Pussy Riot, the Russian punk feminist group that gained international fame in the summer of 2012 when three of its members were prosecuted for a protest in Moscow's main cathedral, is back in the news: "rioters" Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were freed in a federal amnesty in late December, some three months short of completing their two-year sentence for "criminal hooliganism." (Their co-defendant Ekaterina Samutsevich was paroled in October 2012.) Their release concludes the controversial legal case. But it is hardly the end of the women's extraordinary personal and political saga, which has taken on a life of its own—and may yet breathe new life into the barren landscape of Russian politics under Vladimir Putin.
With their provocative name and equally provocative tactics, Pussy Riot have drawn mixed reactions even from people who have no love for Putin's authoritarian regime. Many Russians in the opposition camp found the group's anti-Putin "punk prayer" in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior offensive (though they also regarded the women's criminal prosecution as an absurd overreaction). In the West, Pussy Riot's cause was championed by numerous entertainers and activists; the women received Yoko Ono's 2012 LennonOno Peace Grant and were finalists for the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Yet some American and European conservative commentators took a much less favorable view, seeing the group's actions as an obscene attack on religion. In a recent article on Reason.com, Zenon Evans cautions that Pussy Riot are more likely to discredit than help the cause of freedom in Russia; he points to their declarations of "Trotskyite" and anti-capitalist beliefs, as well as their past involvement in a radical art collective, Voina (War), whose protests involved vandalism and public lewdness.
There is no question that the women's history has some unsavory moments. Notably, in 2008, then 18-year-old Tolokonnikova took part in a bizarre Voina stunt in which several activists protested the upcoming election of Putin placeholder Dmitry Medvedev by stripping naked in Moscow's Museum of Biology and engaging in (likely simulated) sex under a banner that mocked "the heir." (No visitors or staffers witnessed this "orgy," photos and a video of which were later posted online.)
The "punk prayer" itself, with its coarse language and brash dancing on the altar steps, was certainly disrespectful and disorderly. However, contrary to some claims, no service was disrupted; the cathedral was nearly empty, and the church employees who later claimed to have been greatly traumatized by the women's performance did not even bother to call the police but simply escorted the offenders outside. They were arrested nearly two weeks later in the wake of media publicity.
It is also fairly clear that Pussy Riot's target was not religion but the unholy union of servile church and repressive state. Their protest was a response to sycophantic statements by Russian Orthodox Church leaders—and specifically its head, Patriarch Kirill—praising Putin as almost literally God's gift to Russia and criticizing anti-Kremlin demonstrators as troublemakers with "petty" concerns. The women's song included not only the famous plea to the Virgin Mary to "drive out Putin" but a scathing indictment of the church leadership—"A KGB colonel is their chief saint!"—and an exhortation to the Patriarch to "believe in God" instead of Putin.
In fact, during their trial, Pussy Riot had many supporters who were devout Orthodox Christians—including some who had practiced their faith under Communism, at the risk of social ostracism if not outright persecution. Among them was the late Natalia Gorbanevskaya, a Soviet-era political prisoner, who said in an August 2012 radio interview that "any sentence for Pussy Riot would be unjust." Blogger and activist Alexei Navalny, who initially had some harsh words for the protest in the cathedral—his first blogpost on the subject referred to Pussy Riot as "loony girls" and publicity-hungry "morons"—not only denounced the women's prosecution as vindictive and un-Christian but came to the courtroom to stand in solidarity. In his August 17, 2012 post on the sentencing, he called the judges "devils in judicial robes" and praised the young women's courage: "It's probably not polite to say this about feminists, but I could see that they manfully bore their unjust and unlawful sentence."
The women's behavior at the trial (where they had to sit in an unventilated glass-and-metal cage on hot summer days) helped win over many skeptics. Tolokonnikova, a philosophy student, drew particularly high praise for her closing statement in which she emphasized the group's rebellion against a repressive regime. "We are freer than the people sitting across from us on the prosecution's side, because we can say anything we want, and we do say anything we want—but those people over there can only say what political censorship allows them to say," she told the court. "Katya and Masha and I are in prison, in a cage, but I don't believe we have been defeated, just like [Soviet] dissidents were not defeated: even when they disappeared into psychiatric hospitals and prisons, they passed sentence on the regime."
The women's time in penal colonies inspired their new cause: prisoners' rights. Russian labor camps today may be a far cry from the Stalin-era gulags where privations and backbreaking labor often meant a death sentence—but maltreatment is still the norm. Last September, Tolokonnikova went on a nine-day hunger strike to protest conditions at the colony, which she described in a harrowing open letter. Inmates, she wrote—including women in poor health—were forced to work 16-hour days sewing uniforms; those who failed to meet their quotas were punished with beatings, exposure to cold, and denial of food and "hygiene privileges" (i.e. permission to use the toilet or wash). Her own punishment for speaking out was a transfer to a Siberian camp with even harsher conditions, thousands of miles from her family.
