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Reconsidering Russia's Pussy Riot—A Commentary by Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza ’14

The following commentary was posted on on October 1, 2012.

Reconsidering Russia's Pussy Riot
By Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza ’14

JURIST Guest Columnist Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, Yale Law School Class of 2014, posits that while Pussy Riot advocates much-needed overarching political and legal reforms, it also needlessly tramples current laws in so doing...

On February 21, 2012, five members of the female rock group Pussy Riot invaded Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a Russian Orthodox Church, to protest the reelection of Russian President Vladimir Putin. They performed for less than a minute before being ejected. The rockers used those seconds to belt out a song titled "Holy Shit," criticizing Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church — as well as indicting the Virgin Mary.

Soon after, three members of the band — Maria Alyekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova — were arrested. This August, the trio was prosecuted and convicted for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. On August 17, 2012, the women were sentenced to two years of labor in the notoriously harsh Russian penal system. The prosecution and sentence have been denounced as extreme and incomprehensible. Even the US embassy in Russia called the sentences "disproportionate." But the global rush to judgment has neglected the nuances of the case. The sentences are out of proportion but the convictions were not unanticipated — or entirely undeserved.

Many of Pussy Riot's lyrical criticisms are substantive. Its disruptive tactics, however, are less commendable. Pussy Riot's tactics include everything from extreme profanity to public masturbation in the windows of local shops. They bragged to the St. Petersburg Times: "We come and take over platforms that don't belong to us and use them for free." Fifty-one percent of Russians polled actively disapproved of the group while just six percent found anything favorable or sympathetic about the group.

The Russian state response was legally and politically predictable — even overdue. Since November 2011, the 12-member group repeatedly has staged tortious (and worse) illegal public performances. Pussy Riot's first major run-in with police came in January 2012 when members of the band were detained and fined after setting off a smoke bomb in front of Saint Basil's Cathedral. The premise of their performances is trespass; their product, nuisance; their stage stunts, littering. The exceptionally volatile and blasphemous February punk prayer stunt and trial were merely the denouement of this saga. Before and after the March arrests, Pussy Riot dared authorities to take action. Purporting to conceal their identities, the musicians wore balaclavas and went by nicknames in interviews but they routinely demonstrated publicly. Their disguises, brilliantly colored dresses, tights and masks, appear to have been performance stunts rather than precautionary.

In their August 2012 song about the trial, the free members of Pussy Riot roared, "Seven years is not enough, give us eighteen!" in reference to the maximum possible sentence each defendant could receive. The rockers rebuffed offers of support from foreign performers, professing "the only performances we'll participate in are illegal ones." The Russian justice system routinely convicts defendants of crimes and doles out sentences that appear antiquated or draconian to international observers. In addition to hooliganism, the Russian penal code forbids swindling and insult, distinguished from slander and defined as the denigration of the honor and dignity of another person. Compulsory works and corrective labor frequently appear among sentences.

More fundamentally, the assumptions and intentions of the Russian justice system differ greatly from those of the US and its counterparts. The US espouses a concept of justice that Russia does not share. Americans enjoy systematic recognition of the right of innocence until guilt is proven. In its best moments, the American system demonstrates uniformly forward-looking policies that focus on incapacitation, rehabilitation and deterrence.

The Russian justice system engenders retributive prosecution, conviction and sentencing. While the constitution of Russia nominally guarantees the presumption of innocence, the state's practices defy that tenet. Prosecutors successfully appeal to judges behind closed doors to extend defendants' detentions — as with the Pussy Riot trio, who spent six months in pre-trial detention. Former US Ambassador William Burns described Russia's penal institutions as "combin[ing] the country's emblematic features — vast distances, harsh climate and an uncaring bureaucracy — and fus[ing] them into a massive instrument of punishment."

The Pussy Riot trial propelled the band into the spotlight, making them an instant cause cèlébre worldwide. Yet their path to notoriety highlights the contrast between two models of justice. These musicians deviate from the tamer protest rock genre with which they have been linked in foreign media — by design and because of Russia's culture and justice system.

Protest rock has been a powerful genre of music for the last five decades — and a particularly vital force in the feminist movement for the last three decades. But the cultural context of the riot grrrl movement in the US — in reference to 1990's feminist rock — was radically different from the climate in which Pussy Riot performs. Commenting on Russian society, a member of Pussy Riot explained, "Riot grrrl was closely linked to Western cultural institutions, whose equivalents don't exist in Russia."

Pussy Riot's version of civil disobedience mirrors, rather than rejects, the Russian justice system. The justice system is harsh but Pussy Riot has responded in kind with a destructive, confrontational style of protest. Yet even in so doing — and while diverting attention to the band rather than the Russian people — Pussy Riot has succeeded in sparking a more progressive discourse on justice within Russia.

Aware of the negative impressions of Russia stemming from the Pussy Riot trial, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev used the vocabulary of rehabilitation in the first public statement from an official since the conviction. Medvedev said that he is satisfied with the six months the women have already served — and that further imprisonment would not be productive. He stated: "What has already happened — that this well-known group of girls have been in prison quite a long time — is a very serious punishment for everything they did, regardless of the sentence."

Parole or release is the nearest resolution in the Pussy Riot cases. Neither Pussy Riot's provocation nor the predictability of the state's response lessens the injustices perpetrated by the Russian government. Conversely, the validity of Pussy Riot's protests does not legitimate its disruptive course of action. These tensions create a legal impasse — and make future conflicts of a similar nature inevitable.

Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza is a writer and former political consultant. She has worked on political campaigns and projects on five continents as well as co-authoring 40 More Years: How Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation with James Carville. Buckwalter-Poza is also an Institute for Social and Policy Studies Fellow at Yale.