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What you should know about Pussy Riot

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Free Pussy Riot. The phrase has bounced around the media, from celebrity Twitter accounts to broadsheet newspapers. Pussy Riot are, loosely, a Russian activist collective and a punk band. They have a strong feminist bent, but their main concern is the lack of political freedom in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Today (17 August 2012) three members of Pussy Riot were found guilty in a Russian court of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in prison.

The women had performed a “punk prayer”, asking for President Putin to be put away and for the Virgin Mary to become a feminist, in Moscow’s biggest cathedral back in February. No services were taking place at the time. No one was physically harmed and no property was damaged. They were arrested shortly afterwards and were held without trial for almost six months. They have been denied access to their families despite two of the three having small children. (You can watch a video of the protest on YouTube.)

Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda (Nadia) Tolokonnikova, 22, and Ekaterina Samutsevitch, 30, are now being called “prisoners of conscious” by the human rights charity Amnesty International. “Pussy Riot's 'punk prayer' and anarchist lyrics might not be everyone's cup of tea,” say Amnesty. “But the Russian authorities' enthusiasm to silence, harass and detain the women is an indisputable violation of their right to free speech.”

Pussy Riot chose to perform the protest in the Christ the Saviour cathedral to highlight how closely the Russian Orthodox Church is tied to the state and to force a discussion about the corruption of both institutions. The protesters wore their trademark look of brightly coloured dresses, tights and woollen balaclavas. Their relative anonymity means that almost anyone could join Pussy Riot: even if all the founding members were ever arrested their protests could continue unhindered. The ultra-feminine nature of their costumes also draws a direct contrast with President Putin’s ultra-masculine guns-and-hunting image.

Bjork, performing in Helsinki earlier this week, dedicated her song Declare Independence to Pussy Riot, asking the audience to “sing along and all wish for freedom of speech.” Madonna, playing in Moscow last week, stated the three had “done something courageous” and appealed for their freedom. Canadian musician Peaches released a single, Free Pussy Riot, featuring Kate Nash, the Knife, the Hives, Lykkie Li and members of Cheap Trick, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Le Tigre, Eagles of Death Metal and MC5.

Despite huge amounts of support in the West the group lack popular support in their homeland, interpreting the stunt as disrespectful to the Russian Orthodox faith (For more on Russian reactions and feminism read this piece by Valeria Costa-Kostritsky on the Open Democracy website).

The three women made a stand for what they believe in and have been arrested, held without trial and imprisoned for two years for protesting for a total of 51 seconds.

Keep saying it. Free Pussy Riot.

Picture credit: Rex Features

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