Archive for the ‘Free Pussy Riot’ Category

Dakh Daughters

June 7, 2014

A strange mix of folk, classical, punk, rock, blues, cabaret and drama.

The name comes from they are daughters of the Kiev-based Contemporary Art Centre Dakh.

A reminder of what brought down a corrupt regime in Ukraine, not as Vladimir Putin lied to the Russian people a Fascist military coup, ordinary people occupied a square.

Thanks to Pussy Riot.

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Pussy Riot freed!

December 23, 2013
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova speaking to journalists after release from Krasnoyarsk prison

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova speaking to journalists after release from Krasnoyarsk prison

Nizhny Novgorod's human rights group NO TORTURE

Nizhny Novgorod’s human rights group NO TORTURE

freedom rocks

freedom rocks

with lawyer Peter Zaikin

with lawyer Peter Zaikin

Nadia talking to the press after her release

Nadia talking to the press after her release

phone conversation

phone conversation

Клетчатая рубашка

Клетчатая рубашка

Members of Pussy Riot freed today under a general amnesty signed by Vladimir Putin.

But, they never should have been in prison.

Masha has described her time of “endless humiliations”, including undergoing forced gynecological examinations almost every day for 3 weeks.

All three girls on their release have vowed to continue their fight for human rights and democratic reform in Russia.

Where is Nadya?

November 5, 2013
Pussy Riot punk band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova standing in the defendant's cage in a court in the town of Zubova Polyana, Mordovia in April this year

Pussy Riot punk band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova standing in the defendant’s cage in a court in the town of Zubova Polyana, Mordovia in April this year

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of Pussy Riot, was put into a car on the 22 October. Her whereabouts remain unknown. She is somewhere ‘lost’ in the Russian gulag system. Neither her lawyers, nor her family, know her whereabouts.

She had been on hunger strike, in protest at the harsh prison conditions. She had agreed to end her hunger strike, if transferred to another prison.

She is now halfway through her prison sentence.

Amnesty International has launched an urgent appeal, only their website is so baldy designed, it cannot be read.

Please sign the petition to Vladimir Putin demanding to know the truth of he whereabouts of Nadya.

Pussy Riot: “People fear us because we’re feminists”

June 28, 2013
Pussy Riot demonstrator

Pussy Riot demonstrator

Pussy Riot aren’t just on tour. They’re on the run.

When we meet in a secret location in central London, they make it clear that this interview is on condition of anonymity. The Russian punk-feminist protest group, two of whose members are currently travelling the world, talking to activists and journalists and raising support for their band-mates in prison, are wanted by their government, who have branded them extremists for their stand against religious patriarchy and the Putin regime. It will be illegal to read or share this article in Russia.

“There’s a media war in our country,” says the one who, today, is calling herself ‘Serafima’, whispering painfully through a sore throat. Since three members of the group, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, were tried and sent to labour camps last year, Pussy Riot has been attacked in almost every press outlet in Russia. The international outcry on their behalf goes unmarked. “Katya did not realise there was so much support until she was released. When we were in Russia, we didn’t fully understand, but now we see there truly is huge support,” says Serafima. She asks for a translation of a German proverb she knows: “Nobody is a prophet in their own country.”

Because of the very real danger that these young women will be arrested when they go back to Russia, every journalist who speaks to them must promise to reveal no identifying details. We swear to conceal not only their names, but their ages, where precisely they’ve travelled, and any physical description whatsoever. I can tell you that two members of the Pussy Riot are moving from country to country, talking to activists and journalists and raising support for their fellow band-members in prison. But there’s is so much I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you whether they wear their hair short and blonde or long and dark; I can’t tell you if they’re six-foot hardass rock chicks in ripped jeans or slight, nervous schoolgirls. I can’t tell you whether the girl curled in a hard red armchair in the lobby of a nondescript London office block, three off-key chords and thousands of miles from home, is a stranger or your lost little sister. What I can tell you is that she looks tired.

They both look tired. Serafima is pale and rasping and has a nasty-sounding cough which almost prevents her from speaking. They both look ill and drawn and worn-out; somebody’s nan might tell them they look a bit peaky and ought to go to bed with some hot ribena. That’s not an option, though: Pussy Riot have work to do, before they move on to the next city, and there’s almost nothing any of us can do to make it easier. In the end, I offer Schumacher a multivitamin. I pop two out of the foil packet and take one myself, because if I were Pussy Riot I wouldn’t accept huge orange pills from strangers, even if they do come in a jolly box promising that they can keep a narcoleptic elephant awake for a week.

These girls are young. Very young. For their safety, I can’t say how young, but imagine how young you think they might be. Are you imagining it? They’re about five years younger than that. When they arrived I wondered, for a second, who let a couple of moody work experience kids into a clandestine meeting.

I had read their interviews, seen the court transcripts of last year’s show trials, gone to protests where students in home-made masks yelled out solidarity slogans in truly awful Russian, but I wasn’t prepared for this. Not for this frontless vulnerability, this sudden reminder that behind the bright balaclavas are real bodies that get tired and sick, real people who can still have everything taken away from them.

This is how media activism works, when it’s done well. You get to see the flash and dazzle of protest, but you don’t often get to see the toll exacted from individuals, the energy and courage it takes to keep going, day after day, when you’re being attacked in the press and hunted by police. The younger of the two, ‘Shumacher’, closes her eyes in the armchair and doesn’t talk to anybody, grabbing ten minutes of sleep before she has to answer more of our questions. Some Russians have a saying: “A person who smiles for no reason is a fool.” Pussy Riot are not fools.

