The band name “Pussy Riot” has been splashed all over the news (and the shirts of rock stars), but what exactly is the controversy all about? For those who’ve simply heard the name – perhaps from famous supporters like Paul McCartney, Sting, Yoko Ono, Pete Townshend or Madonna – we present a primer on the group’s court case currently taking place in Moscow. The trial has garnered worldwide attention, particularly in the West, because it so clearly represents Russia’s intolerance for free speech, particularly political dissent.
Three members of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk rock collective from Russia, were jailed on charges of “hooliganism” in March without bail – charges to which they’ve pleaded not guilty. Their long-delayed trial, which started July 30th, comes to a head tomorrow (August 17th) with a final verdict. Prosecutors are looking to jail the women – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30 – for three years, though the maximum sentencing in a case of this nature is seven years.
What, exactly, warrants charges of “hooliganism”? On February 21st, Pussy Riot put on an illegal, guerrilla-style performance (as all their performances are), at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, Russia’s main Orthodox church. The public display lasted less than one minute, during which time Pussy Riot members screamed a “punk prayer.” The chantings included the following phrases, in protest of Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist” and “put Putin out.” Video of the scene was later incorporated into a music video, seen below.
Pussy Riot’s three jailed members are not its only ones, however; the group is a collective with various activists joining their performances since forming last September. Their unifying goal is to speak out against Vladimir Putin, who returned to his post as Russia’s president back in May (he stepped down in 2008, only to serve once more as the Russian Prime Minister). As the group told Vice Magazine (under pseudonyms) earlier this year, “we realized that this country needs a militant, punk-feminist, street band that will rip through Moscow’s streets and squares, mobilize public energy against the evil crooks of the Putinist junta and enrich the Russian cultural and political opposition.”
That’s what the group has done, putting on radical performance art in public places like Moscow’s Red Square in January. To maintain anonymity, the members of Pussy Riot wear balaclava head gear. Additionally, they often don brightly-colored, attention-grabbing dresses and tights, even outside in freezing temperatures.
So who has spoke out in support of Pussy Riot? Amnesty International is protesting in support of Pussy Riot, as are thousands of supporters in events organized worldwide. A number of famous musicians have joined the cause as well. Today, Paul McCartney tweeted a message of support, which appears below. “I hope you can stay strong and believe that I and many others like me who believe in free speech will do everything in our power to support you and the idea of artistic freedom,” he wrote.
The Who’s Pete Townshend, members of the Pet Shop Boys and more published a letter in The Times of London, urging Putin to give Pussy Riot a fair hearing. Sting posted a statement on his website: “It’s appalling that the musicians from Pussy Riot could face prison sentences of up to seven years in jail. Dissent is a legitimate and essential right in any democracy and modern politicians must accept this fact with tolerance.” Madonna had the group’s name written on her back during a concert in Moscow last month, and gave a speech to the crowd urging free speech worldwide. “My dream and my prayer, is that everyone in the world has this right [free speech]. Not only here in Russia, but in France, in Iran, all over the world. As human beings we should have the right to express our opinions and still be treated as human beings.” Peter Gabriel and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers penned letters of support. The list goes on.
- Jillian Mapes, CBS Local
(Photo by Getty Images)