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Drive Putin Away
Drive Putin Away

Supporters of the band hit the streets. Picture: AFP

With these words Russian feminist punksters Pussy Riot challenged the very heart of Russian power, and are now paying the price.

They famously performed in Moscow’s holiest cathedral in February, in a direct attack on the Russian Orthodox Church’s open support for President Putin in the last election. The video clip of their performance went global, but what gave them international notoriety was what happened next. 

President Putin hit back, and the three Pussy Riot members were arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism”, in a case viewed by many as purely political.

Last month in Russia, reporting for SBS’s Dateline program, I met with Violetta Volkova who was, until yesterday, one of the girls’ main lawyers. She told me they’ve admitted to what they called an ethical error, but say they committed no crime.

I joined Violetta as she went to see the girls in a grim remand centre on the edge of Moscow. Unless there is a breakthrough in their appeal soon they’re due to be shifted to prison in what is called here a ‘penal colony’ on the edge Russia, where they fear their safety could be in danger.

Violetta told me that the girls could apply for presidential clemency, but they prefer captivity to losing their self-respect.

Pussy Riot has certainly grabbed international headlines, but there are other opposition activists facing similar pressure who we haven’t heard about, part of Russia’s growing wave of discontent against the President. 

Authorities were hoping the jailing of Pussy Riot would send a message to Putin’s vocal opponents: step out of line and you will be punished. But, undeterred by their fate, many protesters spoke to me about their calls for change, and the persecution they’ve suffered as a result.

Last winter protesters against Putin took to the streets with marches. Sergei Fomchenkov, a key organiser of the communist Other Russia party told me that while they can march (with permission), the government refuses to allow the party to register so they’re excluded from any real political role. He said party activists are constantly harassed by the state, and alleges his wife has been targeted because of his activities. 

Last month, Sergei’s wife, Taisiya, was sentenced to eight years in jail on charges of drug dealing after police allegedly found heroin during a search of her home. She claims the drugs were planted because she refused to give evidence against her husband. The sentence was double what prosecutors had demanded.

Taisiya suffers from acute diabetes and given her condition, her lawyers and her husband fear her eight year sentence is paramount to the death penalty. They believe the case is a glaring example of state persecution, and that political motives - her husband’s activities - were the real reason she was charged.

Ilya Yashin is one a new generation of Russians fighting what they see as a return to authoritarian repression. A leading activist in the liberal democratic movement Solidarnost, he’s already spent weeks in prison and faces more criminal charges. He told me that he just wanted to live in a normal, free country, but each year the screws of the political regime get tighter, and the more people become unhappy with the regime, the harsher its reaction gets.

“Putin is not an idiot. We have fresh historical examples before our eyes where regimes have fallen like houses of cards in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, the current civil war in Syria. Putin knows all too well that this apparent monolith of power can break into tiny shards like a piece of china,” he told me.

But the state’s heavy-handed response to Pussy Riot’s punk performances has achieved more than the girls could ever have dreamt: galvanizing the opposition movement, with a mixture of political protest and artistic expression.

In a dilapidated Moscow building, I met a young artist planning a controversial exhibition, inspired by the band’s treatment. The gallery owner is going to put the works on show, knowing that he risks angering those in power.

“Yes, because in today’s Russia artists society have to take some civil position and they have to speak out do they want to go back to the times when we were told what length of skirts to wear, what length of hair, what songs are good, what songs are bad, what books you should read. I think artists society should take a position,” he said.

Pussy Riot’s actions have already prompted many to think about today’s Russia and despite an increasingly harsh crackdown, it seems the protesters refuse to be silenced.

Evan Williams is a video journalist for SBS’s Dateline program. His report, ‘Punked!’, is on is on Dateline tonight, 9.30pm on SBS ONE

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20 comments

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    • Sage says:

      03:47pm | 02/10/12

      Their incarceration is completely justified.  Don’t want to be jailed like a criminal? Don’t behave like one.

    • FlyOnTheWall says:

      04:04pm | 02/10/12

      Well Julia Gillard might want them put away, too… I mean she did say to the UN that denigration of any religion is never acceptable. I can only assume she agrees with gaoling these girls.

