Effects of Western response to activist band Pussy Riot
Unified by a passion for women’s rights and contempt for Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, five members of the Russian activist-performance group and all-female punk band Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
The women danced and sang out against the 2011 re-election of Putin, pleading for the Virgin Mary to drive him out of power and to “become a feminist.” The song also alluded to ties between the KGB (Russia’s Committee for State Security) and the Russian-Orthodox church as well as touching on other social subjects.
The 2012 performance lasted less than a minute before Russian officials took three of the five performers into custody, while two fled into hiding. The short performance was combined with footage shot at an alternative church and mixed with previously recorded vocals to create a two-minute music video entitled: “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away.”
Since the video’s release, the three detained band members, Maria (Masha) Alyokhina, Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina (Katya) Samutsevich have been convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, with Alyokhina and Tolokonnikoya serving two-year sentences in penal labor colonies. Samutsevich’s sentence was suspended after spending seven months in prison.
Pussy Riot contains approximately 11 members associated with differing social and political movements. The group is unified on the principles of anti-authoritarianism, feminism, and disdain for the Putin administration. The group has also been associated with support for other social principles including LGBT rights.
The group has staged multiple unauthorized demonstrations, which have included multiple short-term arrests within the group, along with a variety of other acts of politically charged civil disobedience. The arrest of three young activists, has sent shock waves throughout the media, popular culture and charity communities worldwide with unprecedented results.
The way in which this case has captured the minds of Western charities such as Amnesty International and celebrities of such caliber as Paul McCartney and Peter Gabriel is as unique as it is surprising.
The multifaceted concept surrounding the reason for the case’s popularity can be connected to the band’s unique physical interpretation and liberal ideologies. The members of Pussy Riot have branded themselves in a unique and unified way. They leverage the press attention through public performance protest pieces to increase their profile while donning multicolored balaclavas to add an air of mystery and unified anonymity. The group has also taken to the web and social media to convey their messages to a wider, international audience.
According to Kevin Platt, University of Pennsylvania professor of Slovak languages and literatures, “The members of Pussy Riot are extraordinarily savvy, masters of their own representation. They have used the media to represent themselves as strong and sexy while still using all sorts of social and political imagery.”
The group’s name and image as an activist coalition have been key aspects of both Western and Russian media coverage. Dr. Wayles Browne,a professor of linguistics at Cornell University with a research focus on Slavic languages and the treasurer of local Amnesty International chapter 73, believes that the group’s strong messages of feminism and anti-authoritarianism can be largely credited to the band’s impact and reach. Browne also credits the group’s unified, bold presence for catching the eye of the global community, making their impact difficult for the Russian government to control.
“It was a (more or less) organized group with a name, the whole group is called ‘Pussy Riot’, some of the more striking cases lately have been individual whistle-blowers,” said Browne. “Now, individual whistle blowers can get a lot of publicity, but it can also be easier to sweep them under the rug after a while than to sweep a whole group under the rug.”
In addition to their bold and public presence, the name of the group itself is an outlet to connect Western media to the band’s activity. “Pussy Riot” is intended to be spoken in English and is written as such on all associated social media, press, and web profiles regardless of the surrounding text’s language. Equal interest can be found in the way that the band members identify themselves as “feminists,” a term, which, according to Browne, many Russian activists have avoided, believing it connotates differing ideologies held solely by European and American entities. Pussy Riot’s strong support for LGBT rights, a clear contrast from Russia’s less-than-inclusive view of sexual representation, has also appealed to members of left-leaning Western pop culture.
Just as the reasons for support have differed greatly, so have the forms and depths of Western response. Some celebrities, such as Madonna, have expressed outrage at the stifling of artistic expression, while Amnesty International and other high-profile supporters such as Peter Gabriel have expressed outrage at the blatant disregard for large portions of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Clauses of concern have included; Article 19, “the right to freedom of opinion and expression”, Article 27, “the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community” and Article 29, “duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.”
With such diverse scopes of focus on the part of Western entities, some believe that the core values presented in the “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away” performance have become abstract concepts.
“I think the overall trajectory is perhaps more important,” said Platt. “These are activists who, for reason of political commitment, were willing to be subjected to persecution in order to bring world and Russian attention to specific issues and causes.”
The Kremlin’s imprisonment of Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova can be viewed as Putin defeating the opposition, but the viral nature of the “Punk Prayer” video has ensured that Pussy Riot’s message is not silenced during the members’ incarceration.
“I think the Kremlin scored some points, but on the other hand, the opposition scored some huge points, too, in the way that this brought the attention of the West to questions of free expression and the general failures of the political system in Russia,” said Platt. “That’s not necessarily what the Kremlin wants. They don’t want to be branded as the barbaric (global) outlier.”
There is no way to be sure that the Western outcry of support has affected the well-being of the jailed members of Pussy Riot, or affected the Russian attitudes toward the case. Professor Browne had the opportunity to attend a Skype meeting with freed member Katya Samutsevich at a recent Slavic linguistics conference in Boston, Mass, and said that Samutsevich is hopeful that the continuation of Western support will eventually have a visible impact.
“When asked, she said; ‘I don’t know for sure, but probably. But maybe you’d be even more useful if you could bring in more celebrities and important politicians’” Browne said.
On Dec. 4, Putin announced that he is backing a proposal drafted by Amnesty International which would grant amnesty to thousands of non-violent prisoners, which, Putin has confirmed to journalists, could likely include both jailed members of Pussy Riot. The proposal is now in the hands of Russia’s lower house of parliament, which is set to examine it by the end of the year.
Katelyn Harrop is a sophomore journalism major who also sports a ski mask while sticking it to the man. Email her at kharrop1[at]ithaca.edu.