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Russia’s newly famous protest band continues to play cat and mouse with the authorities, even as criminal charges loom.by Alexander Tretyakov 28 February 2012
Soon the regime will censor our dreams
The time has come for the battle to explode
A band of bitches of a sexist regime
Asks for forgiveness, armed with a feminist spike
― from Putin Pissed Himself
MOSCOW | Feminist punk band Pussy Riot, which has stormed to international fame in the last six months, was conceived at the congress of Russia’s ruling party in September.
Its members say that when they heard of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s intention to stand for office in the 4 March presidential elections, the name of the band came to them almost instantly, in a flash of anger.
Putin’s cavalier announcement that he would swap posts with President Dmitry Medvedev, glossing over the matter of elections, was akin to the chess move in which a rook and a king trade places, members of the band – who insisted that their quotations be attributed collectively – said in a recent interview. “We find this kind of game despicable.”
Although the authorities have been flat-footed by this loose grouping of guerrilla musicians and provocateurs, not quite knowing how to react, they might finally be catching up: the band members now face criminal charges that could land them in prison.
The case stems from Pussy Riot’s latest gig, held in Russia’s largest cathedral. On 21 February four members of the band sang an a cappella “punk prayer” titled Holy Shit at the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. In it, they asked the Virgin Mary to throw Putin out.
As a result, the women face hooliganism charges that carry a penalty of up to seven years in prison.
The punk prayer met with mixed reactions even among the clergy. While some Orthodox priests asked prosecutors to bring charges of inciting religious hatred, writer and priest Andrei Kurayev, in a nod to the women’s performance taking place on Shrove Tuesday, said, “The girls need a pinch on the side and a big helping of pancakes.”
Pro-Kremlin bloggers were outraged by the stunt. “Orthodox women must grab these bitches and whip them hard – this would make for a fab performance,” journalist Maxim Shevchenko wrote in his blog.
Violetta Volkova, a lawyer who represents Pussy Riot, said she will seek to have the charges dropped. “The punk prayer does not deserve as much as a fine let alone imprisonment,” Volkova told the Ekho Moskvy radio station.
The cathedral performance was classic Pussy Riot, which gained international fame for an inspired wave of spontaneous protest gigs in unauthorized venues, ranging from the roof of a detention center to the heavily guarded Red Square. The band’s declared mission is to confront Russia’s authoritarian rule, sexism, ethnic intolerance, and social atomization. The group’s members maintain strict anonymity, wearing multicolored balaclavas when performing.
Getting a meeting with Pussy Riot is not easy. The women prefer conducting interviews via email or telephone, fearing that reporters can be followed by the police, and their rehearsal venues and homes be discovered.
They were finally won over, however, because I work for an Internet television channel that has gained credibility with the opposition for live broadcasts and an absence of censorship. So I spoke to two of the women on the phone and a third came to the television station to record an interview.
Pussy Riot’s first gigs were in the autumn at several Moscow metro stations. They performed Clear the Pavement (Osvobodi Bruschatku), which urges women to take to the streets and break out of their domestic routines. It also contains sexually explicit lyrics involving a police officer. The group then released a video of its gigs, which hit the Internet on 7 November, the anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Pussy Riot, which has performed on the roofs of trolleybuses and in luxury car showrooms, has almost always managed to attract attention without getting caught.
Believed to be around 25 years old, band members admit to having some experience in music and the arts, although the group is widely seen more as an artsy protest group that uses music and theatricality than a genuine musical collective.
In the long term, it wants to change Russian society. In the shorter term, it wants to replace the Putin-Medvedev vertical of power system with a “horizontal of power,” in which ordinary people have a say.
The group has received many requests to perform on private radio stations and television channels, but it has refused.
“We’re not out there for commercial goals or profit. It’s social protest that we are after,” the band said. “We don’t want to go from being a protest group to mere night club touring. It’s important for us not to devalue our work by performing for money.”
The group features between three and eight members, depending on the show. On principle, it chooses places the police have classified as “unsanctioned venues” for its gigs. It posts all videos from its events on its livejournal blog.