Serafima smiles just once, when asked to describe the performance in Christ the Saviour Church in central Moscow of the song “Punk Prayer – Virgin Mary, Drive Putin Out!”, which got three of her bandmates jailed for ‘hooliganism’. She can’t divulge whether she was personally involved in the stunt. “It was designed as a maximal expression of freedom of speech,” she says, because of the iconic location of Christ the Saviour and its close connections with the political establishment. It was the biggest “fuck you” to the Russian elite that five girls could get away with. Except that they didn’t.

Since the trials, a smorgasbord of new legislation, informally known as the Pussy Riot laws, have been put into place in Russia to clamp down on the group and anyone who might try to imitate their art-protests. You can’t cover your face in public, and the laws against ‘offending religious sensibilities’ have been tightened in a way that suggests Jesus isn’t the one who’s worried. In addition, distribution and discussion of Pussy Riot’s protests is strictly forbidden. Their websites have been attacked, people have been prosecuted for making tshirts with their image, and videos of four of their impromptu concerts have been declared extremist, meaning that it is illegal to possess them in Russia. It is also illegal for any Russian citizen to criticise the administration to a foreign journalist. That’s what Pussy Riot have been doing for the past week and a half, and it’s what they’re doing right now, sitting at the end of a bare white table in a bare white room clutching coffee mugs and daring us to ask their names.

And then there’s the cultural backlash – including sexist attacks on what Pussy Riot stand for. “The simplest example is the idea that there’s a [male] producer behind us, or that we must be being paid by foreign governments – nobody can imagine that women themselves are expressing their opinions!” says Schumacher.

“In the Russian mass media they’re saying we’re stupid girls, not able to think. Among the orthodox believers, in the media, they tell us to stay at home, do cooking, give birth to children,” says Schumacher. “And Masha and Nadya are attacked for not fulfilling their roles as mothers.” This last is particularly cruel, because not only is it the Russian state that placed Masha and Nadya in Labour camps far from their children, but both have been denied the usual clemency that allows mothers of young children to receive suspended sentences.

Both women, who have been named “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International, were denied early release this spring, and the group is now preparing to take the appeal to the highest court in the land after continued hunger strikes put Masha in danger of her life.

In countries where Pussy Riot’s videos are uncensored, you can watch them light flares and thrash guitars on the rooftop of a Moscow Detention Center, pounding out a song against the corrupt judicial system which would shortly be pursuing them, too. Their acid-bright tights and face masks stand out against the drab, cold winter like a chemical spill on snow, like something from the old days of ideological certainty seeping through to contaminate the spotless surface of the New Russia. Pussy Riot are a problem. Putin’s government would like to make that problem disappear.

A journalist from the Telegraph asks if the girls consider themselves primarily activists or musicians. “Artists,” replies Shumacher, in English, cutting off the question. They are artists first, “feminist artists,” working within a long tradition of women’s political art; they cite Riot Grrl and Oi! punk as influences, but also feminist writers and activists like Alexandra Kollontai and Simone de Beauvoir. The group was formed in 2011 as an offshoot of the performance art collective Voina, and it is clear that Pussy Riot are not just a punk band.

Instead, they are the idea of a punk band. They don’t release albums or go on performance tours; they have no interest in being entertainers. They are the idea of a girl with a guitar screaming in a church, and in today’s Russia that idea is frightening enough to initiate the kind of cultural clampdown that gives the lie to the illusion of a state at peace with itself. That was the point. “It is not three singers from Pussy Riot who are on trial,” said Nadya Tolokonnikova in her closing statement to the court. “If that were the case, what’s happening would be totally insignificant. It is the entire state system of the Russian Federation which is on trial.”

“There are two reasons why we frighten people,” says Schumacher, popping a chocolate biscuit into her mouth. “The first thing is that we’re a feminist, female group with no men connected to it, and the second is that we don’t have leaders.

“These two aspects, the structure that has no leaders and the emphasis on women, these are strongly connected. Russia has always linked the idea of leadership with some man or other, who can control things, and control women. A woman’s group with no leaders… this activism comes from a place people do not recognise, and sets itself up against the structures of power.”

The insistence on anonymity isn’t just to protect individual group members from persecution. Even before the backlash began in earnest, Pussy Riot only ever gave interviews using nicknames, pursuing an image of memetic militancy: without names or leaders, anyone could be Pussy Riot. The trials of Nadya, Katya and Masha forcibly removed some that anonymity, but they have spoken out from jail declaring their willingness to see others continue the work.

Allergy to leadership and hierarchy has been a defining feature of the new youth protest movements that erupted around the world in 2010 and 2011. It’s not just Pussy Riot with their bright balaclavas. It’s the Arab Spring and Occupy with their horizontal, networked organisation systems. It’s the black bloc face-rag, the grinning Guy Fawkes masks on the front lines of riots and in occupied squares in Cairo, Tunis, Athens, London and, this week, in Istanbul and Sao Paulo. Nor is it only Russian protesters who now risk arrest if they cover their faces – new laws in Britain and the United States mean that if you go to a protest in a you could well face what Schumacher delicately describes as “intimate problems with the authorities.” The iconography of Pussy Riot is infectious and easy to appropriate because it works in the way that resistance works in a post-ideological age where art moves faster than organisation and repressive regimes can be shaken by irreverent protest memes, bright colours and bravery.

And, of course, it’s a girl thing. Every sexist society, including this one, fosters an image of women as basically interchangeable. Underneath the makeup, girls are all the same, aren’t we, with the same petty problems and weak, willing bodies. Pussy Riot take the image of modern womanhood as a faceless smile, repeated endlessly, and turn it back on us as a scream.

