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One Year On: The Power of Pussy Riot

30th Jul 2013

One Year On: The Power of Pussy Riot
On February 21st, 2012, five young women - members of the radical art collective Pussy Riot - entered the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Donning brightly coloured balaclavas, they made their way to the altar (a place forbidden to women) where they sang a ‘punk prayer’ entitled Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!

Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, swiftly demanded that blasphemy be criminalised. In March, three of the performers – Nadya Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina and Katya Samutsevich – were arrested. They were charged with premeditated hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, and on August 17th, all three were sentenced to serve in a penal colony for two years.

The trial sparked an international debate about why Pussy Riot was being punished so severely for what seemed, at worst, a juvenile prank. New York’s Feminist Press published a short book, Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer For Freedom, containing legal testimonies from both the defence and prosecution; and personal letters, notes and poems written by the accused while in custody.

A security guard told the court, ‘This was not a performance. It was a witches’ ritual.'This part of the text is strongly reminiscent of the popular pamphlets documenting witchcraft trials that were circulated in England during the 16th and 17th centuries. Describing their display as ‘absolute sacrilege’, a security guard told the court, ‘This was not a performance. It was a witches’ ritual.’

In a letter to Kirill, Nadya argued that ‘a fervent and sincere prayer can never be mockery.’ In her opening statement to the court, she denied intending to offend anyone, and apologised to those who were genuinely upset. Masha, in her closing statement, said that ‘religious truth is a process and not a finished product that can be shoved wherever and whenever.’

‘Their clothes were the wrong colour. They stood in the wrong place. They didn’t pray in the proper manner.’ Defence attorney Violetta Volkova quoted the state’s indictment. ‘This is how easily they demolished the age-old foundations of the Orthodox faith!’

Writing for The Guardian, Jeanette Winterson notes that Patriarch Kirill ‘insisted that no one should get away with activism at a shrine, forgetting, I suppose, that Christ did physical damage to the tables set up in the temple by the money-changers.’

‘Having spent half a year in jail,’ Masha told the court, ‘I have come to understand that prison is just Russia in miniature.’ Referring to Russia’s history of revolution and tyranny, she added, ‘I believe that we are being accused by people without memory.’

‘As Americans we may be shocked to see absolutely no separation of church and state,’ musician JD Samson reflects. ‘But we also know that’s the reality in the US as well.’

E.V. Crowe was one of several playwrights involved in Pussy Riot: Final Verdict, a day-long event staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre on the day of judgement in Moscow. ‘I felt that Pussy Riot were what I’d been searching for: a model of fearlessness in art,’ she told the New Statesman.

Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, published by English PEN, includes works by Sirama Bajo, Katy Evans-Bush, and Anna Percy. ‘From Babylon’, by Barbara Norden, recounts a similar demonstration by three women at Lichfield Cathedral in 1636, while Chella Quint’s ‘In Vogue’ satirises the appropriation of Pussy Riot by the Western mass media.

Let’s Start a Pussy Riot, a collaborative art book including works by Yoko Ono, Jenny Holzer, and Judy Chicago, was published by Rough Trade in June 2013. As with the PEN and Feminist Press books, all profits are being donated to the Free Pussy Riot campaign.

Katya was released on appeal, and remains vocal in her support for Pussy Riot. Nadya and Masha are still petitioning for release. A documentary, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, will open in the UK later this year.

The New Suffragettes, a Kindle-only collection of essays from The Independent, places Pussy Riot alongside other contemporary feminist figures, from Femen to Malala Yousafzai. And Moscow-based journalist and LGBT activist, Masha Gessen, is currently writing a book about Pussy Riot, with the band’s co-operation.

‘Pussy Riot are a reminder that revolution always begins first in culture,’ Suzanne Moore wrote in The Guardian during their trial. ‘This is what makes them threatening – it is not possible to imprison a concept.’

Meanwhile, I find myself returning to Masha’s poetry. From ‘In Light of Current Events’:

‘If you choose to do good, if you choose to help
come what may, know this: you have lost.
You have most certainly lost.
But this doesn’t mean that you mustn’t do it.
It is important to remember who we are.
It is important to know that your conscience is what matters.
It is important to follow your conscience.
It is important not so much to change things, but to know that
you are changing them.’

Tara Hanks