Pussy Riot generates outrage in Russia, acclaim in the West

Pussy Riot generates outrage in Russia, acclaim in the West

The story of how three young women won notoriety in Russia as dangerous hooligans, yet won sympathy in the West as provocative performance artists, began on a sunny Saturday in September 2011 with a strangely scripted political moment.

That morning, at a convention of the ruling United Russia party, then-Prime Minister Vladi­mir Putin and then-President Dmitry Medvedev cheerfully informed the world that they had decided to change jobs. Instead of running for president the following March, Medvedev would stand aside for Putin, who would then make Medvedev prime minister. And so it was.

It occupies only a moment in the HBO documentary debuting Monday evening, “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.” But that political switch eventually brought the women to the altar of Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral, where for 40 seconds they sang a raucous pro-feminist song railing against Putin and his political alliance with the church hierarchy.

In Russia, that act got the women two years in a labor camp.

In the West, their actions got them positive attention.

Last week, two members of the punk-rock collective Pussy Riot arrived in Washington — their first U.S. visit — to meet with members of Congress and to seek American support for the release of their group’s two imprisoned members, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. (The third sentenced woman, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was freed last October.)

Out of their balaclavas — and using only the pseudonyms “Fara” and “Shaiba” — the two visiting members resembled stylish urbanites as much as anything. One sported knee socks and a sculpted red bob and the other wore owlish Harry Potter glasses as they participated in an hour-long news conference at the offices of Human Rights First on Friday morning. They discussed such subjects as member Alyokhina’s hunger strike and the denial of Tolokonnikova’s parole.

From the beginning, Shaiba said, members of the band had hoped to exemplify strong feminist values — a tonic to the “macho man image” projected by the Russian culture embodied by Putin.

Many Russians were uninterested in politics until the 2011 Putin-Medvedev maneuver, when they saw an arrogance in Putin that enraged them. As a result, they paid attention to the parliamentary elections the following December, and they didn’t like what they saw. The day after the election, protests against vote-rigging began that soon tapped into anger at the authoritarian system that Putin had been building since his first presidential term began in 2000.

As Pussy Riot attorney Violetta Volkova put it in an interview well after the women had been packed off to labor camps: “The protests set the machinery of the state swinging into action, trying to protect itself from its own citizens.” (Pussy Riot — a collective of about a dozen women active in environmental, feminist, LGBT and other causes — formed just a month before the Putin-Medvedev announcement.)

The state would use its institutions — courts, parliament, church — to crush dissent, written, spoken or sung. Nearly 30 protesters have been charged with various crimes because of a May 6, 2012, protest on the eve of Putin’s inauguration, when demonstrators clashed with police. A dozen of them — not a big name among them — went on trial last week, and 10 of them have been in jail for the past year.

Pussy Riot members said they chose the cathedral to protest the political melding of church and state. A few days before the performance in February 2012, Patriarch Kirill called Putin’s leadership “a miracle of God.” When leading cultural figures wrote a letter urging leniency, the patriarch called the performance the work of the Devil.

The women had not damaged any property. Blasphemy was not illegal. Arrested in March 2012 — two of them on the eve of the presidential election — they were charged with hooliganism inspired by religious hatred. They testified that they had no animosity toward believers. (Russians identify with the church culturally, but the vast majority aren’t religious.)

The judge refused to discuss the concept of performance art. The women were kept in jail, even though Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina each had a preschool child. Last August, all three were found guilty. Samutsevich, 30, was freed because she never actually reached the altar. Alyokhina, 25, and Tolokonnikova, 23, who were recently denied parole, expect to be released early next year.

“Jail is not the worst place for a person who thinks,” Tolokonnikova said last year. “They can’t take your soul away from you.”

Meanwhile, in the West, Pussy Riot continues to find an audience and a sympathetic ear.

Such events “have become part of our life,” Shaiba said, referring to last week’s buttoned-down question-and-answer period — so different from the riotous public performances that made them famous. “It doesn’t mean that we left our artistic activities behind.”

“This is just as much of an artistic activity as anything,” Fara said of the news conference.

In the past year, band members have received support from Madonna, Paul McCartney and other international musicians.

“The statements from musicians, we value a lot,” Fara said. “But we are against commerce. We’re against using us as a brand. We’re not selling anything.”

“Except maybe freedom?” suggested Elisa Massimino, the president and chief executive of Human Rights First.

Shaiba shook her head. “You can’t buy freedom.”

Kathy Lally reported from Moscow, and Monica Hesse reported from Washington.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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