“We don’t make videos like a typical band would. We only use documentary footage from our performances,” Pussy Riot said. “This is because we ourselves campaign for transparency, openness, and truth, and against censorship, tricks, and special effects meant to fool the audiences.”
Originally the band had three members, a singer and two guitarists, with the only equipment being a microphone and amplifier. The pre-concert rehearsal time is limited to extra-fast setting up of their equipment at the scene.
“It’s always in our minds that we have to escape before the police grab us,” Pussy Riot said. “So we choose a place, get in, fix the microphones, and start within seconds.”
What the group sings are more manifestoes than songs. That is partly due to subject matter and partly due to Pussy Riot’s writing process. “We get together, choose a topic for the next song, and each of us offers a line and we put it all together,” the band said.
Before the 4 December parliamentary elections, the band’s performances were treated as independent protest actions. But the young women were so disappointed with what they saw as massive electoral fraud to benefit the ruling United Russia party that they have lent their voice to the anti-Putin protests.
On 14 December Pussy Riot performed on the roof of a detention center, where around 40 protesters were holding a demonstration against what they alleged were compromised elections. On that occasion the group’s song was Death to Prison, Freedom to Protest.
The police were so taken by surprise that they didn’t manage to stop the performance or seize the women.
“It wasn’t really all that difficult to get onto the roof of that detention center. There was a large police vehicle right next to the building, so we got a ladder, scaled a fence, installed our equipment, and sang our song,” the group members recall.
“We could hear them very well,” said Pyotr Verzilov, a protest activist and a member of the Voina protest art group who was at the detention center on 14 December. “Some of us were singing along. The police officers were dumbstruck by the sudden sight of those girls in balaclavas. I think for a moment the police thought there was going to be a proper riot, or that more protesters would come and try to storm the building.”
In the end, the punk provocateurs managed a surprisingly easy escape. “The police were paralyzed, which was amazing really,” the group’s members recalled.
The Pussy Riot events culminated on 20 January with a performance in Red Square, or more precisely, at Lobnoye Mesto – a small stone platform that was used in the Middle Ages to announce the tsar’s edicts and to sentence criminals, some of whom were also executed nearby.
The band chose the spot in memory of the 1968 dissident protest against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. The 1968 demo resulted in lengthy prison terms and psychiatric confinement for the protest’s participants.
“Our authorities still treat people like garbage. And any dissent is dealt with pitilessly and brutally,” the group said in one of its statements. “The forces of law and order still behave as if they themselves are above the law.”
The group hit on the idea of performing at Lobnoye Mesto while shopping at the upscale mall that lines one side of Red Square. “We thought, ‘Hey, this is the place for Putin Pissed Himself,’ ” said the group’s members. The song’s lyrics include the lines, “Take to the streets / Live on Red Square / Show the freedom / Of citizens’ anger.”
Other street protesters are full of admiration for the gutsy group.
“They’re very brave, these girls, and it was a beautiful thing they did on Red Square because they effectively pronounced their feminist sentence on Putin, in one of the best-guarded places in the country,” said Oksana, a graduate student with the St. Petersburg Academy for Theater Art and a participant in the anti-Kremlin civil protests. “I love the idea of it. The concept was just brilliant, I thought.”
By the 20 January performance on Red Square, the band had grown to eight members. Each member sang a line from the song. Again the police seemed powerless to stop the performance, though they did manage to detain them afterward.
“We’ve never encountered such rough and rude treatment,” Pussy Riot remembered. “Almost every other word they uttered was a direct insult.”
The police imposed on-the-spot fines on Pussy Riot but released the women after establishing their identities.
“Now that they know who we are it’s easy for them to watch us. They’re keeping an eye on us. We can feel it,” the band said.
Pussy Riot, however, is not going to give up. It plans more actions in the near future. And its members say more are welcome to join, including men.
“Being in Pussy Riot is not a matter of sex. It’s about sharing our values – and having the guts to express them.”