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Pussy Riot: Feminism on trial in Russia

As the verdict is announced on the controversial Pussy Riot case, Kate Fulton examines the global impact of the trial

August 16, 2012
6 min read

Photo: Nuria Fatych/Flickr

Over the past few weeks, Pussy Riot has gone from being an obscure punk band with few fans outside of Russia, to globally famous household names, with Madonna, Kate Nash and Yoko Ono all publically speaking out in support of the group. Unfortunately, this isn’t due to the band’s music, which harks back to the golden age of the Riot Grrrl movement or the anti-establishment sounds of the Sex Pistols. Rather, it’s because three of the band’s members were arrested after performing a ‘punk prayer’ in Christ the Saviour, Moscow’s largest cathedral.

The three defendants, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Mariya Alehina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, claim that they were merely protesting Putin’s ‘anti-feminist regime’. The prayer itself lasted for less than a minute in total and criticised the Russian state for its stance on gay rights and women’s liberation, while calling on the Virgin Mary – the traditional protector of Russia in the Orthodox church – to ‘become a feminist, become a feminist…drive away Putin!’. The prosecution claim the lyrics are blasphemous and were written with the sole intention of causing conflict within the church.

During the performance the band wore brightly coloured, sleeveless dresses with tights and boots, their faces obscured by clashing balaclavas, attire church officials have claimed was chosen especially to cause maximum insult. Despite Nadezhda Tolokonnikova publicly apologising to anyone who was offended by her performance saying, ‘we wish that those who cannot understand us can forgive us’, the prosecution is pushing for at least three years in a labour camp for each of the women. Relatives of the band, including Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr, have publically stated that they doubt the defendants will go free. Public opinion is Russia dictates that the women deserve to be punished for the offence they have caused the church.

So far the trial has been well publicised for its barbaric treatment of the three women, who have been denied bail by the Russian courts, despite the fact that both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are the mothers of very young children. It has been reported that the women are deprived of sleep and are only given very short breaks during the day in which to eat meagre rations, often which consist of nothing but dried food that has to be rehydrated with boiling water. This follows from Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina going on hunger strike after being told they would be separated from their children for the duration of the trial. Immediately after their breaks, the women are returned to the courtroom, where they are placed in a structure made of bullet-proof glass, nicknamed ‘The Fish Tank’. Critics of the system claim that this serves no practical purpose and the only reason for the glass ‘cage’ is to humiliate defendants, something the Russian authorities have neither confirmed nor denied. Somewhat bizarrely, there is often there is a dog, usually a Rottweiler, in the courtroom, assumedly to stop the women from escaping, should they manage to get out of the ‘fish tank’. The courtroom is often crowded, particularly the public gallery, which is crammed with the women’s families and members of the press. The trial then lasts for up to eleven hours a day, in the sweltering heat of the Russian summer.

In spite of this, Putin issued a statement last Thursday, denouncing Pussy Riot’s actions but asking the judge, Marina Syrova, to be lenient towards the women, saying, ‘There is nothing good in what they did. Nevertheless I hope they will not be judged too severely.’ However, it looks unlikely that Syrova intends to take Putin’s advice. Thus far, she has refused the testimonials of over half of the witnesses for the defence, while agreeing to closed-door meetings with the prosecution’s lawyers.

The band’s plight has been well covered by the mainstream media around the world, attracting the attention of Russian, European and American celebrities, many of whom have spoken out against the poor treatment of the band.  Perhaps most famously, pop legend Madonna has recently shown her support for the group, appearing at a concert in Moscow wearing a balaclava in honour of the feminist punk cooperative. She then removed to her shirt to reveal the words ‘Pussy Riot’ scrawled on her back.  This has drawn global notoriety, with critics claiming that she should ‘cover herself up’ now she is aging, citing the incident as a cynical attempt to revive her music career.  The misogyny continues with Dimitry Rogonin, the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, tweeting that ‘every ex-whore tends to lecture people with age. Especially during world tours and concerts.’  Despite the fact that male celebrities, including American rock band the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, have offered their support to Pussy Riot, none of them have received the same level of criticism as Madonna.

The Pussy Riot trial has already become a catalyst for feminist and anti-Putin protests. On 15 August, Amnesty International arranged a demonstration outside of Christ the Saviour, featuring eighteen people each holding a letter, spelling out the Russian for ‘Blessed are the merciful.’ Four of the protestors were later arrested by the police, with many more chased away with physical violence, including journalists who were covering the demonstration. Over 70,000 petitions calling for the women to be freed have been signed and dropped off at the Russian embassy in Washington DC, although it has been reported that the boxes containing these were then dumped on the street outside.

Meanwhile, a parade of 400 Pussy Riot supporters took to the streets in Berlin, wearing the bright colours and balaclavas that the band has made iconic. The parade was organised by Peaches, a Canadian musician who has recently recorded a protest song entitled Free Pussy Riot, condemning Putin’s government. It is available free for download online, although there is a link attached asking for charitable donations to the band’s legal aid fund.

The Pussy Riot trial will draw to a close this Friday, with each of the women expecting to receive a sentence of three years in a forced labour camp.

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