PUSSY RIOT

08.16.12

Pussy Riot: The Girls Who Have Rocked Russia

The protest punk band, Pussy Riot, may get years in prison. Anna Nemtsova reports on why Vladimir Putin fears these female musicians.

In the rest of the world, they've been hailed as heroes; young and brave freedom fighters in a society where political liberty is slowly being eaten away. But in Russia, their prank concert at the holiest spot in the Russian Orthodox Church at which they wore short sexy dresses, colorful tights and their now-famous bright balaclavas, angered a great many people. It was as if a group of men had mooned the Wailing Wall or a band had played kazoos during a Catholic wake—a provocative and deeply offensive act to Russian believers.

Which is why, on the eve of their sentencing on charges of hooliganism, many Russians would feel no sympathy for the three young, skinny girls imprisoned since February, when they sang a "punk prayer" that asked the Virgin Mary to expel President Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin, using a traditional intercession prayer in Orthodoxy, and a church, for their act of political satire.

Pussy Riot has indeed been that—a riot; sparking demonstrations, and a sympathy movement, around the world.

Earlier this month, Madonna had the band's name written across her naked back at a concert in Moscow. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Peter Gabriel, Sting, and Franz Ferdinand expressed their support—all in vain, as the musicians remained in jail. Meanwhile, as sympathy in the West coalesced, Russian nationalists threatened to execute the punks for humiliating the church and Russian traditions.

Before their appearance at the church, Pussy Riot was a fringe activist group. Nobody had paid much attention to the band's previous appearance in the center of Moscow's Red Square featuring smoky fires and a song with the chorus "Putin Sucks." At the time, protests seemed ubiquitous in Moscow, with as many as 100,000 protesters chanting "Putin is a Thief!" and "Off Putin Goes!" at one point. And so, while Russians don't necessarily disagree with the band's political protests, many were offended by their barbs aimed at the church, and what they saw as scandalous sacrilege. (Some 65 percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox.)

Political observers say the decision to imprison the girls was the result of a deal struck between Putin and the church, without much involvement by the Kremlin's administration. And for Putin, of course, there is not much political cost in punishing critics who are already despised by a large part of the population. At the beginning of the trial, nearly half those polled said a punishment of two to seven years in prison was appropriate.

The Pussy Riot performers, meanwhile, argued that they were justified in using the church. Their act was motivated by the decision of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill to endorse Putin in the presidential race, debasing the church, in their view, by involving it in politics.

putin-afraid-pussy-riot-nemstova
Vladimir Putin (L) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova "Pussy Riot" member (Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images (left); Natalia Kolesnikova, AFP / Getty Images)

"None of us had expected such powerful, public reaction and we never thought the punishment would be a prison term, for just one song," said Petr Verzilov, who's married to one of the offending Pussy Riot band members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. The other two members facing jail are Maria Alyokhina andYekaterina Samutsevich, The band is a collective of about 10 people altogether. With his jailed wife "growing into a strong politician" as he puts it, Verzilov, an artist, now spends his days trying to draw more attention to the already highly publicized case.

In an interview this week, Verzilov told The Daily Beast that during the last days before the arrest, he and Tolokonnikova had long, late-night discussions about the growing role of the church in Russian politics, and the patriarch supporting Putin's candidacy in the election. "Russian believers let politics into the church by allowing the church's leader to agitate for Putin, so the girls thought they were free to express their political views in church, too," said Verzilov.

While his remains detained, he is bringing up their 4 year-old-daughter alone. The girl may have to do without her mother for a while given that her mother and the others face up to seven years in prison.

Video screenshot

Putin comments on the Pussy Riot case

This is Putin's second turn as president. And during the last three months, at least 17 political cases have gone to Russian courts. Putin has allowed parliament to toughen criminal libel against journalists, as well as laws against street protests and foreign- funded NGOs. Still, few believe the president is ready to go to the mat when it comes to the punk band. 

On a recent visit with British Prime Minister David Cameron this month, Putin sent a message that many observers believed was addressed to Russian prosecutors. "There is nothing good in what they did," he said. But "I don't think they should be judged too severely."

The band members believe there was a hidden meaning—that Putin wasn't going soft but that rather he is afraid of their “war.” One of the band's activists, Yevgeniya Rakina, believes that it was the line, “Virgin Mary redeem us from Putin!” that was of greatest concern to Putin. "I am convinced that Putin is afraid of the Virgin Mary actually taking his power away from him," Rakina, another band member—and a believer herself—told The Daily Beast. She has not been on trial.

Senior clerics in the church and members of Putin's government have been hinting that the girls could not have thought up the act on their own, and suggest a sinister plot involving foreign governments and media publications. "Putin is under colossal pressure by a well-planned, anti-Russian campaign focused on discrediting the institute of the Russian church and weakening the Russian people," a pro-Kremlin political expert and deputy rector of Plekhanov university, Sergei Markov, told The Daily Beast. Markov says no opposition activist would dare run into a mosque or a synagogue in Russia, and openly insult those present.

"Russian nationalists, who the Kremlin is very much afraid of, would have killed the girls if they were not in jail," Markov added. 

Daily Beast interviews with nationalists backed up Markov’s claim. Nationalist leader, Alexander Belov, confirmed that "indeed, there are quite a few radical nationalists eager to kill the girls." The leader of the nationalist Eurasia movement, Alexander Dugin, concurred, saying "the entire band should have been burnt by fire long ago."

And however well-meaning the sympathy movement led by rock stars and human rights groups, it seems only to anger the nationalists, leaving them convinced of a wider narrative about a Western pop—or punk –assault on Russia, traditional values, and the Orthodox church.

When, this week, a flash mob comprising 18 Moscow activists returned to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior for a silent Pussy Girl homage, complete with punk outfits, it didn't take long before security officers arrived to beat up the activists. 

But as Marat Gelman, a political analyst with ties to the Putin administration, pointed out, members of the Kremlin have children who are Pussy Riot fans. 

And the band and its many fans are unlikely to be silenced.