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Pussy Riot: from marginals to protest symbol in one year

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

One year ago five young women walked into Moscow's Church of Christ the Saviour, climbed over railings and pulled on balaclavas, before launching into a shouted-out song denouncing the Church's relations with Vladimir Putin.

The February 21, 2012 action was a low-key protest by a group called Pussy Riot who until then were little known in Russia, let alone abroad.

That morning, all the women involved in the "Punk Prayer" managed to flee, leaving behind only an electric guitar and an amplifier, as a handful of worshippers stood in shock, several crying.

Yet their actions later led to arrests, a court case and severe prison sentences that polarised Russian society between supporters of the hugely powerful Russian Orthodox Church and those who identified with the women.

One year on, two of the women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, and Maria Alyokhina, 24, are serving two-year sentences in remote camps in the Urals and Mordovia regions, despite both being young mothers.

The third woman convicted, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, was released with a suspended sentence on appeal because she was first to be grabbed by guards. The other two participants have never been identified.

Amid unflagging international attention, the women's plight has drawn attention to harsh prison conditions, while a documentary about their trial won a special jury prize at the Sundance film festival in January.

Their jailing has for many become a symbol not just of the sometimes radical protest movement opposing Putin but the power of the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church under its charismatic Patriarch Kirill.

"I think Patriarch Kirill was infuriated by the performance from the very beginning. He felt it as a direct challenge to his authority," said Boris Falikov of the Centre for Comparative Religious Studies at the Russian State Humanitarian University in Moscow.

Russia's lawmakers have backed the Church by proposing a new law under which "offending the religious feelings of believers" or desecrating religious objects would be punishable with up to five years in jail.

-- 'They got what they wanted' --

Putin insisted he can have no influence on court proceedings -- a claim regarded with suspicion by some activists -- but also made no secret of his distaste for Pussy Riot's antics.

"They wanted it, and they got it," he said in reference to their punishment.

With Putin challenged by the first mass protests since he first became president 12 years ago, the church has emerged as a hugely significant institution of state power in modern Russia after it was repressed in the Soviet Union.

"The pre-revolutionary pattern of close cooperation of religious and state power is coming to the surface though formally they are separated still," said Falikov.

A Russian court in January ruled that four of Pussy Riot's videos were extremist, paving the way for websites to be shut down if they fail to block the videos.

The elite has clearly counted retaining the support of much of Russian society in the case.

A Levada poll in October found that 35 percent thought the women's two-year sentence was inappropriate, while 43 percent thought it was not harsh enough. Just 13 percent said it was overly harsh.

But with the likes of Madonna and Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi taking up their cause, the response abroad has been totally different.

"The attention has been so huge that basically there is no danger of it coming off the radar and off the list of things that shape the image of present-day Russia," Tolokonnikova's activist husband Pyotr Verzilov told AFP this week in an interview in Geneva.

Meanwhile, some other activists across Russia found themselves caught up in the wave of reactionary rage that followed the action.

Political artist Artyom Loskutov from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk has been fined repeatedly for offending believers after he put an icon-like image of the Virgin Mary wearing a Pussy Riot balaclava in advertising light boxes and on T-shirts to raise funds for the women.

"The government is really laying it on thick about religion, going on about holiness and the Church being under attack from enemies," Loskutov said.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130220/pussy-riot-marginals-protest-symbol-one-year