Pussy Riot: Hell’s Angels behind the headlines

Still image taken from file video shows members of the female punk band "Pussy Riot" staging a protest inside Christ The Saviour Cathedral in Moscow. (Reuters)
Long before Russia’s punk-rock trio became a household name, the group was shocking sensitivities with vulgar and lewd acts – the aim of which was nothing more than gratuitous attention-seeking. Today, the banal exhibitionism continues.

By now, most people are familiar with the story behind Pussy Riot’s clumsy climb to fame: On February 21, 2012, armed with video cameras, electric guitars and trademark bright-colored balaclavas, a group of five feminists screamed and stomped on the soles of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior – Russia’s indisputable holy of holies.

The participants – who went into hiding after their performance, and thus unwittingly admitted their guilt – said their ungodly performance was directed not at the Orthodox Church itself, but for its alleged lending of support to President Putin during his election campaign.

One month after their “punk prayer” had done the rounds of the internet, three members of the band – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Ekaterina Samutsevich – were arrested and charged with hooliganism. Following a sensational and drawn-out trial in the Russian capital, all three were convicted and sentenced to two years in a penal colony (Samutsevich has since been released on probation from prison after her new lawyer managed to prove she was innocent of hooliganism).

Although many outside observers have been anxious to explain the group’s prison sentence as being handed down from the Kremlin, the facts of the case do not concur with this claim (it was determined that the “punk prayer” did not refer to Putin; references to the Russian president were added later to the video posted by the group on YouTube).

Nor did the court require a political basis to declare the women guilty. Their political ramblings notwithstanding, Pussy Riot was accused of “inciting religious hatred” in a house of worship, which is fully in line with the rule of law, as Russia is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights in which Article 9 provides the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and – yes – religion.

Alexander Mercouris, a UK-based legal expert, provided a lengthy argument in favor of the court ruling.

Given that the performance was a “planned and rehearsed parody of Christian worship,” carried out without warning or permission before worshippers “using scatological language and containing abuse of the Patriarch,” Mercouris said, it was “completely unsurprising that the judge should have found that the ‘punk prayer’ was motivated by ‘religious hatred’.”

So how would the women from Pussy Riot have fared in a court of law in another country under similar circumstances?

“I have no doubt that a judge in any other country trying the same case on the same law with the same facts would have come to the same view,” Mercouris wrote.

Meanwhile, Pussy Riot’s previous exploits certainly did not help to tip the scales of justice in the group’s favor. After all, judges in every court of law take into consideration the defendant’s past behavior when handing down their rulings. It is normal legal procedure that individuals with a history of breaking the law get stiffer penalties with each additional offense.

One month before their cathedral calamity, Pussy Riot, ignoring the ‘off-limit’ warnings on Lobnoye Mesto (Place of Skulls) – the historic rotunda on Red Square that is situated in the shadows of the Kremlin walls – used this forbidden venue for one of its lesser-known performances. As is normal procedure in any city in the world, the Moscow police duly arrived, escorted the young women away from the prohibited property, and fined them for trespassing.

The punishment: each band member was slapped on the wrist with a 500 ruble (US$17) fine.

Yet this stunt on the square was peanuts compared to some of the members’ previous exploits in another group – Voina (War) – which fall somewhere between the morally corrupt and criminally deranged.

Indeed, several large footnotes in the Pussy Riot story have gone missing in action. Prior to the formation of Pussy Riot, Tolokonnikova and her husband Pyotr Verzilov, amongst other passionate participants, took part in a “protest orgy” in the Timiryazev State Biological Museum in Moscow in February 2008. This exhibitionist act was explained as a satire of then-presidential candidate Dmitry Medvedev's call to increase the birth rate in Russia.

Following this warped sort of logic, more than one Russian was probably scratching their head, wondering what Voina’s protests using frozen chickens and female body parts had to do with improving Russian demographics. Enough said.

Now, for the 50-million-ruble question: If Pussy Riot had already established a reputation for lewd behavior – not to mention breaking the law – even before their “punk prayer,” why are so many foreign personalities lining up in a show of support. Obviously, outside political posturing plays no small role in the story of Pussy Riot. Foreign commentators with an ax to grind against Russia in general, and Putin in particular, will overlook the group’s obvious moral and legal shortcomings in an effort to damage the Russian leader’s reputation.

The second explanation involves the current cultural climate, which embraces and encourages exactly such wanton behavior as exhibited by this Russian group. One does not have to be a cultural prude to be taken aback at what passes as entertainment these days. Take for example Madonna, the 54-year-old prima donna, who performed in Moscow in August with the name Pussy Riot stamped on her back. Now, Madonna Inc. is busily hawking Pussy Riot T-shirts.

Keep in mind, this is the same superstar who opened a show in Denver, Colorado brandishing fake guns and even taking aim at the audience. The subtle art play probably would have gone down smoother with the home crowd had one James Holmes not walked into a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" and sprayed the audience with gunfire, killing 12 people and injuring dozens more. The massacre happened just miles from Denver, just days before.

At another performance, this one in France, Madonna’s mysterious stagecraft included an image of Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far right party, complete with a swastika on her forehead.

Finally, it was just announced that Pussy Riot has been short-listed for Time magazine's Person of the Year award.

"In a year when so many voices of liberty and dissent have suffered harsh retribution, the Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot has paid a particularly steep price for provocative political expression," the US magazine commented on its website.

This year's nominees also include US President Barack Obama, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps.

Pussy Riot, through dogged determination to gain attention, managed to scale the slippery slope of Mount Internet Fame. Now, it is automatically assumed that these individuals are worthy of our attention. In any event, it looks like the girls of Pussy Riot are already planning on cashing in on their act.

With two-thirds of Pussy Riot behind bars, the group has been unable to file a trademark application for the Pussy Riot name, so the band has entrusted an independent law firm – owned by the wife of Mark Feigin, who is serving as lawyer to the girls – to act as the applicant.

"We had an agreement signed between the firm and the girls which states that all rights to this brand name would be handed over to the members of the band if the trademark were registered and they were released," Feigin said.

It seems safe to say that Pussy Riot, upon their release, will be traveling around the world in the company of some international superstars, hawking a morally corrupt message, as well as a whole lot of T-shirts.

Perhaps that is the greatest tragedy of the story behind Pussy Riot, as well as the individuals who are now peddling their iconic image: The profound absence of substance in favor of vacuous sensationalism.

­Robert Bridge, RT