The three feminist punk musicians were railroaded to prison through an orchestrated show trial, denied the right to present the majority of their defense witnesses, and convicted for using art to speak out against the reelection and new government of President Vladimir Putin.
Their imprisonment has led to protests in Russia and internationally, demanding “Free Pussy Riot.”
A district court in Moscow convicted Maria Alyokhina, 24, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, on Aug. 17 of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”
It took Judge Marina Syrova more than three hours to read the verdict, during which the defendants were kept standing and handcuffed. Syrova said they had committed a “grave violation of public order,” displayed “obvious disrespect for society,” and ruled that “considering the nature and degree of the danger posed by what was done, the defendants’ correction is possible only through an actual punishment.”
Syrova also said the women had psychological disorders and criticized them for embracing feminism, though she conceded this is not illegal.
On Feb. 21, 10 members of Pussy Riot protested against Putin in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. In a nearly empty church they mimed a song to silent guitars, asking the Virgin Mary to drive away Putin and criticizing Patriarch Kirill I for giving Putin the backing of the Russian Orthodox Church in the presidential election set for March 4. After less than a minute security guards removed them. Pussy Riot videotaped the protest, put words and music to it, and posted it on the Internet.
On March 3, the day before the presidential vote, the three women were arrested and kept in custody until their trial five months later.
The women testified that they did not intend to offend the Orthodox Church, but sought to make a political statement against Putin, and against the Patriarch for his backing of him. The church said the sentence was “a commensurate reaction … to blasphemous acts,” but under pressure called for leniency.
Alyokhina, Samutsevich and Tolokonnikova showed no sign of being cowed. They were smiling and joking during the proceedings. Towards the end of Judge Syrova’s condemnation, supporters outside played the band’s new single “Putin Lights Up the Fires.”
“The country is going into the streets boldly … the country is going to bid farewell to the regime,” the band members sang.
“We expect a guilty verdict,” Samutsevich said in her closing statement at the trial. “Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial.”
Defense lawyers said the three would appeal to higher courts in Russia and to the European Court of Human Rights, but would not ask Putin for any pardon. Russian police said they are searching for more members of the group in connection with the protest.
Pussy Riot has won support from prominent figures on the international music scene, including Paul McCartney and Sting. During a concert in Moscow in August, Madonna called for the release of the three band members.
Pussy Riot’s performance came in the context of broader protests following elections to the Russian parliament, the Duma, Dec. 4. Tens of thousands of people have participated in rallies and demonstrations in the months since.
On Putin’s inauguration May 7 thousands of riot police, backed by armored cars, were in the streets of Moscow. Hundreds of protesters were arrested.
On June 8, Putin signed a law that steeply hikes financial penalties for those who organize or take part in unsanctioned demonstrations—up to $9,000 for individuals, $18,000 for organizers and more than $30,000 for groups or companies. The average yearly salary in Russia is $8,500.
In her closing remarks, Tolokonnikova said band members are students and heirs of Alexander Vvedensky, a poet and founder of Oberiu, an avant-garde performance group that existed between 1927 and 1930, before being shut down by the government and its leaders arrested. He died in Stalin’s prisons in 1941 after his second political arrest.
Art and revolution in RussiaThe 1917 Russian Revolution, led by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, provided enormous space and impetus to artistic expression: painting, literature, theater, film production, often experimental and avant-garde. The Bolshevik leadership took care not to put artists under any state policy or decide what was permitted or not.
“Art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them,” Leon Trotsky, a leader of the revolution, wrote in a 1938 article titled “Art and Revolution.” “Artistic creation has its laws—even when it consciously serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity.”
The revolution found itself isolated, due to the failure of Communist parties in Germany and elsewhere to conquer power in the midst of revolutionary battles in the 1920s, harsh economic conditions given the backward state of development inherited from tsardom, and attacks from counterrevolutionary forces and imperialist armies alike.
After the death of V.I. Lenin in 1924, a bureaucratic caste—spawned under these conditions and the grinding pressure of world capitalism—gained strength. This privileged social layer, whose main spokesperson was Joseph Stalin, beat back those who advocated continuing the revolutionary course Lenin had fought for, and consolidated political power in the late 1920s.
This counterrevolution imposed an increasingly authoritarian regime on the country and on Communist parties internationally. The working class in Russia and its affiliated republics that comprised the Soviet Union was driven out of politics. Art was placed under strict political rule and those who did not conform were driven underground, placed in mental asylums or eliminated.
Over the last few decades of the 20th century, as the power of the Stalinist murder machine began to fray, stirrings of resistance began, finding their first expressions in poetry and the arts. With the disintegration of the Stalinist regime, beginning at the end of the 1980s, space opened up for working people to move back into politics and the world.
The fight to free Pussy Riot is today at the center of defending freedom of expression and the space to practice politics in face of the attempts from the Russian rulers to close it down.
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