Pussy Riot for the 99 percent

Alexander Billet reports on the growing campaign to free jailed Russian feminist punk rock collective Pussy Riot.

Members of Pussy Riot perform in MoscowMembers of Pussy Riot perform in Moscow

WHEN YOU'RE in a hole, you stop digging. Even if this weren't a cliché by now, it would still be common sense. Does this mean, then, that Vladimir Putin and the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church lack basic reasoning skills? The decision to extend Pussy Riot's stay in prison certainly seems to proves it so.

In roughly five months, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alokhina--three feminist activists accused of storming the altar of Christ the Savior Cathedral during Pussy Riot's "Punk Prayer"--have become a global cause célèbre.

It's not an exaggeration to say that most of the young people forming the core of the Occupy-Indignado generation know about the band and support the three women. Benefit gigs and actions in front of Russian consulates and embassies have become commonplace from LA to Prague to Tokyo.

As Pussy Riot's profile has grown, so has the level of embarrassment for the Russian state. All of the Putin regime's least savory characteristics are encapsulated in the Pussy Riot case: the disregard for democracy and civil liberties, the nepotistic coziness with the Orthodox Church, the willingness to sink to any low in order to silence his political opponents.

Given all of this, it seems that the smart thing to do, the reasonable thing to do, would be to simply let Alokhina, Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich go. Hit them with a fine, cut the government's losses, and live to fight another spineless fight another spineless day.

The court that heard their case on July 20 didn't think this the best move. Instead, the judge decided that, with still no word on when the actual trial will start, the three women will remain in a Moscow jail for at least the next six months, until at least January 2013. For singing a song.

The rationale of the court was so stupid as to cause nosebleeds. According to prosecutors, the three women cannot be released because they are somehow to blame for a fatal anti-Muslim assassination and car-bombing that took place in the region of Tartarstan the day before.

"[The prosecutors] believe that the recent murder of the Mufti [Valiulla Yakupov] was provoked by the actions of the defendants, which is why they must remain in custody," said the women's defense attorney Violetta Volkova. The women are charged with "inciting religious hatred."

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WITHIN JUST a few days, the backlash against the courts was intense. Attorneys for the Pussy Riot three have gone on the offensive, demanding the court call both Patriarch Kirill and Putin himself as witnesses.

Alokhina, Samutsevich and Tolokonnikova are reportedly on hunger strike in protest. The morning of the court hearing, a fresh spate of protest developed outside of the courthouse.

The last time the Pussy Riot three's stay in jail was extended (in late June), it led to a large increase in awareness of their case. Amnesty International had already declared them "prisoners of conscience," Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys had already DJ'ed at a benefit for them.

Within days of the June 20th announcement, though, Anti-Flag had recorded and released a cover version of the "Punk Prayer" online for free. Faith No More, during their Moscow show, brought members of Pussy Riot on stage and publicly declared their own support.

A Paris art display was thrown together and unveiled dedicated to the group. Red Hot Chili Peppers' Anthony Kiedis recently performed wearing a homemade Pussy Riot T-shirt, and the whole band has sent personal messages to the women in jail. Franz Ferdinand's members have also spoken out during their own shows.

The support for Pussy Riot among musicians and artists isn't coming out of nowhere. The same day as their most recent day in court, a poll was released from the Levada Center, a sociological research NGO.

The poll revealed that 50 percent of Moscow residents believe the three women should be released, while 36 percent supported prosecution. Meanwhile, Putin's approval ratings in Moscow have dropped to 38 percent.

This, in the context of global dissatisfaction against the status quo--a dissatisfaction that is swiftly finding expression in every city--is not good news for any leader, be they an Obama or a Putin.

This past winter, in the wake of elections rightfully seen as rigged, those cities grew to include Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and others. One would think that the wise thing to do would be to pretend everything's gone back to normal, but now, Pussy Riot's public profile has virtually backed Putin into a corner.

If the charges are dropped, the government looks weak. Even if they succeed in jailing the three women, they run the risk of further inflaming public protest.

It's become so obvious that even those in Putin's own camp are publicly voicing concern. Andrey Kuraev, an Orthodox priest and well-known blogger, recently stated that the continued detention of Pussy Riot "only boosts the number of those sympathizing with them and gives weight to the critics of the Church, who point to it as one of the drivers of the prosecution."

Dig up, Vladdy. Dig up.