“Pussy Riot Global Day” by Eyes on Rights, on Flickr

Heirs to the almost extinct music-political feminist punk movement Riot Grrrl of the 90s, the group Pussy Riot has broken both institutions’ and governments’ schemes and is awakening the solidarity of musicians and other groups.

Their defiant actions, however, were neither the only nor the first to shock the world: Edward Snowden or Julian Assange are just two other clear examples of personified activism and counter-power: through their resolve to uncover plots and institutional corruption, they exposed clear human rights violations. The concept of counter-power, although controversial, is equivalent to an active resistance against factual powers through social struggles. The movements propose an alternative form of institutional, cultural, and communicational organisation, as well as other aspects of the superstructure. Further examples of counter-power and activism are the social movements Nunca Mais, No a la Guerra, 15M, and Anonymous, in this case unpersonified movements. They seek to disorient political powers, which in turn engage in unsuccessful attempts to identify their leaders.

By Denis Bochkarev, via Wikimedia Commons

The art group Pussy Riot appeared in early 2012 in the context of movements driven by individual and social dissatisfaction. It therefore seems logical to wonder: what is different about Pussy Riot? Following the elections of March 2012, in which Vladimir Putin was re-elected by a dubious majority, numerous demonstrations were harshly repressed, resulting in over 250 arrests. Why then have Pussy Riot’s actions attracted more attention from the media, NGOs, governments and civic groups of all kinds?

Described by the Russian Christian Orthodox Church as blasphemous and condemned by the Russian government for vandalism, this group stood out from its inception among other counter-power movements for two complementary reasons: anonymity and stridency.

In early 2012 Pussy Riot made ​​its first situationist-like performance, in guerrilla-theatre style in the Red Square in Moscow, followed by another known as “Punk Prayer” in the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. They performed wearing balaclavas to hide their identities, highlighting their anonymity through strident colours and punk music. Their music has also been considered offensive due to the content of their lyrics.

The media, as usual, tried to identify its members, unsuccessfully at first. The group was estimated to have roughly 10 to 25 members and it was said that all its members were women.

On March 3, after the performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, six of its members were arrested. From this point on, the idea that defined the group changed, but by no means vanished. Its members reaffirmed their aspirations for an egalitarian, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian, pro-human rights, pro-sexual diversity society. But suddenly their faces were revealed, their ideas personified, and biographical information about their families (parents, children, husbands) and daily lives was exposed.

“Amnesty International USA: Free Pussy Riot!” by amnestyinternational_usa, on Flickr

Pussy Riot had been, until then, an idea, embodied perhaps accidentally by a group of women, whose content was destined to go down in history just as Guy Fawkes in ‘V for Vendetta’. The originality of their Foucaultian parrhesia won them the solidarity of diverse organisations, ranging from Amnesty International to the German Bundestag, and Human Rights Watch, as well as celebrities from the world of music and the arts. The fact that three of the group’s members were part of the urban art group ‘Voina’ (“war” in Russian) added to their popularity.

Now Pussy Riot was no longer a larger group, but rather it was personified in Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich. Pussy Riot became synonymous with Masha, Nadya and Katya.

The legal journey

The three members have remained in jail since their arrest in March. No formal charges were presented against them until four months later, which led to questions on the legality of the process.

On July 4 the three were informed that they had a period of five days (only two of which were working days) to prepare their formal defense. In response to this, two of them, Nadezhda and Maria, decided to go on a hunger strike.

On July 21, their pre-trial detention was extended another six months, and nine days later, their trial officially began in Moscow. While two of the group members fled the country, the three were sentenced to two years in prison on August 17, causing international uproar.

“Pussy Riot – Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, painted portrait” by Abode of Chaos, on Flickr

They were accused of offending believers in the Cathedral through their actions, using obscene language and clothing, as well as of lack of respect for the rules of the Orthodox Church. In their closing statements, they did not engage in the common expressions of regret or enumerations of mitigating circumstances. Instead, they drew attention to the importance of the Cathedral as a symbol, following the appointment of a former colleague of Putin’s in the KGB, Kirill Gundyaye, as leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, thus denouncing the lack of separation between church and state.

They also denounced the lack of political freedoms, specifically freedom of expression. This is hardly new in Russia. Images of the human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, lying on the sidewalk with part of his head blown off caused an uproar in 2009;  the ones of the body of tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison in 2009 after trying to uncover a web of extortion within the government, caused similar reactions. The May 2012 mass arrests in Bolotnaya Square (Moscow), which formed part of the “March of millions” or “Snow Revolution”, were another example. More recently, in July 2013, the lawyer and anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement; he has been recognized as a political prisoner after a trial of dubious legality.

The sentence

Although the three members claimed their act was of a political nature, they were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. The judge went as far as to affirm that they had “crudely undermined social order”.

