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Pussy Riot: The Russian Reaction

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Feminist punk group Pussy Riot hit the headlines when three members were jailed after an anti-Putin protest. One, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was later released - but her fellow band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are now serving their sentences in Siberian prison camps. 

The group came to the attention of the international media circuit in February when they caused a sensation by staging an illegal performance inside Moscow’s famous Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. A group of the women rushed to the altar dancing and crying “Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, drive out Putin!”

While their actions were swiftly stopped by church security, by that evening the footage had already been turned into a music video, in which it is possible to see them being removed from the church. The song was entitled Punk Prayer- Mother of God, Chase Putin. To criticise the government and the church in such a holy place is a highly controversial statement in Russia. The video rapidly went viral and the three women were arrested in March.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were arrested on the 3rd and charged with hooliganism, and Yekaterina Samutsevich was arrested on the 16th. All three were denied bail and kept in custody until their trial in July. It was in custody that the band members began to gain significant attention due to allegations of harsh treatment. They pleaded not guilty but were each convicted of hooliganism and sentenced to two years imprisonment.

Following an appeal, Samutsevich was released on probation on 10th October (essentially because she didn’t appear in the video.) Two other members of the Anti-Kremlin group have allegedly fled Russia to avoid imprisonment.  During the past week it emerged that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were going to be sent to two prison camps far away from their homes.

Alyokhina will serve the remainder of her sentence at a women's prison camp in Perm, a Siberian region notorious for hosting some of the Soviet Union's harshest camps. Tolokonnikova has been sent to Mordovia, a region that also hosts a high number of prisons, this has drawn criticism as her legal team don’t know which camp she is being sent to. Both had petitioned to serve their sentences in Moscow to be closer to their children (Alyokhina has a five-year-old son named Filipp, while Tolokonnikova has a four-year-old daughter named Gera.)

This has attracted considerable criticism, especially from the West, while public opinion in Russia has generally been less sympathetic. In an interview with The Guardian, Pussy Riot accused Putin and the Church of orchestrating this case. While many news broadcasters were critical of the performance in the Cathedral, the overwhelming opinion outside Russia is that the two-year prison sentence was disproportionate.

The case has caused many important figures to speak out publicly against what has happened. President Obama expressed his disappointment, and stated "we have serious concerns about the way that these young women have been treated by the Russian judicial system."

Other international figures such as Bjork, Stephen Fry, Green Day, Madonna and Sir Paul McCartney have voiced their support for the release of the group, or expressed concern over the fairness of the trial. Protests were held around the world after the sentence was announced and Amnesty International declared August 17th "Pussy Riot Global Day."

Despite this outpouring of international support, in Russia itself the reception for Pussy Riot is a lot more lukewarm. A poll taken by the Levada Center, an analytics organisation, showed that only 6% sympathised with Pussy Riot, 44% believed the trial was "fair and impartial", while 17% believed it was not. In addition 86% thought the group deserved some form of punishment, with 33% believing a sentence of two to seven years was “appropriate”, and 43% saying two or more years was “excessive”. Tellingly, 15% said they should not have been prosecuted in court.

However a spate of copycat acts have been carried out recently. Supporters of the group vandalized Qvashveti Church in Georgia, and in September an elderly man poured ink over an icon in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. He called his action "a protest against the Russian Orthodox Church and its position in the case of the Pussy Riot punk band.”

It has to be asked whether or not Putin has overplayed his hand with this. It is understandable that he wants to make an example to others, but the international outrage that this has caused would surely serve to inspire more? He hugely under-estimated the Russian and foreign reaction to this; while he may feel like a superstar when he’s posing in front of cameras with his shirt off, does this show that the leader is feeling fragile enough to question whether a punk band can damage his hold over 'democratic' Russia? 

While plenty of Western artists did, and still do outrageous things like this every day, is it easy to forget what a parallel universe Pussy Riot are living in. From our comfortable seat in the West, it is so easy to make protests and not get sent to prison. This shows that Western values and official Russian ones are still miles apart. The reaction to this protest was indeed, a very Russian one. To us Westerners, it seems barbaric, but like the poll shows, many Russians think it was an appropriate punishment. Their behaviour is indeed worlds apart from the stereotypical Western feminists who protest in the safety of a Western democratic system; they are still expressing their art and message through vandalism. There's a clear line (especially in Russia) and they've surpassed it.

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