“The idea of women liberating themselves, speaking out and acting out against Putin and other forms of power is something that appears strange,” she explains, “It’s an attempt to transform the role of women, who are seen from the conservative viewpoint as people who have to behave, have to be subservient, have to be as soft as possible, as giving as possible.” It upsets people. The name upsets people. Broadcasters have trouble pronouncing it; parents purse their lips. And that’s the point, too. “People ask us all the time, which is more important, politics or feminism, and for us politics and feminism are one and the same thing.”

So. Here’s how you make a balaclava out of old stockings. Cut a length off a really thick pair, preferably in day-glo pink or blue or green, and pull it over your head to work out where the eye and mouth sockets go. Snip little holes with a pair of kitchen scissors; pull them apart with your fingers. Bear in mind that if you go outside like this, you may be breaking the law in several countries, including this one. Put on your homemade neon balaclava. Now go and start an oppositional art revolution.

It’s what Pussy Riot want you to do. Really. Right now, it’s extremely difficult for the six group members who are still free to organise protests: they want their punk-feminist, anti-authoritarian message to spread around the world, and they want people to interpret it in their own way. “We’re open-source,” says Serafima. Throughout the entire interview, it’s the only thing she says in English.

“In travelling, we have understood that this isn’t just about Pussy Riot, but about a broader movement – this is very important, this is a wonderful discovery,” says Schumacher. “We met people from Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy in New York, and we agree with what they’re doing. It turns out that at we inspired people, and now we are inspired ourselves. This is really key, because any living person can become Pussy Riot, if they support the ideas. We support third wave feminism, and we want to bring that wave to a finish,”.

“It’s like when Marcel Duchamp posed the question of ‘what is art?’” says Serafima softly- her throat still hurts, and she’s trying to talk through it, even though speaking is so difficult. Speaking is always difficult. “I reckon that we asked a similar question – it just takes time for everybody to understand.” Duchamp didn’t have much time for women, but he did say that “art is either plagiarism or revolution.” Pussy Riot are originals. Their manifesto is a call to action – “we are open-source-extremists, the feminist virus infecting your thoughts.” In a time of bland hegemony, that takes unbelievable guts.

— Laurie Penny

Published in The New Statesman.

Pussycats & Pussy Riot

January 4, 2013

ggXpress presents

poetry and sound by genio

artwork and pictures by genio and genia

Back to the (Soviet) Future

December 14, 2012
Russia clampdown on dissent

Russia clampdown on dissent

“So, let them put me in jail. I’m not afraid at all. I won’t last more than a few days, and frankly at my age I’m likely to die before they manage to throw me behind the bars,” 85-year-old Ludmilla Alexeeva told me nonchalantly in November. Widely referred to as the grandma of the Russian human rights movement, she leads the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), the oldest active civil society organization in Russia, founded along with several other Soviet dissenters back in the 1970s.

“I lived in a real totalitarian state and that was scary,” she said. “But now the country is different, people are different — you just cannot compare. Back in 1976, MHG was the only independent group in the USSR. Now things just aren’t the same.”

Things sure aren’t the same, but Alexeeva seems be faced with the very same dilemma she confronted all those decades ago: stop your work or pay a high price. During the Soviet period, she was fortunate enough to be offered exile as an alternative to imprisonment (she lived in the United States for almost 20 years before returning to Moscow after the fall of the USSR). Now she counts herself lucky because her old age won’t allow for prolonged imprisonment.

While today’s Russia cannot be compared to the Soviet Union, it is certainly moving in that direction. In fact, during the first seven months of Vladimir Putin’s new presidency, the echo of the old times has become alarmingly strong. So strong, in fact, that the most prominent human rights defender in the country is seriously contemplating the prospect of soon landing in jail. This is especially poignant since just a year ago, when mass public protests erupted in Moscow following the December parliamentary vote, Alexeeva and other human rights defenders were rejoicing about the awakening of Russian society and hoping for positive change.

Such hopes were apparently premature. In 20 years of on-the-ground human rights monitoring in post-Soviet Russia, Human Rights Watch has not seen a political crackdown as sweeping as the one we are witnessing today. The crackdown was foreshadowed in the lead-up to Putin’s May 7 presidential inauguration, when authorities in some cities repeatedly used beatings, threats from state officials, arbitrary lawsuits and detention, and other forms of harassment to intimidate political and civic activists and interfere with news outlets that are critical of the government. State-controlled media, including pro-government websites, did their best to discredit the Kremlin’s critics by subjecting them to venomous and often depraved smear campaigns.

The Kremlin tightened the screws as soon as Putin returned to power, possibly in response to the humiliation and threat posed by the growing protest movement. The government, it seems aspires to go back to the end of 2007, when Putin was finishing his second presidential term and the Kremlin utterly dominated public and political life.

Parliament has proven to be a particularly useful tool in Putin’s campaign to reinstate strong authoritarian rule. Since May, it has rammed through a raft of laws that set out broad new restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, and provide powerful mechanisms for putting pressure on civil society activists. One such piece of legislation, commonly referred to as the “foreign agents law,” requires non-governmental advocacy organizations that accept foreign funding to register with the Justice Ministry and identify themselves publicly as “foreign agents,” which of course demonizes them in the public eye as foreign spies. Groups are expected to register voluntarily and can have their work suspended or be taken to court if they don’t. If an NGO refuses to register, the head of the organization may face criminal sanctions and go to prison for up to two years. Meanwhile, if the institution registers as a “foreign agent,” the organization must deliver biannual reports on its activities and carry out an annual financial audit. It must also publicize details about the “agent” receiving the funds and the “principal” who’s providing them in a manner that sends a clear message: If you accept foreign funds, your donors are your master.

