Pussy Riot, Russian punk band face seven years in prison, Kerry McCarthy MP attended their trial in Moscow
Pussy Riot, Russian punk band face seven years in prison, Kerry McCarthy MP attended their trial in Moscow

The Pussy Riot trial is reaching a climax as the Russian punk band who face seven years in jail for their protests wait for the outcome on August 17th at 3pm . British MP Kerry McCarthy attended the trial in Moscow.
We have been covering the case in depth since the start most recently with an open letter to Vladimir Putin which was widely read

So, last week I was asked if I wanted to go out and observe the Pussy Riot trial in Moscow and somewhat on the spur of the moment I said yes, so by Sunday I was on a plane to Moscow and by 11pm I was round someone’s flat, being shown a video of when Nadya and Katya proclaimed the creation of Pussy Riot in the middle of a lecture on female artists and then walked out, to applause and laughter.

I then saw a clip of them rehearsing – that’s “rehearsing” in the loosest sense of the word… someone plugged in a guitar, Nadya and Katya started head banging, Masha was dancing up on a table or amp. (Pussy Riot, by the way, doesn’t have a fixed membership or fixed roles; if you don the balaclava and take part in one of their performances you’re one of them.)

I was also shown footage of them performing in Red Square, secretly filmed from inside St Basil’s cathedral so at one point it’s accompanied by a surreal soundtrack of choral singing, and a clip of Faith No More performing We Care a Lot in Pussy Riot style balaclavas. And also a film made of a bizarre stunt, which involved activists – not Pussy Riot – following traffic police around offering them roast chicken, and then getting mops out and cleaning their cars and the police station… and telling drivers they were the police officers’ family and were worried they weren’t being paid enough.

On Monday I met one of the guys who had performed the balcony protest outside the court the previous Friday; we saw him on his way into court, where he was given a five day sentence. And I met someone who’d been imprisoned for taking part in a pro-Pussy Riot ‘Occupy’ camp. (I told them about the Occupy movement in the UK, and direct action in Vodafone stores…) I also heard that a couple of musicians from a band whose name translates as “Waste Paper” were arrested for pro-Pussy Riot coments in stage at the Moscow Vegan Fest on Sunday. I’m told that the protest movement is growing, significantly since last year, but the vast majority of Russians are still passive, and not inclined to speak out.

I first heard about Pussy Riot through Louder than War back in February I think and have been following the case since. I’ve spoken to Amnesty about their status as prisoners of conscience, tabled a few questions in parliament, tweeted a bit, but with hindsight I wish I’d done more. As ever it’s frustrating that public awareness and political momentum only comes to a head when it’s almost too late, in this case once the trial had got underway and the three women were facing almost certain conviction. (The acquittal rate in Russian trials is 1%).

In the UK it’s been hard to get people to take the case seriously. People see the balaclavas, the bright clothes, the can-can dancing, a name that is slightly embarrassing to say on the news or in Parliament. They see that instead of the politics – though as the trial has begun the reality is sinking in. In Russia it’s the opposite. Pussy Riot really are seen as a threat to society. The victims’ lawyer said as much in court. And perhaps that should be applauded on one level. If your thing is political protest, you want the people you’re protesting about to sit up and take notice, don’t you?

But this is Russia, not the UK. The Sex Pistols were denounced by a Tory MP in Parliament, but God Save the Queen didn’t see them banged up in the Tower for treason. Pussy Riot have been in jail since March. The two of them who are mothers have not been allowed to see their children, and an order was made banning Peter, Nadya’s husband, from seeing her too, because he was viewed as a ringleader of the protests against their imprisonment. And they’re facing a possible 7 year jail sentence. The prosecution have asked for 3 years; we may get to know what the judge decides tomorrow (Wednesday).

I’ve been asked by many people what would have been the response if Pussy Riot had pulled this stunt in St Paul’s instead. They’d have been denounced by a silly Tory MP no doubt, and the Daily Mail, but criminal sanctions? As people have reminded me, Peter Tatchell was charged with a public order offence after he stormed the pulpit in the middle of a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury and ended up with an £18 fine.

In theory we have an offence of blasphemy, but no-one has been prosecuted for it since Mary Whitehouse’s heyday, and there have been calls for it to be scrapped (abandoned on the grounds of ‘let’s not go there now’….) Labour introduced a law against incitement to religious hatred, to give Muslims the same protection as other minorities have under racial hatred laws, but Richard Dawkins is quite safe, as is Rowan Atkinson, who seemed to think it would stop him doing his silly vicar routine.

Plenty has been written elsewhere about the shortcomings in the trial process and the dubious nature of the charges brought. The Guardian’s recent coverage has been particularly good. The court room is small, panelled with wood veneer, with four rows of benches for the press and public to sit on. There were queues to get in, and plenty of journalists there – I spent some time talking to the Moscow correspondents for the BBC and the Wall Street Journal, and faced a barrage of mics and cameras when I left the court on day one. Those who weren’t media but had just come along to show support were mostly young, didn’t look particularly alternative or punky. The one who did, a tiny blonde girl with a grown out Mohican, turned out to be the correspondent from the Moscow Times!

