Putin vs. Punk

The international politics of Pussy Riot.


Credit:Reason Magazine

On February 21, four masked Russian women walked into Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior Church and sang-shouted a song called "Punk Prayer." The lyrics include "Saint Maria, drive Putin away!" and "Holy shit, Lord's shit." The performance by the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot lasted under a minute, but a few weeks later Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." The women claimed they were protesting the Orthodox Church's coziness with the state, which did little to endear them to their fellow citizens.

But to people outside conservative Russia, Pussy Riot quickly became a cause célèbre, winning backing from such famed musicians as Paul McCartney and Madonna. In the months before their summer trial, solidarity protesters in bright balaclavas popped up from Iceland to D.C. Even Russian president Vladimir Putin bowed to international pressure enough to say he didn't think the women "should be judged so harshly for this."

On August 17, three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison. Meanwhile, Russian protesters who backed the women face much more daunting prison terms—in one case, up to 10 years for "mass disorder" and alleged assault on a police officer—without international attention and celebrity endorsements.