It’s not for fear of more cumbersome bureaucracy that leading human rights groups are refusing to embrace these requirements. It’s a matter of principle. As they work in the interests of Russian citizens and represent Russian civil society, they simply cannot register as something they clearly are not. Groups that work on controversial issues and do not receive adequate domestic funding are now forced to make an intolerable choice: face criminal sanctions, debase themselves as “foreign agents,” or severely reduce their work. Since the law came into force on Nov. 21, most prominent human rights defenders in the country — including Ludmilla Alexeeva and MHG — have asserted that their groups will not brand themselves “foreign agents,” no matter the consequences. It’s this stand that has Alexeeva anticipating criminal prosecution and the possibility of ending her days behind bars. So far, these actions have not provoked an official response.

The foreign agents law also appears designed to make human rights defenders reconsider a standard aspect of human rights work anywhere: seeking improvements through advocacy. That’s especially true if the foreign agents law is coupled with another dramatic legal novelty — the new law on treason, which conveniently came into force one week before the NGO legislation.

The country’s newly expanded definition of treason now includes “providing financial, technical, advisory or other assistance to a foreign state or international organization … directed at harming Russia’s security.” The overly broad and vague definition seems deliberately designed to make activists think twice before doing international human rights advocacy — and to make lay people think twice before approaching international human rights organizations. In Russia’s current political climate, there is little doubt that the authorities’ threshold for interpreting what “harming Russia’s security” means will be quite low. Those charged with treason face a prison sentence of 12 to 20 years.

When it introduced the treason law as a draft, the Federal Security Service (FSB, the KGB’s successor) issued an explanatory memorandum that justified the amendments by referring to the “active use by foreign secret services” of foreign organizations — governmental and non-governmental — to harm Russia’s security. The FSB contends that “claims about a possible twist of spy mania in connection with the law’s passage are ungrounded and based exclusively on emotions.” At the same time, law enforcement and security services will clearly be able to use the law to justify close surveillance of activists and non-governmental groups in the name of an inquiry, or to open a criminal case for alleged treason as a way of paralyzing a critic or political adversary.

In writing about the treason law and its destructive potential, I cannot help but think that the briefings on the status of Russian human rights defenders that I gave Council of Europe officials in Strasbourg, France in mid-October can now be viewed by Russian authorities as criminally liable. Likewise, the submission to the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women I co-authored in early November or my testimony before the U.S. Congress during the Tom Lantos Commission’s “Human Rights in Russia” hearings on Nov. 15 could trigger criminal persecution if someone at the Kremlin were to conclude that the public exposure of the problems I described was “directed at harming Russia’s security.”

More to the point, my very job description could put me behind bars. As a researcher with Human Rights Watch, my mission is precisely to provide “assistance to an “international organization” — and the issues I focus on could be deemed sensitive from the perspective of national security since they pertain, for example, to abuses by law enforcement and security agencies during counterinsurgency operations in the North Caucasus. What was it again? Twelve to 20 years in prison? A very appealing prospect indeed. And unlike Alexeeva, I don’t have the benefit of old age to help come to terms with that possibility.

True, it’s not yet clear how, or whether, the treason law will be enforced. But that may be beside the point. Belarus, after all, adopted a very similar treason law last year and has to use it against anyone. But the legislation hangs like a sword of Damocles over human rights activists whom the government continues to hound using other tools.

In Russia, the effects of the new political atmosphere are clear and highly damaging. Several weeks before the treason law officially took effect, for instance, the European Union organized an academic conference in Brussels. Human Rights Watch has learned that a prominent social scientist from one of Russia’s regions planned to present a paper there, only to receive a phone call a few days before departure from the rector at his university, who candidly explained that the social scientist should not be traveling to the event if she valued her job or wanted to travel abroad again. Soon, the professor learned that a colleague from another university also decided to skip the conference under similar circumstances. In both cases, the rectors referred to “high-profile warnings” from Moscow and a “tense political climate.”

The foreign agents law is also having a tangible impact on the country — one I experienced firsthand back in August during a research trip to a remote Russian province, where I interviewed medical professionals about a health-care access issue that even the most vigilant official would have a hard time branding “politicized.” Just two days into the trip, local officials confronted me with questions: “Who invited you here?” “Who pays your travel costs?” “Where are your headquarters?” “Who funds your organization?” “Who is the local person arranging your meetings for you?” “Where is your authorization [for the visit] from the federal authorities?” “Where is the proof that you work in Russia legitimately?” They also contacted local health-care workers and cautioned them to stay away from Human Rights Watch and to exercise special caution vis-à-vis “foreign” actors.

Baffled by the experience, I returned to Moscow, only to discover a fascinating internal document from another province circulating on social networks. The letter was dated Aug. 9, 2012, printed on the letterhead of the administration chief for the Mari El Republic in Russia’s Volga region, and addressed to heads of local government agencies and services. It cited growing concern about the “activization of foreign and domestic non-profit organizations,” and called on the officials to make sure that their staff at all levels “minimize participation in programs and socio-political events funded by foreign and Russian non-profit groups.” The message, in other words, was to stop cooperating with these groups altogether.

Later, when the foreign agents law came into force on Nov. 21, activists from the human rights groups Memorial and Russia’s Movement for Human Rights came to work to discover that “Foreign agents! Love USA!” had been spray-painted on the walls of their office buildings. Stickers with the inscription “Foreign agent” were also found on the walls of the building housing the Moscow Helsinki Group.

