The History of Pussy Riot, From Activist Art Origins to the Dramatic Trial and Final Sentence

The History of Pussy Riot, From Activist Art Origins to the Dramatic Trial and Final Sentence
Pussy Riot
(Courtesy Facebook)

With the swirl of statements, celebrity readings, and protests in support of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot surrounding their sentence of two years in prison camp in punishment for “hooliganism” that was announced today, it’s easy to forget that the collective began first and foremost as an activist art project. Pussy Riot’s founding members included a former member of Voina, the Russian group of absurdist, anarchist protest artists. Though the band sets itself apart from Voina, and Femen, an all-female Ukrainian protest collective whose signature is their toplessness, these three groups have something in common: their commitment to using art to provoke and advance social change.

Pussy Riot founder and former Voina member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova told the Guardian that “art is politics.” When asked if the band considered themselves protesters or artists, she responded, "We couldn't imagine ourselves without one or the other. We don't understand how an artist can think about society but say he's apolitical." In the timeline below, ARTINFO charts the founding and growth of Pussy Riot alongside the provocative political actions that landed them both in jail and in the international spotlight.

2006: Russian anarchist art collective Voina (Russian for “war”) is founded by artists Oleg Vorotnikov and wife Natalia Sokol. Future Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and husband Pyotr Verzilov also join on.

2009: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Pyotr Verzilov break from Voina. Verzilov continues to work under the name “Voina” but forms a separate faction from core members Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol, who aren’t pleased with Verzilov. Later, Pussy Riot member Tyurya tells Vice that the group was most fond of Voina’s 2007-08 absurdist protest theatrics.

September 2011: Pussy Riot founded by Yekaterina Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Maria Alyokhina. The founders told Vice that after Putin put Dmitriy Medvedev in power, they “realized that this country needs a militant, punk-feminist, street band that will rip through Moscow's streets and squares, mobilize public energy against the evil crooks of the Putinist junta and enrich the Russian cultural and political opposition."

They also explain the meaning behind their dramatic name: “A female sex organ, which is supposed to be receiving and shapeless, suddenly starts a radical rebellion against the cultural order, which tries to constantly define it and show its appropriate place.”

December 4, 2011: Pussy Riot stages a concert on the roof of a detention center where protest leader and activist blogger Alexei Navalny is held in police custody.

January 20, 2012: The band performs in Moscow’s Red Square, occupying the public space to achieve political change. The group members compared it to the occupation of Tahrir Square in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. The police took the band into custody but they were released after paying a fine.

February 21, 2012: Four members of the band play a protest set at the Russian Orthodox Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. The set lasted just five minutes before it was put to a stop. The band still had time to play their songs “Holy Shit” and “Madonna, Drive Putin Away.” They later said the performance was meant to highlight the “close relationship between the church and state,” according to Gothamist.

March 2012: Right before the March 4th presidential election, Pussy Riot members Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova are arrested. On March 15, band member Yekaterina Samutsevich is arrested and the three women are placed under 24-hour video surveillance and charged with “hooliganism.” In the Russian legal system, criminal hooliganism means "a gross violation of public order, showing a disrespect for society," according to Buzzfeed.

April 5, 2012: Amnesty International announces support for the band and calls for their release.

July 30, 2012: The trial begins and brings up serious questions about the accountability of the Russian court system. The witnesses for the defense were not allowed entry into the trial, the prosecution called witnesses that had only seen the incident on TV, and the defense asked six times in five days for judge Marina Syrova (who has never presided over a felony trial) to be removed, according to ARTINFO Russia.

August 2, 2012 While in London for the Olympics, Putin told the British press that there was "nothing good" about the performance, but that the three women "should not be judged too harshly."

August 7-8, 2012: The prosecution calls for a three year prison sentence. The next day, the band members give their final statements. Yekaterina Samutsevich argues that, in the end, Pussy Riot came out on top: “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.”

August 17, 2012: After a circus-like trial, a verdict of two years in prison camp for the members is announced. Former chess champion Garry Kasparov and dozens of others are arrested outside the court, while protesters gather outside of the Russian Embassies in New York and London to protest the ruling. The three women plan to appeal the verdict in the European Court of Human Rights, according to AFP.

 

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