PRISONERS OF CONSCIENCE

RUSSIA’S PUSSY RIOT SENTENCED TO TWO YEARS FOR POLITICAL PROTEST

By Meaghan Kelly

The Russian trial of the punk band Pussy Riot came to a predictably devastating close when they were found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” On August 17, in Moscow’s Khamovnichesky District Court, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were sentenced to two years in a medium-security prison for their brief protest inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow last February.

Pussy Riot is a feminist punk-rock collective consisting of young female artists, activists and intellectuals, who use punk music, anonymity, and spontaneous public performances to protest the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin’s ruling political party, United Russia.

Amnesty International has called the women “prisoners of conscience,” and the ruling comes in the midst of a crackdown on dissent in Russia. Many protesters have been arrested in recent months, even at protests that had been authorized by the state, including one on May 6 where 400 participants were detained the night before Putin’s inauguration.

The trial of the three young women has gathered more international attention than the ongoing war in Chechnya, the murder of human rights journalist Anna Politkovskaya or the continued detention of Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The trial also brought attention to persistent homophobia in Russia when the judge accused Pussy Riot of “promoting homosexual propaganda.”

Not a band in the typical sense of the word, they have only a handful of songs under their name and do not play traditional shows. Two additional members of the Pussy Riot collective also participated in the Christ the Saviour protest but have not been caught; the women charged maintain that they do not know their identities, as they operate on anonymity. Pussy Riot’s twitter announced that two members had fled Russia and were “recruiting foreign feminists to prepare new actions.”

Pussy Riot entered the church while it was mostly empty and not in the midst of a religious ceremony or sermon. The “punk prayer” addressed the Virgin Mary, asking her to become a feminist and to rid Russia of Putin. Wearing bright clothes and neon balaclavas, several women high-kicked on the altar, chanted, crossed themselves and ran out of the cathedral. The performance denounced Putin, and the close relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Russian government.

Patriarch Kiril, the head of the ROC, had praised God for Putin and publicly told members of the church that good Orthodox believers do not protest. United Russia has made it a clear priority to make the ROC a more powerful institution in Russian culture, and the Patriarch has been using his influence to actively promote Putin and denounce any opposition. In Yekaterina Samutsevich’s closing statement during the trial, she highlighted the relationship between United Russia and the ROC. She argued that, in order for Putin to maintain power after his failures, “it became necessary to make use of the aesthetic of the Orthodox religion, which is historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself.”

While the women arrested maintained that their protest was of a political nature, and specifically a denunciation of Putin, the focus of the trial remained on their level of religious faith and their “immorality.” This despite the fact that Pussy Riot also participated in spontaneous performances during last winter’s protests that were the biggest Russia had seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which targeted rigged elections, Putin’s hold on power, the increasing censorship of the media and restrictions around public gatherings and protests.

The women face two years in a penal colony and Pussy Riot’s lawyers have expressed concern for the women’s safety inside the prison, as Russian state television – the only source of information in the prisons – has been running propaganda campaigns calling them blasphemers and heretics.

Pussy Riot has found popular support in Canada. A group gathered at the Russian Consulate General in Toronto in opposition to the verdict. However, the Canadian government has not matched other government’s dismayed reactions, saying only that, “the promotion of Canadian values, including freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, features prominently in our ongoing dialogue with the Russian authorities.”

In Russia, hooliganism carries with it a maximum sentence of seven years. The prosecution originally asked for three years. Perhaps the international spotlight on the case lessened the severity of the punishment, but Putin is not easily embarrassed. Successful appeals from guilty verdicts are an extreme rarity in the Russian judicial system. Pussy Riot is appealing the verdict, but they refused to ask Putin for a pardon. One of their lawyers, Mark Feygin, stated, “Under no circumstances will the girls ask for a pardon [from Putin]…They will not beg and humiliate themselves before such a bastard.”

Meaghan Kelly is a former Editor in Chief of Arthur, Trent University’s undergraduate newspaper, and in 2010 received the John H. McDonald award for labour reporting.