I learned about the Moscow Helsinki Group and the history of Soviet dissenters in the mid-1990s, when I came to work for the Andrei Sakharov Archives as a graduate student at a university in Boston. Several years later, just before Putin came to power, that line on my CV landed me a job at the revived Moscow Helsinki Group led by Alexeeva. Working alongside some of the people — truly heroic figures — whose dossiers I used to handle in the archives was a heady feeling indeed.

But if someone had asked me back then, in late 1998, whether I thought that one day I could be faced with a choice similar to those Soviet dissidents, I would have laughed. “No way, that’s in the past,” I would have responded. “The Soviet Union is no more, and no matter how challenging human rights work in Russia is, it cannot put you in jail.”

I only wish I could say that now, just seven months into Putin’s third term in office.

— Tanya Lokshina

Originally published in Foreign Policy.

Tanya Lokshina is senior researcher and deputy Moscow office director at Human Rights Watch

Ai Weiwei sends a message of support to Pussy Riot

December 6, 2012

Специально к выходу в прокат фильма АЙ ВЭЙВЭЙ: НИКОГДА НЕ ИЗВИНЯЙСЯ известный китайский художник записал видеообращение для российских зрителей.

One dissident to another, Ai Weiwei sends a message of support to Pussy Riot.

Since the first Poets for Pussy Riot event, held on 29 August 2012, Nadezha Tokolonnikova and Maria Alyokhina remain in prison, serving out sentences in notorious penal colonies. The community of poets that came together then, as an act of solidarity and commitment that this injustice should not be forgotten, came together once more on 21 November 2012, in the Free Word centre in Farringdon, in London, in association with English PEN, to mark the nine-month anniversary of Pussy Riot’s protest Punk Prayer performance, which took place on 21 February 2012 in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Nearly 40 poets contributed to an evening of original poetry.

Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer For Freedom (Feminist Press, $2.99, published 1 October 2012), is a collection of poetry put together by English PEN.

A court in Moscow has designated four videos made by the feminist punk protest group Pussy Riot as extremist. The Zamoskvorechye District Court in the Russian capital ruled that access to all websites hosting the videos must be limited. According to the court’s decision, websites that do not remove the Pussy Riot videos will face administrative penalties, including fines up to 100,000 rubles ($3,000).

Performance of the Punk Prayer in Moscow led to the arrest of three members of the group. Two of them — Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova — are now serving two-year prison sentences for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” A third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was freed last month after a court suspended her sentence on appeal.

Madonna speech

November 14, 2012

Madonna speaks at her Madison Square Garden MDNA Tour show two nights ago on Pussy Riot and Malawa.

Vladimir Putin cannot now go anywhere without the issue of Pussy Riot being raised. Russians involved with human rights abuses now risk their assets being seized.

A Rioter’s Prayer – Echo of Moscow Interviews Yekaterina Samutsevich

November 4, 2012

Pussy Riot’s Yekaterina Samutsevich on protest, art, and freedom

On October 10, 2012, an appellate court in Moscow announced the conditional release of Pussy Riot’s Yekaterina Samutsevich, the punk rock dissident imprisoned alongside band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina for charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” The “religious hatred” involved a musical protest, a “punk prayer” staged inside Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February, less than a month before Russia’s elections. Appealing to the Virgin Mary to banish Vladimir Putin, the performance artists called attention to Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill’s explicit endorsement of Putin as “a miracle from God,” highlighting the entangled powers of church and state.

The government’s attempt to stifle the political criticism and the prosecution and court’s conflation of “blasphemous acts” with “a grave violation of public order” served to elevate Pussy Riot’s cause, launching the plight of the activists into the international spotlight. Solidarity protests swept through cities, celebrity artists like Madonna pledged support, and Amnesty International named the women “prisoners of conscience,” a designation shared by Russia’s famous political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Nevertheless, two of the band members—Masha and Nadya—remain incarcerated, sentenced to two-year terms at harsh prison camps.

Two days after her release, Katya gave an interview to the Russian radio station Echo of Moscow, a bastion of independent journalism increasingly coming under the control of Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of the partly state-owned natural gas company. Fielding the questions of some skeptical Russian listeners, Katya discusses Putin’s fueling of national resentments, the tactics of protest, and the future of Pussy Riot.

– Conversation published courtesy of Echo of Moscow, originally translated from Russian by Olga Kokorina

Free Pussy Riot

Free Pussy Riot

Free Pussy Riot train in Germany on way to Russia

Free Pussy Riot graffiti on train in Germany on way to Russia

Echo of Moscow: How did you feel when your case was separated [from the cases of Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova]?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: I have very conflicting feelings about our separation. I wasn’t expecting it at all. At first, I didn’t understand why the text that we were used to hearing—the verdict is unchanged—was suddenly different, why suddenly there were different words. We started listening closely and suddenly: “The verdict is changed, the punishment altered,” and then the words about the conditional release. For a few seconds I had no idea what it meant. And then all at once, there was an explosion of emotion. The girls embraced me and I understood that I was going to be free, outside, on the street.

Echo of Moscow: Have you explained the sense behind your action to people? It seems like the most frequently posed question is: why did they do it?

Now many people ask, “Had you known that this action would be considered a criminal act, would you have done it?” Yes, because we could not remain silent.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: Yes, I think so. I think that the majority of people understand the idea behind the action very well.