The court system is strange. In the UK we all know the structure. Opening speeches, witnesses for the prosecution and defence (including the defendants), closing speeches, judge sums up, jury retires. In Russia it’s more difficult to follow. It’s just a judge, for a start. The witnesses were called in the first week before I arrived and were mostly ‘victims’ of the alleged crime, i.e. nine people who claimed to have been sorely aggrieved through having seen the stunt, or even having just watched footage afterwards. A bit like those who lined up to be offended by Jerry Springer the Opera.

The defence weren’t allowed to call most of their witnesses – just two character witnesses, the third one not being there at the crucial time – and were constantly prevented by the judge from asking the prosecution witnesses and victims questions.

On the first day I was in court it was mostly ‘petitions’ being presented by the defence lawyers and the women – petitions as in requests, eg to be able to call expert witnesses, – and another attempt by the defence to call for the recusal of the judge on the grounds of bias. It was the eighth time they’d tried, but strangely enough they yet again failed to convince the judge (yes, she got to decide whether she was biased or not, and she didn’t think she was). Obviously for the defence it’s about getting matters on the record, saying these things out loud… much as we do in Parliament when we know we can’t win a vote and no matter who powerful our argument they’re not going to stop all those Tories and Lib Dems going through the division lobby together.

The women were being kept in a jail a couple of hours drive – in good traffic – from the court. On Monday they arrived at court at 8am although the hearing didn’t actually start till gone 10.45, and spent the rest of the day in their glass box in court or in the holding cells on the floor above. The day’s hearing finished about 9.30-ish, so I’m guessing that would have meant back to the prison by midnight. They complained in court that they weren’t being fed during the day, were only getting 2-3 hours sleep a night, and weren’t getting time to speak to their lawyers.

I didn’t get to meet the three women; it’s very difficut to do that. But I got to observe them for hours at a time in the courtroom. Masha is very slight and delicate-looking; she’s very smiley when she comes into the courtroom. She wears dresses and skirts and looks more like a Sunday school teacher than a punk performance artist. Katya has the most attitude; she’s the one you catch smirking when someone says something stupid in court. She’s kind of pixie-ish, with the body language of a teenage boy, shuffling in and out of court and hugging herself and tugging at her clothes in the dock. And Nadya is rather beautiful, with a natural poise. Although she’s the youngest, at 22 (Masha is 24 and Katya’s 30th birthday is this Thursday, August 9th) she seems to be the natural leader amongst the group.

It seems all too apparent that this trial isn’t about what they did: a 40 second performance of a ‘punk prayer’ at Christ the Saviour cathedral, departing without a fuss when asked to do so… It’s about what they are. Feminists, punks, atheists, people who don’t like Putin. And their efforts to explain what they are, and why they do these silly things to make a serious point, are futile. How do you explain a situationist stunt to someone who thinks people should go to jail for not being orthodox Christians and that feminism is a sin? (That was from one of the lawyers today). As Nadia said in her final speech today, “no-one is listening to us when we try to explain”.

So what happens now? Well, a verdict is expected in the next day or so. The public and political response will, I suppose, depend on the severity of the sentence. The lawyers have said they will appeal, possibly taking it to the court of human rights. The activists I met are well aware of the risks they face in speaking out, but are determined to keep up the campaign. They’ve run out of T-shirts and need some money to print more!

Musicians have started to rally round – Kate Nash has been brilliantly supportive on Twitter, Jarvis Cocker and co wrote a letter to the paper, Peter Gabriel, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others have spoken out. Madonna was performing in Moscow tonight, and there were rumours Pussy Riot were going to perform on stage with her (we wondered which song – maybe Like a Prayer?) Turns out she made a long statement in support, and then donned a balaclava for Like a Virgin.

Will any of this make a difference? We don’t know. But the fight to Free Pussy Riot and to protect the freedoms they were fighting for, must go on.

6 COMMENTS

  1. This is completely ridiculous!

    If you storm into the largest (still in use) cathedral in ANY country and go up to the altar and start banging guitars and screaming obscenities, you WILL be arrested and probably will be sentenced and go to jail. I guarantee you it would happen if you stormed into the National Cathedral in Washington, DC and played a heavy metal song peppered with “F*** OBAMA”. Maybe in parts of North Europe, you would not get a sentence but you would spend some nights in jail and get a draconian fine. The fact that Tatchell got off with 18 pounds is not too relevant since (a) heckling is not the same as storming the altar and (b) Tatchell is a national embarrassment to your country and you should have jailed him a long time ago for his numerous obviously hooliganish stunts that frankly most of us would not get away with for most other causes (only in gay-obsessed modern Britain….). Of course, this is maybe part of the whole point – Western societies preach “tolerance” for antisocial behaviour only, but not currently for religion – since religion threatens the lifestyles of those obsessed with antisocial behaviour.

    The reason these girls are getting jail and not a huge fine is (a) some NGO, or schmucks like you, would pay off the fine and (b) they, and copy-cats, would be encouraged to do similar stunts over and over and over. Perhaps you have not realised that such acts of blatant invasion and defilement (though on a far less vulgar level) were how Church oppression in the early Bolshevik years got started?

    • Right Thomas! And in comparison to Pussies Sid Vicious is a grand concertmaister.
      But you will get them play big places soon. haha. from russia with love.

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