    • Dan says:

      04:13pm | 02/10/12

      but Sage - they are pretty girls. Pretty girls shouldn’t go to jail…its always so tragic. See media teeth nashing Re Michelle Leslie, Schapelle Corby etc.

      Most Russians agree that Pussy Riot deserved jail. Not for protesting Putin but for desecrating a holy site in a country where religion has been persecuted for nearly a century. If Russians want it to happen then who are we to tell them different. It is their country after all.

    • Rhino says:

      04:27pm | 02/10/12

      Because signing a song in a church calling your president a meglomanic is a behaving like criminal hooligan…

      Not sure what planet you reside on Sage, but being a hooligan usually involves more than singing a song, a lot more. Care to expand on how Pussy Riot are hooligans?

    • Tim the Toolman says:

      04:39pm | 02/10/12

      “Don’t want to be jailed like a criminal?”

      One wonders why we have such a tolerance for stupidity and willful ignorance and such intolerance for things like blasphemy.

    • PsychoHyena says:

      04:43pm | 02/10/12

      @Sage I’m sorry, but wtf? How many rights have people obtained through the act of protest? If we were to take your approach Sage then we could see a large number of people in Australia jailed for very similar reasons.

      Hooliganism is a term used in law to catch anything that does not fall under a specific category and can be used quite liberally, to take a recent example, Alan Jones (under the Russian definition of hooliganism as applied to Pussy Riot) could be jailed for his comments.

    • neo says:

      04:54pm | 02/10/12

      TBH, it is to be expected from a bunch of rebellious young girls trying to create hype for their band.

      The person who should be jailed is the mongrel who allowed the concert to take place inside a Church. Time and place for everything.

    • Tubesteak says:

      04:52pm | 02/10/12

      If only stupidity and ignorance were crimes, too….

    • Adam R says:

      03:49pm | 02/10/12

      There are many different ways in which you can protest. This has got to be the most insulting way to go about it. It would be like going to the wailing wall and peeing on it to make a point. Or graffiting the Wall of remembrance in the Australian War memorial.

      What they did is wrong. I don’t condone what Putin has done, but there are a million other ways you can protest. They took a root that will give Putin some legitimacy in putting those laws in. I don’t think most people outside Russia see it but almost half do.

      What do you expect when you go on private property and desecrate a holy place?

      Freedom of speech allows you to speak your mind and not be punished, it doesn’t and shouldn’t allow for you to do the kind of things Pussy Riot have been doing.

    • Tim the Toolman says:

      04:38pm | 02/10/12

      “This has got to be the most insulting way to go about it.”

      I can think of ways of protesting that you presumably cannot imagine if you think this is the most insulting way to go about it.  This is one step past writing a sternly worded letter to the editor, which I suspect you would tut-tut as well.

    • neo says:

      04:43pm | 02/10/12

      I agree, it’s pretty insulting to speak blasphemy inside a holy place. I don’t think the girls are to blame though, they only did what the concert organisers arranged. They are the people who deserve to be thrown in jail.

    • HC says:

      04:45pm | 02/10/12

      Except increasingly in Russia freedom of speech only applies to people who agree with or support Putin.

      Regardless of the tactics used by a couple of silly girls that can not be allowed to continue can it?  There is a legitimate concern there and everybody seems to conveniently ignore the bigger problem in Russia.  A few hooligans is not a problem compared to the continued loss of freedoms.

      Mind you I think most of the people saying pointing at these girls and saying “Criminal” or “Saint” are themselves pretty one-eyed so I guess it should come as no surprise that people in general despise dissenting opinions in their political discourse.

      Modern Politics: freedom of speech for everyone who agrees with me and prison and/or threats, insults and death for everyone who doesn’t.  No sensible in-between allowed.

    • maria says:

      03:53pm | 02/10/12

      Pussy Riot challenged the very heart of Russian power, and are now paying the price.

      Do you know any australians who will challenge the very heart of our politocracy or the poltical party absolute power similar to the russian one (the mafiacracy)?????

      Once we have voted , we are irrelevant in every decisions.

      Can you spot the difference because I can’t.

    • Adam R says:

      04:36pm | 02/10/12

      The difference is you get charged with offending people when you write an opinion piece and have to pay.

