Today in Moscow, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in prison, the minimum for that offense.
Since the women’s band, Pussy Riot, showed up on YouTube in January performing in Red Square in colorful dresses and balaclavas, the musical community has been following their work with great interest. After the three were arrested for a protest in a Russian Orthodox church in Moscow decrying the close relationship between the church and President Putin, Pussy Riot’s profile has risen higher. Even while coverage of the trial has revealed their faces to the world, strangers, including Madonna, have put on their own balaclavas.
In late February, in the fifth action they had taken in two months (one was a performance on top of a roof in earshot and sight of a detention center where political prisoners were held), members of Pussy Riot stepped over a rail in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, sang a few bars of an original song that included the lyrics “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, drive Putin out,” knelt, crossed themselves and skipped away. They wore the outfits that both hid their faces and announced who they were. Two weeks later, three of the band members, who go by the names Nadia, Katya and Masha, were arrested. They have been in custody ever since.
The trial, which began on July 30, has been out of the ordinary for Russia – usually people are released after they’re arrested for nonviolent crimes, but these women haven’t been allowed contact with their families and say they weren’t given enough time to prepare. The mainstream western media has noticed. The three musicians on trial are less than half the band, and those who remain free make use of traditional and social media well. Three more members of the group spoke to The Guardian even though they’re in hiding, and they say their full number is “more than 10.”
In interviews, members of Pussy Riot have said they wear balaclavas so that anyone watching their performances and videos can imagine their head in one. “We can show that it’s not so scary to do something,” said one of the band members currently in hiding, who told The Guardian her name is Sparrow.
The fact that we can see the faces of the women on trial robs them of their symbolic anonymity, but it gives them something else. In photos from the closed courtroom, they look strong and calm in their barred or glass cages. They are often photographed half-smiling. They wave even when their hands are cuffed to a guard. Their resilience is admirable, but their casual outfits, and the way they slouch in their T-shirts, make them look very familiar. They make it look like anyone, if they were Russian, could end up in jail for very little cause. Though the women say a great injustice has been done to them, they don’t read as victims. On August 8, all three made courtroom statements of remarkable eloquence. Their words were translated and spread all over theweb (we’ve quoted the translations published by the website of the magazine n+1).
Katya pointed out the appropriation of the Russian Orthodox religion’s opposition culture by the state. Masha told of disgraceful psychiatric clinics for minors and said a consequence of them is “ontological humility” for the whole culture.
“Our performances are a kind of civic activity amidst the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties,” Nadia said. “We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [the holy foolishness] of punk.”
Music is just one part of the Pussy Riot story. In the video of their action at the church, their musical performance plays a supporting role. The main event is a simple act of protest: people doing something they were told not to do. Specifically, women stepping over a rail into an area of the church where only men are supposed to go. They criticize a man they had been warned not to criticize. They sing a few bars of a song that can’t be found in the hymnal.
Did they know then what would follow? When they were taken into custody, did Nadia and Masha think there was a chance they wouldn’t see their children for two years? Did they consider that international attention might make their sentences more drastic?
They color-corrected their original video, added a few more scenes and synced it up to the studio version of the song, which they call a “punk prayer.” Nadia’s husband told The Guardian it was only after that video hit YouTube that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church called Putin and told the media that his church is “under attack.”
Pussy Riot use music to deliver their message and connect their fight to other fighters. And in response to both that message and the repercussions of their delivery of it, the spirit of punk has woken up. On Thursday night in New York writers, musicians and actresses read the courtroom statements of the three. On Friday afternoon in Chicago and Brisbane, people will meet in public places, pull balaclavas over their heads and dance. Actions are planned in Belgrade, Cologne, Tel Aviv, Milan and Derry.
What is going on today in cities all over the world is linked to what went down in Moscow the past few months. The actions outside Russia’s borders are led by the inheritors of the punk and riot grrrl mantles; there are communities around the world that recognize and see themselves in Pussy Riot’s lyrics and style. But we are far away. The three women who were today sentenced in that Moscow courtroom remind musicians that performance can be a dangerous form of protest and resistance. If the protestors in New York or Belgrade are arrested, there is little chance they will be sent to prison for two years.
In her statement, Katya said: “I now have mixed feelings about this trial. On the one hand, we expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated.”
The protests around the world exist, at least in part, to tell Russia that the members of Pussy Riot are not nobodies. They haven’t lost. Though it is possible to imagine — as the U.S. embassy in Russia condemns the verdict as “disproportionate” and cries of “Shame” reverberate in the courtroom and social networks — that the protest will increase the cost of backing down for Putin and the Russian government. For now, the members of Pussy Riot are going to jail.
In her closing statement, Masha said, “We are not guilty; the whole world says so. The whole world says it at concerts, the whole world says it on the Internet, the whole world says it in the press.”