Free Pussy Riot

Geoff Ryan explains why a punk feminist band needs the support of all those who think another world is both possible and necessary

Monday 1 October saw the opening of the appeal against their two year jail sentences by three of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot. Protests in support of the three will be taking place throughout the world and these should be given maximum support. This is all the more important as the appeal hearing has now been delayed.

In August Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich were convicted at Khamovnichesky District Court in Moscow of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’. The basis for the charge was a ‘Punk Prayer’ performed at Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral earlier this year on February 21. The real reason for the charge was Pussy Riot’s uncompromising opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the corrupt and undemocratic nature of the Putin government and the ‘kleptocracy’ which dominates Russian political and economic life.

Pussy Riot had previously performed in Red Square and the roof of a Moscow prison in protest at the Putin regime. The performance in Christ the Saviour Cathedral was a protest against the increasing support for Putin from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, Patriarch Kirill Gundyayev; Patriarch Kirill has allegedly called the Putin era – an era of savage wars in Chechnya and the murder of political opponents such as journalist Anna Politovskaya – ‘a miracle of God’

As Yekaterina Samutsevich explained during her trial the secular forces of oppression at Putin’s disposal were not enough for him. He wanted ‘transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the pinnacle of power. The Orthodox church has traditionally been associated with the heyday of imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself’. Patriarch Kirill was now giving ‘credulous believers religious reasons to support the crime gang in the Kremlin’.
The Punk Prayer clearly shows the protest was against the support for Putin from the Orthodox hierarchy rather than an attack on religion. Its reference to ‘Gay pride’s chained and in detention’ was confirmed on the day Pussy Riot were sentenced: Moscow City Court upheld a 100 (one hundred!) year ban on Gay Pride marches in the city.

Punk Prayer, English version by Carol Rumens

(Chorus)
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish him, we pray thee!

Congregations genuflect,
Black robes brag gilt epaulettes,
Freedom’s phantom’s gone to heaven,
Gay Pride’s chained and in detention.
KGB’s chief saint descends
To guide the punks to prison vans.
Don’t upset His Saintship, ladies,
Stick to making love and babies.
Crap, crap, this godliness crap!
Crap, crap, this holiness crap!
(Chorus)

Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Be a feminist, we pray thee,
Be a feminist, we pray thee.
Bless our festering bastard-boss.
Let black cars parade the Cross.
The Missionary’s in class for cash.
Meet him there, and pay his stash.
Patriarch Gundy believes in Putin.
Better believe in God, you vermin!
Fight for rights, forget the rite –
Join our protest, Holy Virgin.

(Chorus)
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, we pray thee, banish him!

As Canon Giles Fraser put it ‘their crime was to sing ‘Mother of God, chase Putin out’, invoking that young Palestinian woman who desired that the mighty be brought down, the lowly lifted up and the hungry fed. Her story, and that of her son, was also to end up in court. And the charge against him was not wholly dissimilar’.

Pussy Riot were sentenced at what was in essence a show trial. They were not allowed to call witnesses; their claims of lack of time to prepare the case were rejected by the far from impartial Judge Marina Syrova. One witness Motilda Ivashchenko refused to testify claiming she had received death threats from the bands supporters while Judge Syrova also claimed that her life had been threatened. Even after the trial was over and sentences had been passed Putin and his supporters continued to whip up hatred towards Pussy Riot, for example claiming that murders of women in Kazan had been carried out by supporters of Pussy Riot.

But these absurd allegations show that Putin is becoming increasingly desperate. He may have succeeded in getting Pussy Riot jailed with the help of a tame judge and the power of the state and church but his regime is increasingly discredited. Support for Pussy Riot has come from many figures in the worlds of music and entertainment: Madonna performed in Moscow with ‘Free Pussy Riot’ tattoos on her back. Paul McCartney, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Franz Ferdinand, Yoko Ono, Stephen Fry and many others have all condemned the sentences. But it has not just been foreign musicians and entertainers who have spoken out.

Sergey Baranov a Russian Orthodox Church deacon for more than 15 years, very publicly left the church because of its stance on the jailing of Pussy Riot. He has also raised a number of scandals affecting the church. They include fatal accidents involving priests in luxury cars, and a $30,000 watch which officials tried and failed to edit out of a picture of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. Since then he has been subjected to a campaign of smears and harassment. The church has threatened a clerical trial and regional officials have warned him to be quiet. He says he is still a Christian, but can no longer serve a church that he says supports punishing political expression with prison.
Vladimir Lukin, appointed by Putin as Russia’s human rights ombudsman – and presumably judged ‘reliable’ by Putin – has indicated he will challenge the verdict if the sentences are upheld by the appeal court. Putin’s predecessor and now Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has also called for the release of the three. They are both clearly aware how much the politically motivated suppression of opponents is harming Putin’s supporters, doing damage both inside and outside Russia. But there is a further problem for Putin. As Yekaterina Samutsevich has written in an interview with the Guardian (conducted via the group’s lawyers):

‘ The problem for Putin personally now is that a lot of people no longer see his strong hand and authority, but his fear and uncertainty in the face of the progressive citizens of Russia, who grow more and more numerous with every step like our verdict’.

Despite their prison sentences Putin has not been able to break the band’s spirit. They will appeal but won’t apologise. They are determined to continue the fight against Putin and his supporters. Yekaterina Samutsevich writes:
‘What I can say for sure is that we still madly want changes in Russia – toward anti-authoritarian leftist ideas. We, along with many citizens of our country, are burning even more with the desire to finally take from Putin his monopoly on power, since his image no longer seems so total and terrible. In fact it is just an illusion, created by his spin doctors on government television channels.’
The courageous young women of Pussy Riot deserve our full support.

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