      Freedom of speech is used with a ‘but’ at the end. We shouldn’t have laws against hate speeches, or people taking offence, they’re subjective statements and every court case that curbs a discussion in that way creates a culture in journalism where it’s not even discussed.

      Has anyone heard about the complexity of Aboriginal welfare since the Bolt decision?

      It’s a fickle thing now. As long as you’re making decisions with ‘good intentions’ it somehow justifies the collateral. The truth is good intentions don’t mean squat.

    • sunny says:

      05:20pm | 02/10/12

      “Do you know any australians who will challenge the very heart of our politocracy or the poltical party absolute power similar to the russian one”

      The Russians gave the Tsar a red boot up the arse in 1917 and it was probably a good thing, but to then let a dozen other more ruthless tsars - including Stalin - step into his shoes over the following 50 years made it all a bit pointless and kind of got them back to square one or worse. That totalitarian style of regime, and even the one in present day Russia,  would quite simply not be tolerated here in Australia. That’s what I love about this country.  Australians went overseas and gave their lives for other people’s causes, they sure as hell would die for their full rights if ever it ever came to that here on Australian soil.

      “Once we have voted , we are irrelevant in every decisions.”

      Our government is 100% transparent. They work for us and are fully accountable, they don’t rule over us like tsars! Freedom of speech is crucial.

    • Nick says:

      05:08pm | 02/10/12

      ALAN Jones must apologise on air for a racist rant where he called Sydney’s Lebanese Muslims “vermin” who “infest our shores” and “rape” and “pillage” our nation, having failed in an appeal.

      Have we learnt anything from Pauline Hanson, we can’t touch the establisment and we can’t say what we think about the establisment.

      If You believe in democracy and want freedom to be the heart and soul of our system than fight for it and direct democracy is the only answer to protect it.

      Democracy means power to the people without any preferences as it is under our phoney system.

    • marley says:

      07:02pm | 02/10/12

      @Nick - well, actually, direct democracy means that people like me get to say that people like Jones should be penalised for those sort of ratbag arguments. 

      I find it amusing that the supporters of direct democracy always seem to assume that the majority agree with them.  Why?  And what happens when the majority say, nope, stuff it, don’t agree at all.  That’s when you’ll start to argue for proportional representation.

    • Chris says:

      06:00pm | 02/10/12

      You liberals and revolutionaries who want to see Pussy Riot released should go to Russia and agitate for change. You might even decide you want to stay in Russia. The Russians love being told what to do, especially by smug westerners, and have a long history of tolerating dissent.
      Of course, you can’t just cherry-pick the trendy and famous cases. If you do go and agitate on behalf of a pop group, you also have to do it for all political prisoners in Russia, China and (insert name of your favourite repressive dictatorship). And when you get back from your World Tour to End Injustice Everywhere, you can start on world hunger. A Facebook page and a few twitterers should do it.

    • Dave C says:

      06:44pm | 02/10/12

      Its not what they did but where they did it. I agree Putin needs to be stopped he has put controls on power (except his own) for everyone and anyone who opposes him seems to have something nasty happen to them.

      But his mob managed to score an own goal in the fight against Putin.

      You see after the Bolsheviks took power they banned the church and many religious leaders (amongst many others) were killed, Churches were vandalised trashed or destroyed. 

      Now those who are church members now remember this and when they see this group vandalising and trashing a church it only brings back memories of Stalinist totalitarian rule, of course Putin then saw this outrage by members of the church to punish the group.

      Its ironic isnt it, the Group were trying to highlight totalitarian rule of Putin by committing an act which reminds everyone of another type of totalitarian rule. which only lead to the enforcement of the rule they were trying to highlight in the first place.

    • Michael R says:

      06:54pm | 02/10/12

      Don’t bet on Russia becoming a liberal nirvana anytime soon. Putin can see the West, and he can see China. Guess which model he likes best? The China model has usurped the West in the eyes of many countries who look at the declining West and see a failed ideology. Alas, we can’t blame Putin for thinking this way, given the rapid decline of Western economies and culture. Until the West regains a sense of pride and economic/military strength we won’t be a beacon of hope to the world anymore. Darkness is coming unless we lift our game and once again lead by example. The West is on the path to economic, demographic and cultural suicide. Wake up, dreamers, we have work to do.

 

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