Putin, Pussy Riot, and the Future of the Russian Protest Movement (Updated)

UPDATE (3/18): Two members of  "Pussy Riot" have been charged with hooliganism. The women face up to 7 years in jail for their performance of an anti-Putin song in Christ the Saviour cathedral. Full video here: 


Could a feminist punk band become the face of Russia's anti-Putin movement?

“Free Pussy Riot” signs joined the collection of anti-Putin slogans at last Saturday's opposition rally in Moscow. Pussy Riot is the name taken on by a Russian feminist punk rock collectiv, whose wild appearance and anti-Putin lyrics have made them a hit on YouTube over the past few months. While the band's members strive for anonymity - they do not identify themselves by name and wear brightly-colored balaclavas to cover their faces in public - their performances are designed to be attention-grabbers: They previously have held guerrilla street performances on Red Square and at a detention center where pro-reform blogger Alexei Navalny was being held. Their antics were tolerated, at least until their most recent performance.


On February 21, Pussy Riot burst into Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral to perform what they called a “punk prayer” that included the lines: “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin ... chase Putin out!” There was no immediate reaction to the performance, but on March 3, two alleged members of the band, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were arrested. The timing of the arrests seem politically motivated, since the presidential election was held the next day, as do the charges: Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were accused of a litany of crimes, including “inciting religious hatred,” which could earn them seven years in prison.  

Many in the anti-Putin movement are outraged by the severity of the charges and are calling for Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova's release. So too are some members of the Russian Orthodox church; a petition has been launched asking the church to call for the women's release, while an Orthodox priest took to the pages of Russia's Novaya Gazeta to defend their action, comparing them to iurodiviy, or a kind of “holy fool” noted in Russian history who says outrageous things in a religious context as a way of speaking truth to power. In their press release about the church performance, Pussy Riot noted that “our patriarch [head of the Russian Orthodox church] is not ashamed of wearing watches worth $40,000, which is intolerable when so many families in Russia are on the edge of poverty.”

Aside from the calls for the release of Pussy Riot, the other noteworthy thing about last Saturday's scheduled protest was the size of the crowd, estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000 – a vast increase over the few hundred leftists and nationalists who would attend such gatherings just a year ago, but a steep drop-off from the 100,000 or more who took to Moscow's streets before the election. As I noted in this earlier post, the movement seems to be struggling from the lack of a clear leader or platform and grappling with the realization that Putin has indeed returned to the presidency.


But in an interesting and unexpected coda to the elections, while Putin's return may have grabbed the headlines, dozens of young Muscovite activists won seats on District Councils in neighborhoods across the capital as the result of a new grassroots initiative called “Our City,” which encouraged normally apolitical Russians to become involved in the political process. The New York Times profiled several of the new council members – a 20-year old journalism student, a 30-year old dreadlocked activist, and a 27-year old professional poker player – all breaking the stereotypical image of the terminally-dull Russian party apparatchik.

It is at least a small, hopeful sign that a functioning civil society could take root in Russia, something that could be a bigger challenge to this new era of Putinism than any street rally.

Photo Credit: pussy riot

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Ed Hancox

Currently working in the risk management sector, focusing on energy-related issues. In my spare time I write about issues in international affairs on several sites, including The Mantle (mantlethought.org) and my blog on international affairs, A World View (edsworld365.blogspot.com/)

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