The women appealed in October, but only Yekaterina Samutsevich’s appeal was accepted, while Nadezhda and Maria remained in prison.

“Yekaterina Samutsevich (Pussy Riot) at the Moscow Tagansky District Court” by Denis Bochkarev, via Wikimedia Commons

The Russian Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, requested that the verdict against the convicted appeals be declared unfair and revoked. In his opinion, the violations the group had committed were against the internal rules of the Church, and by no means against social order. Furthermore, Lukin was of the opinion that insufficient evidence was provided to support the statement that their actions were motivated by religious hatred. Despite his arguments, his opinion remained unheard.

While Yekaterina was still in jail, the three signed a request to spend their pre-trial detention in facilities in Moscow. However, following the rejection of Nadezhda and Maria’s appeals, the authorities denied this possibility, sending them to the penal colonies of Mordovia (IK -14) and Permskaya Oblast (IK -28), respectively. These colonies are located 440 and 1150 km away from Moscow.

The penal colonies IK -14 and IK -28 are a common destination for women convicted in Moscow since the 30s. While the first was initially used to produce wood for subway construction in the capital, the second now houses a sewing factory.

Visiting arrangements in Russia are better organised than in many Western countries, as they include “residential” visits that last 72 hours. However, this is due to the remoteness of the regions many prisoners are sent to. Despite these conditions, human rights associations such as Agora Human Rights Association and Human Rights in Russia have reported numerous abuses in both penal colonies.

In July 2013, after requesting the adjustment of the penalty, they were again denied parole. Maria, who was forbidden to attend in person to her own hearing, was denied parole, among others, because of her multiple violations: her bed was not properly made, she forgot to use a headscarf during work hours, and writing letters after lunch. Nadezhda’s error was worse: she had refused to participate in a contest called “Miss Charm”, a beauty pageant celebrating the elegance and unique attractiveness of prisoners.

She said during her speech (English translation from original by baibakovartprojects.wordpress.com):

So, basically, if you’re a woman, let alone a young, even moderately attractive one, then you are simply expected to participate in the beauty contests. If you refuse, they will deny your parole on the basis of you ignoring your duties to the “Miss Charm” pageant. If you do not participate, the conclusion of the labor camp and the court is then that you lack “proactive stance on life.”  I assure you, I have a principled and carefully-thought out stance on life, and that is the boycott of this competition.

“Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Pussy Riot) at the Moscow Tagansky District Court” by Denis Bochkarev, via Wikimedia Commons

On September 23, Nadezhda announced in a letter that she would start a hunger strike in protest against the deplorable conditions of her camp. In this letter, she speaks of the flagrant abuses of rights towards prisoners, such as the right to having set working hours (eight hours instead of the current 16-17 hour shifts), a fair wage (Nadya states that they receive less than a dollar a month, sewing 150 daily police uniforms) and even basic rights such as drinking water or using the toilet. The colony uses the method of communal punishment as a form of self-regulation, punishing the entire unit in case of an individual wrong.

After nine days, Nadezhda decided to put an end to her hunger strike for health reasons, according to Member of Parliament and human rights defender Ilya Ponomarev (who visited her in prison). Her husband reported that during her hospitalization – caused by the lack of food intake–, he was banned from visiting her, although we have been unable to confirm this information.

According to Russian legislation, spending over five months in pre-trial detention is equivalent to ten months, meaning that Maria and Nadezhda should be released in early 2014. However, making predictions in these cases can be problematic: Russia has the third highest number of prisoners in the world (ca. 900 000, just behind the USA and China), and its judiciary and penitentiary systems have been subject to very critical international reports, among others by the EU-Russia Centre and the Committee Against Torture of the United Nations.

Conclusion

“Pussy Riot” by AK Rockefeller, on Flickr

The group Pussy Riot can be considered in three distinctive ways. They can be Nadya, Masha and Katya, whom we met (unfortunately) after their arrest, after which their ideals became personified. They can also be viewed as the art group Pussy Riot, a diffuse and heterogeneous group that started a political and artistic movement early last year, but who have remained active.

Finally, Pussy Riot may instead be viewed in a way that goes beyond individuals and focuses on the ideas it defended both in its early days and today, within Russia and outside of it. This third perspective highlights a very different way of conducting politics from the one we usually see: politics through deprotagonised art. Their actions have shown the world that there is a way of denouncing human rights violations within the arts, specifically characterised by two aspects: radicalism and the challenge to the legal but illegitimately established political powers through faceless artistic expressions.

The documentary “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” tells the personal stories of Nadya, Masha and Katya. Hopefully no documentaries will be needed in order to immortalise what really matters: the ideals behind the balaclavas.

This is a non-profit explanation.

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