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April 16, 2024

Pussy Riot affair displays struggle for freedom

By AISHWARYA RAJE | December 6, 2012

It has been a bit over three months since the world was formally introduced to the Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot. Based on its bold band name alone, one might easily infer that this is a somewhat provocative, feminist group. When Pussy Riot made headlines across the globe, however, it was mostly labeled as an anti-Putin group. Ever since Vladimir Putin began his third term as president of Russia this past May, the country has seen some of the largest demonstrations against the government in its history. Russian citizens called for a more open and equal society, a movement that had become relatively quiet after the controversial arrest of the members of Pussy Riot.

On Feb. 21, 2012, Pussy Riot organized a performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Known as the most religiously symbolic site in Russia, the cathedral has a great deal of significance to the nation. When Pussy Riot began performing, church security officials quickly escorted them off stage since the music was deemed as highly inappropriate, and later labeled as a “blasphemy” by Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In their song, the group condemned the Church’s support of the re-election of Putin and was meant to be a protest against his regime. Three members of the group – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich – were known as the more outspoken and socially active of the approximately eleven woman band. They were also the only three women to be taken into police custody that day on accounts of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

Russia has long struggled with ensuring civil liberties for its citizens, dating back to Soviet-era Communist rule to the present-day Putin administration. According to several human rights organizations, such as the International Federation for Human Rights and the Committee to Protect Journalists, the lack of freedom of speech and press have been the most significant reasons why Russia cannot be considered a free state and is not quite on the path to democracy.

The claim that the women of Pussy Riot were arrested for insulting the dominant religion of Russia is seen as a cover-up for the real reason – repressing the voices of anyone opposed to the Putin government. Though the conviction of the members of Pussy Riot caused outrage throughout the Western world, the outcome of the trial should not come as a surprise. After performing a song that states “Mother Mary, please drive Putin away” in one of Russia’s most important sites of worship, it would be naïve to think that the women would be able to leave uncontested.

Since the anti-Putin demonstrations began in Russia this year, Putin has created stricter laws to crack down on any dissent and restrict unsanctioned public gatherings. Some even see the arrest of Pussy Riot to be a way for Putin to send a message to the country, warning them that any opposition towards the government will not be tolerated.

During the past three months in which protestors from around the globe have been calling for the release of the members of Pussy Riot, the federal courts have been unwavering in their decision. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Putin have both publicly stated that they do not believe the singers should have received such a harsh punishment, and that the final decision is left to the court.

However, if the judicial system is not completely independent from the executive branch, it is possible that the president can have considerable influence over the court’s decision. The reason this is unclear is because Putin has greatly reduced the level of transparency, meaning there is less openness between the government and the people. The lack of communication and participation of the people with their government is a reason why Putin is more of an authoritarian leader rather than a progressive president.

About a month ago, one member of the group, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released from prison upon successful appeal by her attorney. Two other members, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, are still currently serving their sentences in remote prisons, and it seems unlikely that their prison terms will be truncated any time soon.

Even if you do not like Pussy Riot’s music or disagree with their actions, it is important to recognize that this group of women was punished for wanting the freedom they believe they deserve. It is unknown whether the Pussy Riot controversy will affect the future of Russian politics, but for now it is an indication of how far Russia has yet to go to become a free nation. Prime Minister Medvedev and President Putin have both publicly stated that they do not believe the singers should have received such a harsh punishment and that the final decision is left to the court.

However, if the judicial system is not completely independent from the executive branch, it is possible that the president can have considerable influence over the court’s decision.  The reason this is unclear is because Putin has greatly reduced the level of transparency, meaning there is less openness between the government and the people.  The lack of communication and participation of the people with their government is a reason why Putin is more of an authoritarian leader rather than a progressive president.

About a month ago, Yekaterina Samutsevich was released from prison upon successful appeal by her attorney.  Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are still currently serving their sentences in remote prisons, and it seems unlikely that their prison terms will be truncated any time soon.  Even if you do not like Pussy Riot’s music or disagree with their actions, it is important to recognize that this group of women was punished for wanting the freedom they believe they deserve.

It is unknown whether the Pussy Riot controversy will affect the future of Russian politics, but for now it is an indication of how far Russia has yet to go to become a free nation.

 Aishwarya Raje is a freshman Economics major from Princeton, N.J.

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