UPDATED: Support swells for Russian 'Riot' grrls

Yesterday I wrote the blog below about the impending verdict in the case of Pussy Riot vs. (pretty much) Vladimir Putin/the Russian Orthodox Church. If you didn't read it, catch up down below and meet me back up here.

So, the verdict is in and it's not good for PR. Judge Marina Syrova sentenced the three band members accused of hooliganism to two years in prison (prosecutors tried for three). Two years, for an act of protest that left nobody dead, injured, or bereft of any money of property.

According to the AP, Syrova "rejected the women's arguments that they were protesting the Orthodox Church's support for Putin and didn't intend to offend religious believers."

Drama continued to plague the proceedings, starting with a three-hour verdict in which the judge lambasted the women for their "devilish dances" (seriously) and said that their feminist views made them hate the Orthodox religion, according to the AP report from Moscow.

The AP's report goes on to note, "(Accused band member Nadezhda) Tolokonnikova laughed out loud when the judge read the testimony of a psychologist who said that her 'active stance on social issues' was an anomaly.

Understatement of the Day: Um, really? Should we test them for hysteria and witchcraft, too?

It's not just me who's unamused. The governments of the United States, Britain, France and Germany have publicly denounced the verdict, along with several high profile Russians, including Mikhail Barshchevsky, a lawyer who represents the Cabinet in high courts; Mikhail Fedotov, the head of a presidential advisory council on human rights; and Kremlin Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted, "While we understand the group's behavior was offensive to some, we have serious concerns about the way that these young women have been treated by the Russian judicial system."

And then there's the thousands of supporters worldwide whose heads collectively exploded when the verdict came in, who are rallying under the sentiment "We are all hooligans." Those stories are all over the news today. Here's one of MANY.

But here's another victory for Pussy Riot: when Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 were sentenced, the rest of Pussy Riot (the band is a collective of several feminists) dropped a new song titled "Putin Lights Up The Fires." Watch the video here.

So much for a better presidency this time around, Vlad. There's plenty more Rioting where this came from.


The first time I heard of the Russian punk band/collective Pussy Riot was this winter, when I read an AP story about three young women who'd been charged with the crime of "hooliganism."

I quickly sent the story to a friend, and we discussed how fabulous it would be to be charged as such; that it would be the ultimate badge of badass-ery. (Note: we came of age in the Riot Grrl era.)

I've since stopped thinking it's so fabulous, now that three members of Pussy Riot stand to get three to seven years for their alleged hooliganism—more specifically, hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years. Prosecutors have called for a three-year sentence.

Here's what happened: This past February, five members of Pussy Riot, warily anticipating Vladmir Putin's return to the presidency in Russia's March elections, staged an anti-Putin protest of sorts in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. Dressed in colorful balaclavas and neon leggings and tank tops, they offered up what they called a "punk prayer" to the Virgin Mary to deliver Russia from Putin. They also came down on Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Kirill I, suggesting the religious leader/church is more loyal to Putin than to God.

Security and church officials removed the demonstrators from the cathedral, but three of them — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 — were arrested about a week later.

Video of the performance is all over the Internet. The demonstration was loud, it was freaky, it was, to this American, routine punk rock behavior (you want shocking, watch "Sid & Nancy") or basic performance art.

The stunt was probably what we'd call breach of peace or creating a public disturbance here in the States; i.e., crimes that don't entail three to seven years of jail time—a fine maybe, a few days maybe, depending on the state and nature of the incident.

Tolokonnikova, Alekhina and Samutsevich been in jail since their arrests, denied bail in July. Their appeals over their detention have been unsuccessful for reasons that remain unclear. Two of the women have young children.

The women have since apologized for any offence taken by religious Russians, and reiterated their actual intentions thus in a statement from Tolokonikovoy: "The themes of our songs and performances are dictated by the present moment. We simply react to what is happening in our country, and our punk performances express the opinion of a sufficiently large number of people. In our song 'Hail Mary, Expel Putin' we reflected the reaction of many Russian citizens to the patriarch's calls for vote for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin during the presidential election of 4 March 2012."

Amnesty International considers the three women to be prisoners of conscience "detained solely for the peaceful expression of their beliefs." The organization launched a petition drive in support of Pussy Riot's release. The document, signed by more than 70,000 people in support of Pussy Riot's release, didn't quite hit its mark, but it's failed delivery to Moscow's Embassy in Washington underscores the tensions inherent in the case.

AP reporter Nataliya Vasilyeva notes, "(Pussy Riot's) case has sharply divided Russia. Some believers felt offended, while other Russians have been angered by what they see as repressive treatment for the expression of political beliefs. Orthodox leaders have ignored calls to pardon the women and urge the court to dismiss the case. ... The trial has been seen as part of the widening government crackdown on dissent that followed Putin's election in March to a third presidential term." More on the fallout for Putin here.

The women's trial began July 20. Supporters of Pussy Riot — which include both Putin and anti-Putin individuals — have staged numerous demonstrations since their arrest and have been gathering outside the Khamovniki District Court building where the trial is underway.

Meanwhile, public figures, musicians and activists are loudly calling for Pussy Riot's release. Among the megastars and politicians to either dedicate performances to the beleaguered women or publicly offer them support/express concern are Madonna; Paul McCartney; Yoko Ono; Bjork; Sting; the Red Hot Chili Peppers; Stephen Fry; Peter Gabriel; U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul; Mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland, Jon Gnarr; and 121 members of the German parliament in a letter to the Russian ambassador to Germany.

Putin, for his part, recently said he thinks the women's punishment shouldn't be too harsh.

The final verdict in the case is expected Friday. The global tidal wave of support for the women will come to a crescendo the same day, when "Free Pussy Riot" groups in more than 50 cities — including Chicago, NYC and Washington, D.C. — will hold demonstrations of support before the court decides Tolokonnikova, Alekhina and Samutsevic's fate.

Listen, the case has been convoluted from the start. Among the many reported bones of contention are the actual criminal charges, the circumstances under which the women were rounded up, the nature of their detention and alleged bias by the presiding judge. The BBC makes a nice summary here, and if you go to freepussyriot.org, numerous articles and documents will either clarify the story or further confuse it.

But, one thing is clear: the proposed punishment for Pussy Riot's stunt — disruptive, yes — is wildly inappropriate. The fact that they've been in jail this long seems more criminal than the 60-second demonstration that initiated this whole mess.

I know, as a cozy American I've been spoiled by notions of freedom of speech/expression as a divine right. If anything, Pussy Riot can claim the victory of inspiring many people to cherish that right and celebrate the function of art as a social game-changer. You go grrls!

I prefer not to be super political in this space, but Pussy Riot's situation seems more of a human rights issue, so I'll just exercise that freedom of speech one last time before I sign off: Free Pussy Riot.

Follow me on Twitter @TheMDesk.

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