Pussy Riot band stages lightning punk performance on Red Square on January 20 to protest
six more years of Vladimir Putin leading Russia. Photo: Reuters: Denis Sinyakov
Band members wear hand knitted ski masks to submerge their identities into the group. They say they draw inspiration from the 1990s punk grrl music movement in the US. Photo: Igor Mukhin
Just when politics here were starting to look boring again, along comes an outrageous girl band to rattle Russia.
With their day glo balaclavas, bright tights and summer dresses on the white snow, the angry girls call themselves Pussy Riot.
They’re starting to make President Vladimir Putin look like Dwight Eisenhower. He was the American president who took a dim view of Elvis “the Pelvis” Presley and his scandalous hip gyrations.
Under Eisenhower, the King of Rock and Roll was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Under Putin, the leaders of Pussy Riot are now in jail facing charges that could carry sentences of up to eight years.
Russia’s generational clash was triggered by Putin’s announcement last Sept. 24 that he and President Dmitri Medvedev were going to switch jobs.
For a group of Russian feminists, six more years of Putinism was six years too many. They formed a punk band, took vows of individual anonymity, agreed to perform only illegal concerts, and chose a deliberately rude and provocative name.
A supporter held a photo of imprisoned band member Natalya Tolokonnikova, marked ‘Freedom,’ during a picket
March 8 in front of police headquarters in Moscow. AP Photo:Ivan Sekretarev
In the old days (five years ago), Pussy Riot would have been a dead-end garage band, playing for friends in an abandoned warehouse. But now that half of Russia is online, their video performances are going viral, scoring hundreds of thousands of views.
In six months, Pussy Riot has become a household name across Russia. Reflecting this, a state-run TV channel recently devoted an evening program to the band, explaining to viewers that its members come from broken homes, that their parents are alcoholics, and that several band members are bad mothers.
Indeed, the mothering will suffer if they have to sit in jail for seven years.
But, it is not the quality of mothering that irritates the Kremlin, it is the politics.
In Pussy Riot’s debut action, they took over a Moscow metro station and sang their song: “Loosen the paving stones!”
Referring to the Arab Spring, they sang: “Egyptian air is good for the lungs! Let’s make Tahrir in the middle of Red Square.”
Last December, after police arrested hundreds of people who protested voting fraud, band members climbed atop a roof next to the jail and performed this song: “Death To Prison, Freedom To Protest.”
Two weeks later, after the government called out tens of thousands of police to tightly control a protest demonstration, the band climbed atop an ancient stone platform in Red Square and performed a song with this refrain: “Revolt in Russia/Putin Wets his Pants.”
That concert resulted in detentions of several hours and warnings.
Members of radical feminist group Pussy Riot try to perform their ‘punk prayer’ to save the nation from Vladimir Putin at Russia’s largest Orthodox Cathedral, Christ the Savior, in Moscow on Feb. 21. AP Photo: Sergey Ponomarev
But the final straw for the Kremlin was the band’s pre-election invasion of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. Standing near the central altar, they crossed themselves, and sang: “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, drive Putin out!”
Targeting the close alliance between church and state in Russia, band members sang: “Black cassock, gold epaulettes! The congregation bows, crawling to him! The Ghost of Freedom in heaven / Gay Pride is sent to Siberia in chains.”
Then:“The KGB chief, their patron saint is escorting protesters to a detention center; the Patriarch believes in Putin, better believe in God.”
On the eve of Russia’s March 4 presidential election, police arrested two women they said were ringleaders of the cathedral invasion, Maria Alyokhin and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. A third woman, Irina Loktina, was arrested on Friday. All have been charged with hooliganism, charges that can bring up to eight years in jail.
Prosecutors say they are all members of Pussy Riot. The women refuse to confirm or deny membership. They are to remain locked up until they go on trial, on April 24.
The Kremlin is fed up.
Talking to Dozhd, the internet TV channel, Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, said ,“Honestly speaking, as far as what happened in the cathedral, there’s no other way to describe it than disgusting.”
Maxim Shevchenko, a pro-Kremlin television talk show host, told a radio station after the cathedral invasion: “This is an insult, blasphemy, sacrilege and a desecration of the Orthodox Church. The church is not a place for gay and lesbian activists.”
Two months earlier, a Ukrainian feminist group, Femen, targeted Christ the Savior cathedral for a protest in solidarity with Russians demonstrating against electoral fraud. Here a security guard detains a Femen activist. Reuters Photo: Denis Sinyakov.
The Orthodox Church is split on the case. About 5,000 lay members have signed a petition calling for forgiveness.
Vladimir Legoida, a church spokesman, told the gazeta.ru newspaper: “Church officials have more than once said they do not support the idea of a real prison sentence in this case, but call instead for social condemnation.”
He added: “Even the Bolsheviks in their time did not allow themselves such sacrilege, which was demonstrated during this so called ‘punk service’.”
(If the Legoida quote is accurate, he seems to be forgetting that the Bolsheviks executed tens of thousands of Orthodox priests and destroyed thousands of churches, including the Cathedral, which was dynamited on Stalin’s orders in 1931.)
But Vsevolod Chaplin head of the Church’s social relations department told Interfax on Monday that the girl band had tried to perform their punk prayer in the another Moscow Cathedral before they succeeded at Christ the Savior, the largest in Russia.
“They have declared war on Orthodox people, and there will be war,” he told the Russian news agency. “However, responsibility for it rests with those who started it. If the blasphemers are not punished, God will punish them in eternity and here through people.”
Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader and a nationalist, was more moderate, writing in his blog: “Their action at Christ the Savior Cathedral is idiotic, and there is nothing to argue about. To put it mildly, I would not like it if some cranky chicks broke into a church while I was there and started running around the altar.”
But, Navalny added in his blog, it was equally ridiculous to have Pussy Riot members jailed for almost two months “during an investigation into an offense which obviously cannot be punished harsher than five days of arrest. Let them mop the square around Christ the Savior Cathedral and think about their behavior. This is senseless and horrible cruelty, which is much worse than their very stupid but small offense.”
While Elvis Presley’s singing career zoomed after his two-year stint in the Army, the musical future of Pussy Riot is not so clear.
In an interview with gazeta.ru, a band Riot member described their two-minute concerts as performance art, creating images of “pure protest, saying: super heroes in balaclavas and acid bright tights seize public space in Moscow.”
To get their message about, the band has their own LiveJournal blog, a YouTube PussRiot channel, and a new English language support site: “Free Pussy Riot!”
Another band member, who goes by the pseudonym Garadzha, told the Moskovkie Novosti newspaper that the group is open to women recruits with limited musical talents. She said: “You don’t have to sing very well. It’s punk. You just scream a lot.”
Pussy Riot sing an anti-Putin song from Lobnoye Mesto, a white stone platform where Prince Pozharsky announced in 1612 that Moscow was free of Polish occupiers. Reuters Photo: Denis Sinyakov