If you look only to the newspapers of recent months, Russia in 2012 seems like a kind of fucked up place. St. Petersburg legislated a ban on what it vaguely referred to as “homosexual propaganda.” Moscow courts effectively banned gay pride parades for the next 100 years. A handful of Russian concert attendees are suing Madonna for actively supporting gay rights. Yet the current Russian controversy that has garnered the most international attention focuses on Pussy Riot, a punk rock outfit that is unapologetically confrontational, feminist, and political.

Who the hell is Pussy Riot, and why are they suddenly generating so much buzz in the online world? Merging the tradition of performance art with that of public protest the group is known for staging guerrilla-style performances as a means of expression, provocation, and ideally, mobilization.

It was one such performance earlier this year that raised the attention of the Russian government. In January, Pussy Riot staged an anti-Putin performance inside of Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Christ the Savior Cathedral. The song that they barely performed has alternately been referred to as “Mother of God, Put Putin Away” and “Madonna, Put Putin Away.” (given Madonna Ciccone’s recent support of the group, I prefer the latter. But I digress.) And of course, the video made it to YouTube:

http://youtu.be/76172ha6GDk

On the eve of the Russian Presidential election, two members of Pussy Riot were arrested (Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova), while a third (Yekaterina Samutsevich)  was arrested the following week, eventually to be charged with “hooliganism.” While they sat in jail, their appeals were consistently denied, they were threatened with losing custody rights to their children, Alyokhina’s family received death threats, and their bail was denied. As international media attention grew throughout the late spring and into the summer, the imprisoned members initiated a hunger strike while they awaited trial.

In late July, the trial finally began, allegedly riddled with procedural violations. Defense witnesses were not admitted; the prosecution’s “witnesses” witnessed the event on tv; the presiding judge had previously never sat for a felony trial; journalists were physically and verbally confronted, threatened, and driven out of the courtroom by court marshals. The jury delivered a guilty verdict on August 7, followed by sentencing each of the three Pussy Riot members to two years in prison camp. Appeals are pending.

In the wake of these events, the remaining members of Pussy Riot (who incidentally, are currently being hunted by police) issued a new single, “Putin Lights Up the Fires.” Although it doesn’t directly address the trial or sentencing of their bandmates, the song certainly carries on the group’s straightforward confrontation with the Russian political system.

PUSSY RIOT “Putin Lights Up the Fires” lyrics:
(translation credit: @Russian_Market)

This state may be stronger than time in jail.

The more arrests, the happier it is.
Every arrest is carried out with love for the sexist

Who botoxed his cheeks and pumped his chest and abs.

But you can’t nail us in the coffin.
Throw off the yoke of former KGB!

Putin is lighting the fires of revolution
He’s bored and scared of sharing silence with the people
With every execution: the stench of rotten ash
With every long sentence: a wet dream

The country is going, the country is going into the streets boldly
The country is going, the country is going to bid farewell to the regime
The country is going, the country is going, like a feminist wedge
And Putin is going, Putin is going to say goodbye like a sheep

Arrest the whole city for May 6th
Seven years isn’t enough, give us 18!
Forbid us to scream, walk and curse!
Go and marry Father Lukashenko

It will at the very least be interesting to watch the rest of this saga unfold. In a way, Pussy Riot’s arrest and subsequent media attention have been a boon to their mission. As Samutsevich put it, “Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated.”

On an even broader view however, the arrest and sentencing of three Pussy Riot members has helped to accomplish exactly what the band itself set out to do through its music and performances: to draw attention to the what the group views as a corrupt political system in Russia. In fact, the arrest and trial has brought more attention to the matter than Pussy Riot could ever have accomplished on their own. Seriously. Ask yourself, “Before today, when was the last time that I listened to a song protesting the misogynist Russian government?”

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