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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.