Echo of Moscow: Could you explain it to our listeners? There are more than three hundred questions on our site, and I can see quite clearly that many people do not understand why you did it or what your motivation was.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: From the outset, we chose a particular course of action that became the underlying concept for the group: the illegal music performance. We appear suddenly at a pre-selected location, a place that has a specific political resonance for us. For example, before our action at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, we gave a performance at Lobnoye Mesto, the Place of Skulls, in Red Square. When we were there, we sang a song we’d written about social issues that interest us. At the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, we raised the issue of the connection between the power of the Russian orthodox church and the power of the State. This issue became very visible when Patriarch Kirill openly advised believers to vote for Putin and the Russia United party. It was too much, done in too open a manner. Of course, we wanted to react. There was no other way.

Now many people ask, “Had you known that this action would be considered a criminal act, would you have done it?” Yes, because we could not remain silent. At that moment, the insolence of power—Patriarch Kirill’s insolence—was boundless. The way I see it, he broadcasted a lie in which orthodox culture is used as propaganda by Putin and his regime for political ends.

Echo of Moscow: So in your view, the action is 100 percent political and it has provoked a “tectonic change,” as was often said when talking about Pussy Riot during your detention. And you surely didn’t expect things to turn out this way.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: Obviously we didn’t see it coming. It’s possible that it didn’t come from us but from the issue we raised. This issue is a serious one in our society, for our government. It’s an old problem, but it remains very distressing and serious, as anyone can see.

The media constantly repeats that every part of the church congregation has been offended. Even in the text of the judicial verdict, they say that the social category of religious believers has been offended without exception. The powers that be have gone so far as to present an unreal situation, a situation that doesn’t exist.

Echo of Moscow: Can we say that your action was a success?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: Yes, of course. Much more than that.

Echo of Moscow: Have you discussed the effect the action produced with other members of the group?

Even my cellmates supported me.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: We discussed it the next day. We saw people’s reactions on the internet, and obviously saw that the reactions were extremely varied. Many people did not understand what it was. Very quickly, in the first days after the action, we saw attempts by those in power to portray our actions as sabotaging religious values. We saw attempts at disinformation, attempts to portray our actions as those of atheists, something put on by militant atheists. That’s clearly false. We continued to explain ourselves right up to our arrest. We were less active after that.

It’s a consequence of the political context. The media constantly repeats that every part of the church congregation has been offended. Even in the text of the judicial verdict, they say that the social category of religious believers has been offended without exception. The powers that be have gone so far as to present an unreal situation, a situation that doesn’t exist.

Many religious people support us, and their letters are proof. I received letters from religious people when I was under house arrest, and they supported us and understood the meaning of our actions. Before our arrest many believers told us, “we understand the meaning of what you did.” On the other hand, they said they did not understand the behavior of Patriarch Kirill, which discredited religion and the church.

Echo of Moscow: Did you receive many letters when you were under house arrest?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: I don’t know how many because there’s censorship in jail and I surely didn’t get them all. I received many letters that were censored—entire paragraphs cut out with scissors.

Echo of Moscow: A listener asks if you felt the wide range of support.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: We felt it intensely. Even my cellmates supported me. At first they were suspicious; they didn’t understand the meaning of our actions. But when we talked about it and I told them about our group and objectives, they came around to support us. During the trial, they tried to take care of me. They made food to eat and kept the plates hot until my return. They did everything they could to make me feel comfortable.

Echo of Moscow: And the guards who worked at the jail?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: Different in each case. Some sympathized, while others made it clear that they didn’t like what we did and they didn’t care for the popularity that landed on our heads.

Echo of Moscow: Are you happy to be a public figure now?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: To tell you the truth, I myself don’t feel this popularity. I haven’t even been free for two days, under conditional liberty. I can’t tell you if it pleases me or not. In principle, I don’t like the fact that people are talking about us like stars. I don’t have a big head, I don’t sign autographs, and I don’t want any of that. The fact that people film me—yes, I understand that it’s important for people to see me. Film me if you want, but it changes nothing about my behavior.

Echo of Moscow: Doesn’t this celebrity contradict Pussy Riot’s ideology? If I understand it correctly, a member of Pussy Riot is a woman in balaclava. She guards her anonymity.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: It’s true that the trial has dealt a blow to the concept of the group by revealing our faces, three young women with their own lives and families. For us, this situation is problematic. We are going to work to find equilibrium between anonymity and uncovered faces.

Echo of Moscow: Is the group’s future still a priority for you? Or is your priority now to sort out the problems with the tribunal, with the goal of being declared innocent? Because you are still convicted of a crime.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: The priority is to free Masha and Nadya and undo the injustice. I think we will take the case to the European Court. But, at the same time, the group cannot stop its actions. All of us want to continue to do what is necessary.

Echo of Moscow: Talking about the future of the group, Pussy Riot has become a kind of brand. There will surely be a commercial evolution. How will you manage that? Will you combat that?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: The problem is widespread: in contemporary art you have the commercialization of work. When an artist exposes his work openly and the work is copied or resold, it becomes a commercial object. The problem contradicts the idea behind our group. We are against commercialization, and we don’t want Pussy Riot to become a brand.

But to tell you the truth, I don’t know. What should we do if someone wants to make vodka under the name Pussy Riot? We don’t want to restrain people or be aggressive, if people want to sell T-shirts or other things. But we don’t sell anything and never will. We are still a group with no commercial goal.

Echo of Moscow: Who advised you to change lawyers?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: No one. I made the decision myself.

Echo of Moscow: So all the rumors about a conflict with your lawyer Volkova…

Yekaterina Samutsevich: There wasn’t a conflict or problem. None of that happened.

Echo of Moscow: You are content with the way that Violetta Volkova defended you before the court?

