Why Russian Punks Pussy Riot Aren't Heroes

Business Insider

International cause célèbre Pussy Riot are due hear their verdict tomorrow at 3pm Moscow time (8am EST). If they are found guilty of "hooliganism" they could face 7 years in prison.

While the case has got a lot of attention, it's fair to say that there's been a fair amount of misunderstandings. Brian Whitmore of RFE/RL has written a detailed article today that criticizes the description of Pussy Riot as a "punk band" and their crime as an unauthorized "concert" (something we're probably guilty of too, by the way).

"Pussy Riot is more a performance art collective than a punk rock band in the classical sense," Whitmore explains, saying the group has their roots in a underground anarchist art collective Voina and that membership is interchangeable.

Whitmore then goes on to take apart the image of a "punk concert" at a Russian Orthodox cathedral, saying instead that the group mimed their performance and pointing to the lack of drums or amplifiers in the video (the music was added later in post-production). He explains the trial of the group isn't just about the performance (two members of the group who appeared at the cathedral escaped with just $15 fines), but about the disrespectful conduct of the members of the group once in the church (for example, the group can be heard saying "Lord's Crap" — a popular Russian expletive — inside the church).

The charge "hooliganism", as Ben Johnson of Slate explained earlier this month, isn't used in Russia the same way as it might be used in the US (emphasis ours):

Russia’s criminal code explains hooliganism in article 213, where it’s defined as “The flagrant violation of public order expressed by a clear disrespect for society.” There are two different categories: hooliganism committed with a weapon, and hooliganism committed for reasons of politics, ideology, racism, nationalism, religious hatred, or enmity with respect to any social group.

Pussy Riot's hooliganism charge is specifically related to their disrespect to the church, and much of the defense at the trial has rested on rejecting that notion. "There is absolutely no basis for charging them with inciting religious hatred," lawyer Mark Feigin told the Moscow Times in June.

While international opinion may be heaping praise on the girls, it doesn't seem like many in the Russian opposition would argue that Pussy Riot are heroes for their performance. Alexei Navalny, probably the most prominent member Russia's opposition movement, has stopped short of defending their actions and called them "silly girls". Jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky called their actions "the mistakes of youthful radicalism".

What is being contested is the scale of the punishment. If found guilty, the three young women in the band could face 7 years in prison (the prosecution is said to be pushing for three). They've already spent almost six months in jail awaiting trial. It's incredibly difficult to imagine, say, a member of the Occupy movement getting anything other than a fine or very short jail sentence for participating in a similar event in an American or European church.

It appears that someone — whether its Putin or the increasingly powerful Orthodox Church — wants to teach Pussy Riot a lesson. The irony is that their harsh punishment is exactly what made them heroes.



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