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Pussy Riot: a new chapter in Art versus Power

Pussy Riot is a collective of young, cool, smart women with attitude who may just be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s worst nightmare. Pussy Riot engage in guerrilla punk protests, popping up unexpectedly at iconic sites in Moscow to blast punk songs critical of Putin. They are probably now the most globally recognised expression of the “Russian Winter” movement for greater democracy in Russia, which exploded last December in the wake of parliamentary elections widely believed to be rigged. “Recognised” is however a misnomer as the ten or so members of Pussy Riot wear balaclavas (as well as bright skimpy outfits) and are anonymous. Even their parents don’t necessarily know who they are!

But three of them are now very well known. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (22), Maria Alekhina, (24), and Yekaterina Samutsevich (29) have been detained since March and are now facing trial for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility”, which could lead to seven year sentences for each of them. The charges arise from a song performed at the altar of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a prominent Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow in February. During the performance, Pussy Riot called on the Virgin Mary to “throw Putin out”. The women undoubtedly caused offence to many religious Russians, but their detention as well as the prospect of seven years’ imprisonment for the three, including two young mothers, has caused considerable disquiet. 200 prominent Russians, as well as 41000 others, have signed a letter calling for their release.

The offending church gig

Public interest in the trial has led to it being streamed live on the internet. Not all of it though. Key parts of the trial like witness testimony are excluded.

The case has attracted international attention. Amnesty International has declared the three to be prisoners of conscience. And the Russian government has surely been embarrassed by a string of international performers such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sting calling for the release of the Pussy Riot three on stage in Moscow.

The Pussy Riot Three AAP: EPA Sergei Chirikov

Pussy Riot join the long and honourable roll call of brave dissident artists, exemplified (for example) today by the artist Ai Weiwei in China, the comedians The Moustache Brothers in Burma, and Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat. Pussy Riot’s predecessors as musical outlaws include the Plastic People of the Universe in Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring, the Klaus Renft Combo in East Germany, and Victor Jara, a Chilean folk singer murdered in Augusto Pinochet’s coup of 1973.

45 years ago, the harsh sentence handed out to (now Sir) Mick Jagger for a minor drug offence was condemned by conservative Times commentator William Rees-Mogg in his famous 1967 editorial, “Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?” Rees Mogg speculated that disproportionate sentences (later overturned) were imposed due to the perceived threat the young anarchic Rolling Stones posed to Britain’s staid establishment. The parallels in the Pussy Riot case have been noticed by the BBC, though the stakes for the three young women are much higher.

However, it may be another butterfly analogy that Putin should be wary of – that of “the Butterfly effect” (though I concede this may be an imperfect analogy). While the Pussy Riot trial seems designed by Russian authorities to use a compliant judiciary to send a message by making an example of the women, Putin better hope it doesn’t reinvigorate the opposition, and add to their number due by generating widespread disgust at the regime’s disproportionate response. Pussy Riot’s chapter in the long running saga of “art versus power” is far from over.

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15 Comments sorted by

  1. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    "Pussy Riot is a collective of young, cool, smart women with attitude who may just be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s worst nightmare."

    Call me cynical, but I doubt the man who crushed Chechnya and half of Georgia is losing a lot of sleep over a bit of arty protest.

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  2. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    I doubt President Putin had anything to do with the prosecution or particularly cares one way or the other. Had Pussy Galore sung their ditties in virtually any other venue aside from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, no one would have cared.

    The reason Putin won the election is because the majority of people voted for him. We can lament that or say they made a bad choice, but we know the majority of people voted for him because all opinion surveys consistently show the same result. The reason…

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    1. Sarah Joseph
      Sarah Joseph is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      I agree that, on reflection, I should have added more about the role of the Church. But I find your wonderment at criticism of Putin, which snt particularly new from human rights groups, astonishing.

      Russia is a country where it is very unsafe to be a true journalist. Where it's own war on terror in Chechnya is pretty horrific, where these girls face 7 years for a peaceful protest after 5 months' detention. And where Putin has just reversed a few teeny steps forward taken by Medvedev.

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    2. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      What steps have been reversed precisely? Are you again confusing Medvedev's compliance with our abuse of Human Rights in Libya with any material difference to individual freedoms in Russia? Again you need to separate these issues. Just because someone turns a blind eye when we rip up a country does not necessarily make him a more ethical president.

      You are free to criticize Putin all you like, what you aren't free to claim - without correction - is that Putin's electoral victories don't represent…

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    3. Sarah Joseph
      Sarah Joseph is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      What makes you think I'm referring to Libya or Russian foreign policy at all? I am talking about greater regulation of NGOs and restrictions on right to protest - the former at least was something Medvedev had eased up on.

      There are many journalists murdered in Russia - more than any other country in the world I think. The issue of "True journalism" is irrelevant, so I probably shouldn't have said that

      I say "widely believed to be rigged" re parlt elections as that was the motivater for the…

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    4. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      As I understand regulation of NGOs refers to restrictions on foreign funding. If you set up an organisation in Russia without foreign funding you have the same level of freedom as in Australia. If we didn't cheat and use NGOs as a front for own political purposes then that would not have become an issue. But we also impose limitations on pointless rolling protests, witness shutting down the Melbourne Occupy protests. Imagine how irritating it would be if as a poorer country, foreign interests…

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    5. Sarah Joseph
      Sarah Joseph is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      I find it utterly ridiculous that you have conflated a piece about Pussy Riot into some conspiracy theory because it is not about Israel and Syria. Especially when you concede that "of course" it "is an issue". Disagree with my piece fine. But don't call it "selective" because it is not about another topic which you would rather me cover.

      As far as I know, there has been lots on Syria in this forum. So talk to them about Syria. I am obviously interested and unhappy with events there, but I am not claiming at this point in time to be an expert on what is going on. So I can't tell you whether your outline of events in your third last paragraph (especially in its second half) is "wrong". But I can say I am not just going to take your word for it.

      You do seem to have complete disdain for the importance of protest and civil and political rights. The right to peaceful protest is a human right, regardless of whether the protest is "pointless" or "irritating".

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    6. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      It may be a human right but we shut them down in Australia just like happened to Occupy in America.

      I take your point on Syria, if you don't know anything about the subject you obviously can't evaluate whether or not human rights will be impacted by having an ongoing urban insurgency going on.

      It is a shame, I was hoping you might be able to reveal what the Israeli Defense minister and Deputy Prime Minister meant when in the aftermath of Romney's visit to Israel, he went on CNN and said:
      "But I should honestly tell you that this administration under President Obama is doing in regard to our security more than anything that I can remember in the past."
      Honesty is good, I like honesty, so I think we can believe him since he went out of his way to stress he was talking honestly - but precisely did he mean?

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    7. Sarah Joseph
      Sarah Joseph is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      And I commented on Occupy in this forum at the time (ie about October last year). I didn't support the evictions, and have doubts as to their legality.

      I have no doubt that ongoing civil war in Syria is no good for human rights.

      I'm sorry. I don't have any particular insights into the thoughts of those 2 Israeli politicians.

      Anyway, nice talking. Cheers

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  3. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    Thanks Sarah. I always enjoy your articles because, as my teenage son might say, "you know stuff". It's hard not to feel a warm inner glow of support for a band as wonderfully named as Pussy Riot. Good luck to 'em. BTW: you forgot to mention Theodorakis in your hall of fame account of artists who had threatened repressive regimes.

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