Art is integral to a political citizen. We aren’t talking about powerful elitist politics but rather citizen politics.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: I’m not the one to judge. I’m not a jurist. To tell the truth, I have not had the time to decide about the work of our lawyers or anyone else. The trial was crazy. They got us out of bed at 5:00 a.m. and we didn’t stop until midnight. We were either in the courtroom or the holding area. We were constantly in a state of stress.

Echo of Moscow: Did you understand when she spoke on your behalf about what it was that you did or did not do?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: Yes, I understood.

Echo of Moscow: You were satisfied?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: In principle, yes.

Echo of Moscow: And your new lawyer? After her arguments, you are free.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: Her legal arguments for my appeal were utterly brilliant. I did not expect this result. Khroumova Irina Vladimirovna, my new lawyer, has a faultless political reputation. That was important for me in choosing her. She was known as the lawyer in the Khodorkovski case and that was very important for me.

Echo of Moscow: Are you up to date on what Khodorkovski has said about your case? He explained what’s it’s like to be dragged around like that.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: He wrote me a letter and I wrote back. So we had a correspondence.

Echo of Moscow: Was that important for you?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: Very important. Khodorkovski is a well-known person among political prisoners. His situation is very different than ours, but it is part of the repression that the government directs against Russian citizens who dare to criticize power.

Echo of Moscow: You don’t want to make politics rather than art?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: It’s already politics.

Our country always separates politics and art. It is really amazing that art cannot be political, since art raises the same questions: the problems of society, of people, of culture. These are political questions. Art is integral to a political citizen. We aren’t talking about powerful elitist politics but rather citizen politics.

Echo of Moscow: Do you feel close to the wave of protests we are witnessing these days? The demonstrations, elections to the Coordinating Counsel of the Opposition. The opposition today is very diversified. There exists a more or less radical opposition. Do you intend to join any of them? Or is it more correct to say that Pussy Riot is an autonomous group that follows its own path?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: Pussy Riot has its own form, its own place. We’re different than other demonstrations. But we support all forms of protest. We have chosen the form of “illegal concerts.” Others choose to demonstrate or be part of organizations of other events.

Echo of Moscow: You don’t want to join any of them?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: As a citizen I am aligned with every demonstration. I support all the movements; they’re all important to me. What happened on the 5th and 6th of December last year was very exciting. But for our part we have continued to work within our group. We have continued our activities.

Echo of Moscow: Your father spoke during one of the demonstrations. Were you aware of that? What effect did it have on you?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: I just learned about his appearance at a demonstration. He has told me about his interviews, about what he said, whether he could speak on my behalf. I didn’t know about the speech at the demonstration. But it makes me very happy. It’s marvelous.

Echo of Moscow: Do you think that the story of your arrest and trial has changed your father?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: Very much so. The first time we met after the action, he was sad, asking me, “You went straight to the Cathedral. Why did you do that? What was the point of that?” And little by little, he started to change his mind. Today he says, yes, the regime is too aggressive and the trial was illegal. He started talking like this long before he said a word in public. He had been, unhappily, like so many citizens in our country, a sort of passive observer who watches television and believes everything he hears. Today, he has a more active position.

I’m not afraid at all. For the last two days I walked around the city and took the metro. No one was aggressive towards me. People looked at me, they recognized me. But I didn’t feel any aggression.

Echo of Moscow: Nevertheless, certain people feel that all of this is just the fashion. Protest is in fashion, to go to Bolotnaia Square is in fashion, and supporting Pussy Riot is a fashion, too. And the fashion will soon change.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: I have the impression that this is the opinion the government wants to impose on people, their way of opposing the situation. I think that when a person goes somewhere, she reflects, she thinks about where she is going and why, because she is using her time and energy. It’s a conscious choice. I don’t go to a demonstration because it’s cool. It isn’t at all cool to go to demonstrations today. The forces of order are nearby. They can beat you up. The demonstration on May 6th proved that. Nowadays, many people find themselves behind bars solely because they went to a public demonstration.

Echo of Moscow: Has the international reaction been important for you?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: It’s very important because it represents solidarity: a worldwide cultural solidarity and from people in show business. They reacted, found out about our work and the idea behind the group. Everything was out in the open and they supported us. It really buoyed us during the trial.

The last day of arguments during the trial was the day we learned that Madonna had gotten involved, writing Pussy Riot on her body. That gave us a lot of energy! The atmosphere in the hearing room was heavy. It was silent and people weren’t listening to us. Every time you’re trying to say something, they cut you off. They ignore you. Then one of our lawyers played the Madonna video. You could really feel the contrast between the international support and the ambiance in the courtroom. We were really inspired by that.

Echo of Moscow: How do you explain this hurricane of support? Or perhaps not a hurricane, but hundreds of cataclysms at the same time.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: There are many factors. We have given this a good deal of thought. Certainly there are many people who are attracted by the idea of the group, by the ideas we support and transmit. The idea of freedom for women, it’s a feminist idea, isn’t it? The idea of equality between people, equality between the sexes. It’s because we have created this character of a young woman in a balaclava, this strange person who isn’t very feminine, who is above all androgynous. On one hand, the image of a young woman in a dress, and on the other, the balaclava. That’s what’s striking.

Echo of Moscow: This wasn’t the first action taken by Pussy Riot. You’ve made other clips, but they did not have this success. Do you think that the trial has played a role in catalyzing things for you?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: Of course the trial and our other actions contributed to what has come about. If that was our first action, it would be hard for people to understand the idea behind the group. We are faithful to the form we have chosen. People saw our action at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral first and then they saw the other things we had done. People realized that this has been our activity over a long period of time. They understood the meaning of what we’re doing. They understood that it had nothing to do with religion, that it had nothing to do with incitement to religious hatred, and that all our actions are purely political actions.

