Just days before Putin’s third re-election, a group of political activists called Pussy Riot performed a “punk prayer” titled “Mother of God, Banish Putin,” in Russia’s holiest site – the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
On March 5, the day after Vladimir Putin was re-elected as President, two of the members were arrested. Very soon after, the third member joined them in jail. Now six months after committing their “crime,” these three women are being tried for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” They face up to seven years of jail time if found guilty.
Now, the jailed women have become synonymous with the anti-Putinist regime, gaining both domestic and international recognition for their “radical” religious ideology in which the Church is separate from the State (as dictated by the Russian Constitution). Among their supporters are internationally renown musicians, authors, and organizations, including Madonna, Amnesty International, and British writer, Stephen Fry.
Who are the girls behind Putin’s punk prayer?
After serving two terms as President, Putin stepped down in 2008, conceding the Presidency to his political ally (and puppet, many argue), Dmitri Medvedev as there is a Russian law forbidding a President to hold more than two consecutive terms. For the following term, Putin then assumed the role of Prime Minister, as Medvedev became the head of state. Then, in September of 2012, Putin announced he would be running for a third term as President.
It was following Putin’s “brutal” announcement that Pussy Riot was formed. Their inspiration for starting this group was that, “[Pussy Riot] realized that this country needs a militant, punk-feminist, street band that will rip through Moscow’s streets and squares, mobilize public energy against the evil crooks of the Putinist junta and enrich the Russian cultural and political opposition.”
THE BAND MEMBERS
Maria Alyokhina is 24 years old and is a student at the Institute of Journalism and Creative Writing in Moscow. She is also a member of Green Peace and supports the conservation of the largest lake in the world–Lake Baikal.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, despite being the youngest of the trio at 23-years old, is the informal leader of the group. She is a graduate of the University of Moscow where she studied philosophy. She is currently a member of “War,” a dissident art group.
Yekaterina Samutsevich is 29 years old and studied at the Moscow Institute of Power and Engineering. According to The Independent, she once worked in a laboratory where she developed submarine and missile software.
None of the three women have a criminal record or history of violence.
The closed-door trial of Pussy Riot members Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova, and Samutsevich began this week in the bulletproof Gadanski Court in Moscow. The trio are facing charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” No bail has been posted as they are considered “too dangerous” to be released. If they are found guilty, they face up to seven years of imprisonment and at least a minimum of two years.
They have been incarcerated for the past six months and have been denied access to family visits.
The presiding judge over the case is Marina Syrova and the lead prosecutor, Alexander Nikiforov. Two witnesses took to the stand on Wednesday, neither of whom actually witnessed the alleged crime on February 21, but described their immense “spiritual suffering.” The first, Oleg Ugrik, is a strong Orthodox believer who, after watching their video online, condemned the trio for their desecration of the religious space. The second, Eteri Ivanishvili, is a bursar in an entirely different Church from the one in which the act occurred.
All three defendants pleaded not guilty on Monday, claiming that their actions were merely political (and not an act of terrorism, as many are keen to believe) as they protested the Orthodox Church’s public support for Putin.
Nikiforov, has stated that “this trial has practically split society into two parts.” A survey released by the independent polling agency, the Levada Center, mirrors that statement, saying “a third of Russians polled saw the sentence of two to seven years as ‘adequate,’ 43 percent said it was excessive, and 15 percent are against any punishment at all.” That leaves very little room for individuals who feel indifferent towards this case.
In comparison, the extreme radically-minded supporters of the Orthodox Church are demanding harsher punishment by the Kremlin in order to combat the these rising “anti-clerical forces.”
Meanwhile Nikolai Polozov, the attorney for Pussy Riot, has become an overnight sensation and national hero in Russia.
Madonna, Peter Gabriel, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Flea, Franz Ferdinand, Beastie Boys, and Sting are all famous musician supporters of these feminist punk rockers. Anthony Kiedes (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) recently wore a Pussy Riot T-shirt at his Moscow concert and Madonna told Russian television she was “sorry” to hear about Pussy Riot’s arrest.
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand Tweeted: “I’m sure you are all fans of their right to express their opinion. Any world leader who claims to be a fan of the Beatles and John Lennon ... then imprisons contemporary musicians who express their political views, is the worst kind of hypocrite: a dangerous one.”
THE ORTHODOX CHURCH’S RESPONSE:
Despite the Russian Constitution stating that the Church must be separate from the state, the Russian Orthodox Church has long been a supporter of Putin and have instructed their followers to “rely on the state and to be grateful for its care.” For Putin, religion and the Orthodox Church has been a frequent viable source of legitimization throughout his quest for political power. These two factions of power go hand-in-hand, so much so that “religious and bureaucratic tongues have become blurred.” As an additional note, Putin has also committed $120 million to the rebuilding of Orthodox churches.
The trial of Pussy Riot has become a prime opportunity for the Orthodox Church to condemn any opposition of the Church and by extension, Putin himself. Meanwhile, Putin has used this as an opportunity to reaffirm his own political power by way of siding with the anti-Western Russian Orthodox Church.
Ugrik, a passionate believer in the Orthodox Church, declared that “black energy swept over” him following Pussy Riot’s desecration of his Church and that Pussy Riot had “lowered themselves into hell of their own volition.”
Vsevolod Chaplin, a high-ranking spokesperson for the Church, gave this statement: “It was a sin against God and it is God that is judging it, and all Christians should know this.” Following the public apology from Pussy Riot, Chaplin responded, “their words had a double meaning. Any acceptance of a mistake is a step in the right direction. But they also insulted the patriarch, who is a symbol of the church.”
While in London yesterday (after speaking with Prime Minister David Cameron and watching Olympic judo), Putin told the press that people “should not judge [Pussy Riot] too harshly” and hopes that “the court would will come out with the right decision, a well-founded one.”
Putin also noted that these women should feel lucky their prosecution is occurring in Russia rather than Israel or Russia’s Muslim Caucasus. “I think if the girls had desecrated something in, let’s say, Israel—there are some pretty strong guys there, you know—it wouldn’t be too easy for them to get out of there,” Înterfax reported.
“Or if they went to the Caucasus and desecrated some sacred Muslim place, we would not even have time to protect them,” Putin added.
Sometimes, however, actions do speak louder than words. A day after he was inaugurated as President, Putin passed strict new laws banning protests on the streets. Special forces have also raided the homes of prominent and outspoken anti-Putin activists, including blogger Alexei Navalny, who now faces a potential ten years in prison. And top officials in the Kremlin, who are stauch Putin supporters, have proposed internet censorship similar to the Chinese.
Putin is Russia’s court. He will decide the verdict in the end,” Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova’s husband said. “He is feeling enormous pressure both at home as well as abroad and, obviously, under such circumstances he no longer wants to be a bloody dictator.”
THE VIDEO THAT GOT THEM IN TROUBLE:
Here is the original footage of Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on February 21.