Pussy Riot show trial finds Vladimir Putin guilty 

The Riot Act

As you may know, three members of the Russian anarcha-feminist punk protest group Pussy Riot have been tragically sentenced to two years in a prison camp, while the other remaining members have fled the former Soviet Union. They have not been sentenced merely for enacting a "punk prayer" on the altar of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, but for how effective and well-received their performance protest was. The truth of the matter is, Pussy Riot is being imprisoned for winning over the hearts and minds of people in Russia and around the world, while Putin is proving himself to be a pretty sore loser.

After being kicked out of the church for their protest, the three Pussy Riot members were free to go about their business for three weeks. The Putin-controlled state only thought it was necessary to arrest them once the video of their protest went viral.

I invite you to google an image of Putin. If you don't have access to the internet, envision a way-too-serious-looking white guy who you definitely do not want to invite to your birthday party. There's also a great photo of him fishing shirtless with his pants pulled up too high. He looks sort of pickled and Voldemorty, but like he did it on purpose.

Now search Pussy Riot, and you'll find your screen filled with images of women in technicolored tights and dresses with bright balaclavas pulled over their heads, rocking out in public squares, on top of a prison, and in the cathedral. You'll also see images of the trial, the three woman imprisoned behind a glass wall, one of them defiantly pumping her fist as she is led away. Pussy Riot looks cool. They look young, dangerous, and vibrant.

When Putin began using Christ the Savior Cathedral as a "flashy backdrop" in his campaign to attract Orthodox supporters to his third presidential bid, the protest group decided to interrupt that premarital church-and-state hand-holding by joining church iconography with their images of feminist rebellion and protest. In the process, they have managed to indict Putin's regime and put forward a compelling, contagious aesthetic in its place. They draw on a distinctly Russian history of Utopianism, inviting people to engage in a process of creating something new, of re-imagining what is possible for post-Soviet Russia. They also pull from the riot grrrl movement of the early 1990s, employing the playfulness and militancy of feminist punk music.

Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina states in her beautifully written closing statement from the trial that she has come to see Putin's government as "a performance, a play." Pussy Riot's use of performance art matches and addresses this element of the political landscape and foreshadows the show trial against them. Their performances are riveting. The loud, irreverent, and hopeful spectacles Pussy Riot creates demand that you look at them, that you listen to what they have to say. While women are so often dismissed, controlled, and silenced, especially in Russia, these women have forced Putin to take a position. They have put him in check, and forced him to react. It's no surprise that the Russian president's heavy, paternalistic hand of power has reached out to condescendingly chastise them and protect society from their nonconformist thinking. But you can't incarcerate a concept, especially not one as dynamic, rhythmic, and rebellious as this one.

Many people in the U.S. have reacted to the case with passive sympathy, saying that we should be grateful for the "freedom of speech" we have here. This is troubling, as it obscures the fact that the U.S. holds political prisoners and suggests that all is well in the Land of the Free. Like Russia, we have an intact prison-industrial complex that serves to keep entire groups of people regulated, impoverished, and silenced, increasingly at a profit. The Left in the U.S. would do well to learn from Pussy Riot. We need to creatively re-imagine what is possible for protest and societal transformation, and Pussy Riot's performance protests are a good place to start.

Jenna Lyles is the S.C. field organizer for Southerners On New Ground and works with Girls Rock Charleston.


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