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Pussy Riot trial outrages international musicians

August 14, 2012|By August Brown
  • Volunteers don Pussy Riot's trademark colorful balaclavas during a video shoot in Berlin for the Canadian artist Peaches, in support of the Russian feminist collective on Aug. 8, 2012.
Volunteers don Pussy Riot's trademark colorful balaclavas during… (Fiona Garden /AFP/GettyImages…)

The three members of the Russian musical-protest collective Pussy Riot on trial for a bit of political theater in February gave closing statements Aug. 8, each of which is a remarkable document from a trial -- on charges of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" after performing an impromptu set at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in February. The performance, where the band commandeered the altar during services to perform its single "Mother of God, Drive Putin Out," has transfixed Russia, the punk community and activist groups around the world.

The bandmates'  fates haven't been decided yet, but their actions have already changed the timbre of protest in Russia and they have become, in unprecedented ways, the most dangerous band in the world.

The collective operates as a kind of Occupy and Riot Grrrl-inspired punk troupe. Though the collective is leaderless, Russian authorities and the media have made 22-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova something of a face for the group (an ironic effort, as the band performs wearing home-crocheted balaclavas to encourage anonymity and collective spirit). She's spent years in the activist art collective Voina, a group known for pranks such as drawing enormous male genitals on a drawbridge across  from the St. Petersburg headquarters of the Federal Security Service. 

PHOTOS: Russian punk rockers on trial 

Tolokonnikova is a philosophy student, and her closing statement drew on a well of references --  religious, literary and punky -- to indict the Russian state for what she calls its corporatism and suppression of civil rights. "The young people who have been flayed by the systematic eradication of freedoms perpetrated through the aughts have now risen against the state. We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [holy foolishness] of punk," she said. 

In her statement, Pussy Riot bandmate Maria Alyokhina concurred that the trio's trial is its own absurd indictment of Russian law enforcement. "As it turned out, our performance, at first a small and somewhat absurd act, snowballed into an enormous catastrophe. This would obviously not happen in a healthy society. Russia, as a state, has long resembled an  organism sick to the core," she said. 

Yekaterina Samutsevich said in her statement: "Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song 'Mother of God, Drive Putin Out' violated the integrity of the media image that the authorities had spent such a long time generating and maintaining, and revealed its falsity." 

In the last few weeks, other artists have joined that sentiment. Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Madonna have each worn Pussy Riot slogans during major Moscow concerts; Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos dedicated his band's single "This Fire" to the Russian collective in a set at Moscow's Afisha Picnic festival; and Björk did the same with her single "Declare Independence" in a show in Finland. Kiedis, Chili Peppers bandmate Flea and Peter Gabriel hand-wrote letters of support to the band.

Pete Townshend, Jarvis Cocker and Corinne Bailey are among the many musicians who have signed an open letter in opposition to the Pussy Riot members' conditions (the trio have been jailed for months and are being presented in the courtroom from inside a cage) and the transparent bias of the trial. Sting offered his own statement of supporting their dissent.

Whether or not the public outcry is working, Russian leader Vladimir Putin seems to have softened his public rhetoric against the collective.  "There is nothing good in what they did, [but] I don't think they should be judged too severely," he told reporters. Still, "the final decision rests with the courts -- I hope the court will deliver a correct, well-founded ruling."

A verdict is expected Aug. 17. The three face up to seven years in prison if convicted --  something only a few bands in America have ever needed to confront.

ALSO:

PHOTOS: Russian punk rockers on trial 

Jello Biafra on 'Nazi Punks' and hate speech

Punk band goes on trial for 'prayer' against Putin

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