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Pussy Riot and President Putin: a story of art versus power

31st July 2012

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Activism in Russia has had a rather sorry and oppressed history. From the failed popular revolution of 1905 against Tsar Nicholas II, through to 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, activism in Russia has been crushed under the jackboot of brute force.

IFree Pussy Riott has been swept under the rug, or more accurately, thrown in the Gulag, by an all-encompassing state who reviled any form of protest.

Yet surely that was all in the past. Russia today is a modern democracy, with numerous political parties, frequent competitive elections and a legal system which protects civil liberties. Sadly, this is far from the truth.

Rather, Russia today exists within fifty shades of grey (and I do not mean that scene where Vladimir Putin raises an eyebrow at his personal assistant, leading to a saucy scene of office romance).

Civil liberties in particular are far from existing in the world of black and white. Groups such as the Russian Orthodox Church (who unofficially sponsor Putin's United Russia party) can generally say what they like; whereas some groups, such as the all-female performance art collective Pussy Riot, find themselves on the receiving end of a prison sentence for alleged “hooliganism driven by religious hatred.”

Our tale of woe and feminism begins in February of this year, where a few members of Pussy Riot performed an impromptu alternative prayer in the church of Christ the Saviour, calling for “the mother of God, cast Putin out”.

The prayer went viral. Within a few weeks it had received 1.5million hits on YouTube. The feminist art activists have recieved global attention since three members were arrested five months ago. The three girls, as they are called in Russia, now face a maximum of seven years in prison, and the chances are this sentence will be carried out.

So what of activism in Putin's Russia? What of civil liberty and the right to protest?

In the West (although you could argue against this claim), it is the role of the courts to protect civil liberties, unfortunately for Pussy Riot, the legal system cannot be relied on within Russia.

As Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a veteran human rights activist working in Moscow, says that “the court's decision will depend not on law but on what the Kremlin wants.” The courts are, for all intents and purposes, a puppet of the Kremlin.

Yet this sombre fact has not doused the flame of activism in Russia. Sergei Khramov, an employee at the court where Pussy Riot's trial is to be conducted, says that “people are being jailed for harmless civil activity”, and he is, like so many others, planning to take part in the autumn protests against the United Russia leadership.

Whereas it was the middle classes, the students and the intelligentsia which led the protest movement against the Communist Party in Soviet Russia, it is now feminism leading the way against a growing autocratic and oppressive state regime.

Programmes aimed at women in the 1990s and carried out by numerous non-governmental agencies have given women today the ability, and the ambition, to forge a better society for themselves.

Robert Bridge, writing on Russia Today's website, states that “Russian women truly cherish the fact that they were born females, and not the victim type that cries daily on Oprah Winfrey.” Rather than settle for equality, Russian feminists want to be above-and-beyond men.

So where does that leave Pussy Riot?

The trial will, in all likelihood, result in a prison sentence, and yet the whole situation has helped kindle the growing flame of opposition across Russia's urban centres (the rural countryside is a different story). What Pussy Riot have managed to do, through the innocent medium of art, is inspire the ordinary Russian to speak out against Putin and the Kremlin leadership.

It is, as Carole Cadwalladr writes, “a story about art versus power. Of civil society versus church and state.”

Pussy Riot are not merely three young women, they are an ideal, one which is igniting interest at home and abroad as the economic woes of Russia push the middle classes and the oligarchs against Putin's regime.

Squirrel, one of the ever-changing members of Pussy Riot, says that “Putin is really afraid of people. More specifically, he's afraid of Pussy Riot. Afraid of a bunch of young, positive, optimistic women unafraid to speak their minds.”

Feminism is alive and kicking in Russia, and yet, the state's apparatus for handling opposition is vast in this land of tundra and desert, and I doubt that we will see a female president riding bareback on a horse any time soon.

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