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. Now the whole world sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial.”

Pussy Riot: The Story Behind The Russian Protest Trial

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

greys anatomy 2:10 pm, 17-Aug-2012

I can think of other religions that opress women? wonder if they would have gone the extra mile if they had got away with this 'outrage' ?

John Free 2:40 pm, 17-Aug-2012

I was contemplating visiting St Petersburg and Moscow later this year. No longer. Russia appears to be slipping even more into it's dark past. Coupled with it's shameful role in the Syrian civil war I think Putin and his accolytes can be fairly accused of dragging Russia's name through the mud in front of the whole world.

chris 2:49 pm, 17-Aug-2012

Really great story. free press like sabotage times really do a great job. On an unrelated note. I have switched from reading Vice to ST because you guys don't sit on an ivory high horse, I get a healthy dose of entertainment and news here. KEEP IT UP!

Coco Bryce 1:44 am, 18-Aug-2012

Although I don't agree with the sentence there's no question they broke the law and should face the consequences. Seem like typical rich lefties to me. Wonder if Madonna etc will lend a helping hand to the journalists who face REAL risks opposing Putin rather than playing at punk.

Truth 9:38 pm, 6-Sep-2012

@greysanatomy - yes I agree, ok to have a go at Russia when the perpetrators are carefully marketed towards a western audience, less support if you're a Saudi wife on her way to getting stoned to death cos you got raped

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