Pussy Riot champions Russian human rights

Two members of Russia’s notorious feminist punk group Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were arrested and briefly detained on Feb. 25 after their release from prison in December. The pair spent nearly two years behind bars for “hooliganism and inciting religious hatred” after a 2012 performance in a Moscow church, during which they denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin. They were brought in with numerous other citizens during a series of protests for the Bolotnaya defendants, a case regarding charges of mass riot and violence against police in Bolotnaya Square. Pussy Riot’s protest methods have been questioned for their effectiveness and position on cultural issues, but they are justified given the current repressive conditions faced in Russian society.
Pussy Riot has gained international attention since its formation in 2011. Clad in brightly colored clothing and tattered balaclavas, the members have participated in a series of risque protests, most notably performing the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away.” Their lyrics support feminism and LGBTQ rights, and express intense disapproval of Putin and his connections with the Russian Orthodox Church. This was evidenced when five members of the group entered the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow and performed what they call a “punk moleben,” or prayer of supplication, to protest Putin’s re-election. The lyrics “St. Maria, Virgin, drive away Putin” and “the ghost of freedom is in heaven/gay pride sent to Siberia in chains” filled the cathedral only for a moment before the group members were pulled outside by guards and arrested.
The alleged hooliganism has been misinterpreted by members of the Russian public, who criticize the group for its reckless actions against the Russian Orthodox Church. The disrespect seen by critics is misunderstood, but not unfamiliar for activists. The most effective protests with the most shock value are radical in nature, and the group has brought international awareness to the situation in Russia through their exaggerated tactics. Moreover, the group stresses that the protests were not aimed at the church, but rather toward Putin’s political reign over both church and state.
Music is a common form of protest in the United States, but Russia’s oppressive government institutions have limited such expressions. Pussy Riot is among the first to represent a punk scene in Russia, allowing its voices to be heard through both lyrics and the innovative genre. While the music has not been widely accepted, it has caught the attention of countless people both within the nation’s borders and worldwide.
Russian citizens are constitutionally guaranteed the right to peaceful assembly. What members of Pussy Riot have done in their performances has been strictly within their legal rights, creating an effective movement without violence. Even in the face of severe violence, the collective has stuck to a “brain over brawn” strategy, using clever lyrics and performances to battle against the government they seek to change. Peaceful protest is more effective than violence because operating within the law gives the band legal and moral legitimacy, as well as popularity on an international scale.
Pussy Riot is no stranger to trouble, pulling off guerrilla performances in public to post in official music videos on the Internet. Their outlandish methods have been successful thus far; the arrests following the performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour caused an international uproar so immense that the women were released from prison before the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, presumably in an international public relations move by Putin. Furthermore, they were commended at the Amnesty International Human Rights Concert in February for their defense of human rights in Russia, and Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were interviewed on the Colbert Report and numerous other media outlets.
Although the performances may be considered radical and distruptive to the public, the effect of their actions has been a much-needed increase in international awareness regarding the unjust treatment of various groups in Putin’s administration. The end of the Olympics has not brought about an end to the excitement in Russia — the games have only shifted from a matter of friendly international competition, to a struggle for national justice, a competition between an overbearing government and the brave Russian citizens who are not afraid to risk their freedom to fix it. Pussy Riot has transcended the arts Russia has grown accustomed to, bringing a new punk scene to the youth along with a message of hope and change. The documentary “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” which covers the trial over the cathedral performance, begins with a quotation from German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, a quotation which forms the mold from which Pussy Riot has been set: “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer to shape it with.”