At the time, Pussy Riot supporters worried that the authorities would find a way to keep the women incarcerated even after they had served their sentence. Instead, most likely thanks to the Sochi Olympics and Putin's scramble for positive publicity, they were granted early release as part of Russia's customary amnesty for the winter holidays. This time, the amnesty applied to women with young children serving sentences for non-violent crimes, a category some speculated had been specifically tailored to Pussy Riot. (Tolokonnikova, married to fellow Voina alum Pyotr Verzilov, is the mother of a four-year-old girl; Alyokhina has a five-year-old son with her common-law husband.)
The duo's conduct after their release has continued to earn them high marks. (Samutsevich has kept a low profile, perhaps because she is still on parole until March and, theoretically, could be sent back to prison for stepping out of line.) At their first press conference in Moscow on December 23, they looked poised and graceful in stylish clothes and makeup—quite a contrast to the former image of angry young women sporting a clenched-fist logo on a T-shirt. The fact that the women's first move after their release was not to reunite with their children but to meet with each other and strategize caused a flurry of controversy in the Russian social media. However, at the press conference, Tolokonnikova deftly defused the issue by saying that they had never wanted to "hide behind their children" in seeking clemency—and pointing out that this would not have been made as much of an issue for male activists.
While the women said that they would not have performed the "punk prayer" today, they also said that they had no regrets. "They call us provocateurs. We are indeed provocateurs—but that word should not be treated as something unprintable," said Alyokhina. Tolokonnikova told journalists that she had chosen "action art" as her political outlet because, in Russia, "traditional political activism by the opposition is doomed to be silenced."
Their main focus, however, was on prisoners' issues: they announced the creation of a new human rights organization to advocate for and aid prisoners, The Law Zone (Zona Prava, which can also be translated as "Zone of Rights" and plays on the Russian slang meaning of "zone" as a synonym for prison camps). The project will be financed through crowdfunding as well as individual donations; it has been joined by Navalny—who asserted in a Twitter post last November than "Tolokonnikova has done more to draw attention to the issue of prisoners' rights than a whole bunch of human rights activists did in several years"—and several other prominent activists. They also made it plain that they were not planning to capitalize on the Pussy Riot "brand" or to perform, stressing that "we are not Pussy Riot at the moment." They do, however, still want Putin driven out—by the Virgin or by more human means.
Writing in the liberal Gazeta.ru, Russian commentator Boris Falikov noted that after Tolokonnikova's and Alyokhina's press conference, "well-wishers began to say that the girls finally grew up and started doing real work." Yet Falikov argued that to treat the women's "scandalous" history as an youthful aberration was a fundamental misunderstanding: their new activism was a logical, if more presentable, continuation of their "action art."
Falikov—a scholar specializing in the history of religion—also rejects the view of the cathedral protest as valueless petty mischief. He argues (as I did in my own articles on the subject in late 2012) that the "punk prayer" helped shine a sharp light on the pernicious entanglement of church and state in post-Soviet Russia, a situation that both threatens freedom and corrupts religion.
Pussy Riot's swipes at capitalism and "phallic power" in their young and reckless days did have obnoxious overtones of Western-style left-wing radicalism; yet they also come across as flights of immature rhetoric more than actual ideology. Tolokonnikova's September 2012 interview in the German magazine Spiegel—in which she reiterates a vague anti-capitalism but also stresses her pro-Western outlook, explaining that she and her fellow activists criticize "the shortcomings of consumer society" without seeking to destroy it—certainly shows evidence of muddled thinking. But it is also true that her focus is not on economics: it is on freedom and its challenge to the authoritarian state. At any rate, these feminist radicals show no animus toward either capitalists or males. They have spoken with warm enthusiasm of the imprisoned tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who sent them a message of support during their trial (and whose release closely preceded their own), and invoked as their role models conservative men like the late novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky.
The group's critics have pointed out that Pussy Riot found relatively little backing among Russians after their protest at the cathedral: in one 2012 poll, only 10 percent said they deserved no punishment (though another 30 percent believed their sentence was too harsh). It's hard to tell exactly what these numbers mean: even many outspoken Pussy Riot supporters, such as Navalny, felt that their stunt warranted a fine or a brief detention. The fact that 40 percent of Russians disagreed with the government's harsh treatment of the women despite their relentless vilification in the state-controlled media may be seen as something of a victory.
Today, with their cleaned-up image and their activism for the rights of prisoners and defendants, the former Pussy Rioters stand to gain far more sympathy: under Russia's corrupt, arbitrary law enforcement and court system, unjust arrest and imprisonment are common fears. Falikov notes that such activism can also be a gateway to wider advocacy of civil across Russian society.
With their fame, their obvious media savvy, their street cred as women who have "manfully" endured brutal persecution, and their advocacy for society's weakest and least glamorous, these women may yet become breakthrough leaders in pro-freedom—and pro-feminist—activism in Russia. Pussy Riot is dead; long live Pussy Riot.
This article originally appeared on Real Clear Politics.