Echo of Moscow: How do you explain the government agreeing to the trial? Without their intending to, the government has turned you into celebrities, thanks to the trial, the verdict, and the citation of decrees from the Council of Trullo.

Yekaterina Samutsevich: My sense is that they weren’t expecting this. I think they tried to make a trial that would scare us off. They did not expect the reaction, the global public support. This has been very surprising for the government.

Echo of Moscow: Do you feel that right now you are wearing something like a martyr’s halo? Are you happy about the way all this is going?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: A martyr’s halo? I don’t feel that in the slightest. I feel that we have support, certainly. The people sympathize with us, they know what it’s like to be in prison, what it’s like to be in isolation. Many people have sent us food, clothing, letters of support. It shows that people understand the situation we’re in, that it is necessary not only to speak of support but also to help us physically.

Echo of Moscow: What about your future projects? I imagine you are bound by the conditions attached to your freedom?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: I still don’t have all the details of my situation. I have to stay in touch with the relevant authorities. I’m required to check in every month and not disturb the public order, as they call it.

Echo of Moscow: Will it be difficult for you, Yekaterina, not to disturb public order?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: I imagine it will be. I’m not one of those people who stay at home, never doing anything and never going out. Of course I want to continue my activities with Pussy Riot. But I have to pay attention. I have to be more clever. You have to remember that our phones are tapped, our mail is read. They can shadow me a few steps behind, and all that has to be taken into account now.

Echo of Moscow: But you won’t stop?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: Not at all.

Echo of Moscow: And you aren’t afraid that your conditional liberty will be withdrawn and you’ll have to return to jail?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: I’m not afraid at all.

Echo of Moscow: We have thirty seconds left. What would you like to add? What message do you want to send to our viewers and listeners?

Yekaterina Samutsevich: Above all to those who still have the idea that our action was aimed at religious beliefs: it isn’t true. We didn’t want to injure anyone. We respect all religions and believers. Our action was purely political. We tried to draw attention to issues in society, to the issue of the connection between the power of the Orthodox Church and the power of the State. I think that we were successful. Society is now aware of the problem, and the rest of the world is too. The trial revealed power’s disproportionate reaction. It showed that our government lacks the wisdom to respond in a decent manner.

Published by my.firedoglake.com translated from original french.

Pussy Riot the story so far

November 3, 2012

Three members of Pussy Riot sentenced in a Stalin-era show trial for a protest in Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, what was at worst a misdemeanour. One has been released on appeal, the remaining two sent to penal colonies, the modern-day equivalent of Gulags.

A conventional demonstration, a march, is very easy to put down. What is far, far harder to deal with is creative protest. We have seen this in the UK with UK Uncut. Had they held a protest outside Vodafone HQ it would have had zero impact. Instead they occupied Vodafone shops and connected with consumers who were none too happy on learning of their tax dodging and many asked to join in the occupation.

Trade Unions having a mass demo, a local Amnesty group standing in the street and collecting a handful of signatures on a petition, no longer works.

That is why Pussy Riot have been so successful. The reaction of the system was to put them in prison, even though the worst that should have happened was a slap on the wrist or a token fine, has spectacular backfired, not a day goes by without some event taking place in support of Pussy Riot. Vladimir Putin cannot appear anywhere on the world stage without being questioned about Pussy Riot.

Yes, we need to worry about the two girls held in penal colonies, but what we need to be even more concerned with is the crackdown on opposition, the assassination of critics, the arrest of opposition leaders, the blocking of internet sites.

This video has arisen out of a ‘Pussy Riot in Parliament‘ event held in the Houses of Parliament, organised by MP Kerry McCarthy (15 October 2012).

The proceedings focused on readings of the three defendants’ closing statements & was followed by a panel discussion on the Pussy Riot case and, more broadly, the role of the arts in political protest.

The panel discussion was chaired by Louder Than War boss John Robb & featured Joan Smith (novelist, journalist, and human rights campaigner); Dorian Lynskey, (author of 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs); and Chris Bryant, (MP for Rhondda).

During the evening a film crew started making a film about Pussy Riot. The film has now been completed & features the Pussy Riot women themselves (and, of course, their music) interspersed with input from all the panelists & especially Kerry McCarthy herself as she has a unique insight into the case as she not only attended part of the trial but also met some of the members of Pussy Riot.

The video, made by Max Vegliois & Moe Ahmed, has just been completed & Louder Than War, who were one of the first places in the UK to cover Pussy Riot’s case, have been granted an exclusive on it.

Accompanying the video come these notes:

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, two members of the punk collective Pussy Riot have been sent to remote prison camps to serve their sentences.

Both were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for performing a punk prayer at Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow.

They will now serve the rest of their terms in the camps where conditions are reportedly terrible.

Kerry McCarthy MP, Dorian Lynskey, Joan Smith and John Robb recount Pussy Riot’s remarkable rise.

With thanks to:
Kerry McCarthy, Labour Member of Parliament – @KerryMP
Dorian Lynskey, Guardian Music Writer – @Dorianlynskey
Joan Smith, Author and Columnist – @polblonde
John Robb, Musician and Writer – @johnrobb77

Producer/ Director: Mohammed Ahmed – @mohammedahmed41
Producer/Director: Max Veglio – @maxveglio
Editor: Nick Lewis
Graphics Designer: Robin Littlewood