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My Political Hero: Pussy Riot

Cat Gray’s political hero is not an individual, but a leaderless collective of women.

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This year the world became acquainted with Pussy Riot, an anti-Putinist, feminist punk troupe, after three of its members were arrested and imprisoned for what was deemed “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. It followed the 40-second performance of their song “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, chase Putin away!” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. According to Pussy Riot themselves, it was a protest against the support given by the leader of the Orthodox Church to President Putin. Kirill, also very appropriately known as the Patriarch of Moscow and all the Rus’, had allegedly described Putin’s presidency as a “miracle of God.”

Their trial was widely criticised by the international community, with Amnesty International designating the three defendants – Katya, Nadya and Masha – as prisoners of conscience. The guilty verdict and excessive two-year sentences imposed, quite rightly, attracted near universal  condemnation in the Western media. Even the Russian Prime Minister has now called for clemency. Whilst there were fundamental problems with the trial (no defence witnesses were allowed to be called, the prosecution declined to question the defendants) and the disturbing trend of criminal prosecution as the weapon of choice to quell dissent, I don’t admire Pussy Riot as victims or even martyrs of a corrupt, violent regime.

Combining democracy, sisterhood, art, the internet, political insight, courage and a sense of fun, their case demonstrates the effectiveness of punk aesthetic and performances as a form of protest.
Other than opposing Putin and smashing patriarchy, they are concerned with LGBT rights – something the Russian state actively represses and which has been the subject of propaganda campaigns against them. Their fluid membership actually encompasses a fairly diverse range of left of centre politics, united by one theme: feminism.

They are self-styled and self-aware. Their exuberantly coloured outfits and makeshift balaclavas are instantly recognisable, easy to replicate and invite us to participate with them: we are all Pussy Riot! Depending on the context, we could call this clever marketing or just sheer subversive genius. Either way, it has inspired thousands of proxy demonstrations by DIY Pussy Riot supporters and possibly even made them the generation-defining icons of Russian dissent.

You could argue that they exposed the corruption and machismo of the Russian state just by their cool insouciance towards the farce of its “so-called justice system” as Masha called it during their trial. The image of them defiantly smirking behind a glass panel as they were handed their sentences is remarkably powerful. Masha, who took an active role in their defence, made the poignant closing statement in the trial: “You can only take away my so-called freedom. And that is the exact kind that exists now in Russia. But nobody can take away my inner freedom.”

I feel the true message of Pussy Riot has been somewhat lost by the framing of them as primarily victims of an elaborate miscarriage of justice. In this sense, their situation has much in common with countless political prisoners around the world who perhaps lack the style and excitement that Pussy Riot is able to generate in the media and who suffer for their crimes in regimes we are less interested in. Unlike some of their detractors, I don’t think this makes it hypocritical to focus our attention on Pussy Riot – not if we genuinely engage in their ideas and send them solidarity, not just sympathy.

Although Masha and Nadya continue to suffer in punishment for their actions (Katya has since been released on a suspended sentence), Pussy Riot is an idea which cannot ever be imprisoned.

So put on a brightly coloured balaclava, stand up against oppressive power and you are my political hero.