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Saturday, 1 September 2012

Pussy Riot, down for 2 years



The news last week that the three members of the Russian Punk feminist band Pussy Riot have been sentenced to two years in prison has come as a shock to the many who have petitioned against their charges; in the words of Amnesty International: “Free speech has just taken a huge blow”.

However to many the verdict has come as no surprise. Some British and American journalists have already condemned the west’s reaction as hypocrisy, with some citing last year’s prison sentences for rioters as being equally ‘disproportionate’. But mostly this is a result anticipated by Russia’s citizens themselves, few of whom seem to have been following the trial closely, if at all (despite the image created by news reports of protestors outside the court in Moscow). The general response from the Russian public has reportedly been disagreement with what they consider an offensive act and invasion of a place of worship. This disagreement has been illustrated in a survey by the Yuri Levada Analytical Center (a Russian non-governmental research organization) in which 1,600 people from 45 regions of Russia were questioned on their feelings towards the members of Pussy Riot, to which a large majority (51%) responded negatively and 20% were neutral or indifferent; only 6% were sympathetic towards the group.

The argument that the group’s illicit concert was politically motivated has been rebuffed by both the court and much public opinion. In the same survey, the response to the question “Who do you think Pussy Riot’s actions were directed against?” showed votes were almost equal for “Against the participation of the church in politics”, “Against the church and the faithful” and “Against Putin”.

The court, on the other hand, was decided in their verdict that they did not find the actions of Pussy Riot to have political motives, rather they “clearly expressed their religious hatred and hostility toward Christianity.” Judge Marina Syrova stated that according to the Russian constitution “Any form of limitation of the rights of citizens based on their gender, and so on, is banned by the Russian constitution ... [Feminist] activities are not considered criminal in accordance with the Russian law”. She then continued by saying that “[However] Orthodox Christianity, Catholic Christianity and other denominations do not agree with feminism and their own values are not in line with feminists”, insisting on the importance of mutual respect between groups and the rights of differing opinions.

Despite the somewhat contradictory nature of the judge’s speech, it is easy to see why, in the eyes of the church and public, the actions of Pussy Riot were considered offensive and amounted to hooliganism. As the UK would like to pride itself on its ability to be sensitive to the views of different religions, so it is not unreasonable for the members of the Orthodox Church to ask the same of their own country. The anger towards ‘hooliganism’ protest methods has been aggravated by the actions of Femen, a Ukrainian feminist group who has made the news with its topless protests and anti-religious stance. Its reaction to the imprisonment of Pussy Riot was to cut down a crucifix monument (erected as a memorial to the millions who suffered under the oppression of Stalin and the Soviet Secret Police) with a chainsaw as an act of ‘solidarity’.

The existence of other political singers who have directly criticised the Russian government, and who enjoy popularity, appears to confirm that the guilty verdict is based on the offence caused and negates the perceived limitations on free speech in Russia. In early November 2011, a video of the song “Pismo Schastya” (Letter of Happiness) was posted on YouTube by the popular self-made Russian singer Vasya Oblomov and another well known Russian rapper. The lyrics of the song tell of drunks who write a letter to Putin in mock praise of his actions, including the lines:

“As we say, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to you what it yours.”

“To be honest, in the elections none of us voted / People chose you without us of course / If not you then who else?”

“Vladimir, for Russia – you are the dearest!”

Then earlier this year, an independent Russian TV station premiered Oblomov’s latest song "Poka Medved!” (Bye, Bear!) which accuses President Dmitry Medvedev of election fraud (the word medved means "bear" in Russian and the surname "Medvedev" means "of the bears"); the video reached more than a million hits in the first day of its release. Other popular musicians who have spoken out about politics include rapper Noize MC, who writes about social issues, and Yuri Shevchuk, singer and founder of the rock band DDT, who has openly criticised Putin’s undemocratic government, demonstrated against the 2008 presidential elections and organized peace concerts in Moscow and St Petersburg to protest the Russian-Georgian war.

However, it should not be said that the fact that Pussy Riot's actions have been condemned means that their motives are not valid; the fight for political freedom, less corruption and more equality still needs to be fought. Femen, who also protest against sex tourism, international marriage agencies, sexism and other social issues, have hit back against comments that they are “provocative” and “tasteless” by saying "This is the only way to be heard in this country. If we staged simple protests with banners, then our claims would not have been noticed". On many occasions the voices of the Russian public have gone unheard in a country tarnished by corruption within its government and institutions (although many were against Pussy Riot, in response to the question "Do you think that the court is objective and impartial?" only 11% of people voted “Definitely yes”).

The smirks on the faces of Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevitch and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova as the verdict was read out suggest that they were always aware of their impending prison sentence. Unlike other countries that have backed down to international pressure, Putin’s government, patriarchal and intimidating, would never have been swayed by western opinion, let alone the opinion of an all female feminist punk band. In an interview with Russian internet publication Private Correspondent a few years ago, Vasya Oblomov stated “I think that musicians do not have to fight social evils and the population itself, in principle, should not allow this evil ... The general state of affairs in our country is, for some, desperate. There is the feeling like at the end of the "Three Sisters" by Chekhov: ‘We have to live ...’”

BY: Bryony Cottam


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