Pussy Riot phenomenon hits universities

Thousands will rally in support of female punk band Pussy Riot in 100 cities across the world on 1 October, when a Moscow court is due to hear an appeal by three members – two of them students – against a two-year prison sentence for performing a ‘punk prayer’ in a Russian Orthodox church.

The Pussy Riot ‘phenomenon’ is turning up as a focus of university conferences and research programmes, as well as in curricula ranging from gender studies, politics and cultural studies to media and new technologies.

The Moscow three – Maria Alyokhina (24), a student at the Institute of Journalism and Creative Writing; Nadezhda Tolonnikova (22), a philosophy student at Moscow State University; and Yekatarina Samutsevich (30), a computer programmer and graduate of the Rodchenko School of Photography and Multimedia – were arrested in March this year.

When they were found guilty of hooliganism and sentenced on 17 August to two years in prison, the verdict caused a worldwide storm of media reports, responses and protests, as well as postings on YouTube and numerous blog pages.

Protests have already taken place in at least 60 cities, and a long list of celebrities – including Madonna and Paul McCartney – have called for the band members’ release, according to a report on EurActiv.

A German member of parliament has nominated Pussy Riot for the annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, Interfax reported, citing European media. Werner Shultz from the Greens–European Free Alliance said he had collected signatures from 40 parliamentarians required for the nomination.

Academics object

According to Sabrina Ramet, a professor of political science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and an expert on Soviet and Russian politics, “the two-year prison sentence is out of all proportion to what one might expect in, let us say, a Western democracy”.

She argued that there is little doubt that it was the fact the group used the performance to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin – and not the violation of church space – that prompted the harsh sentence.

One of the accused, Yekatarina Samutsevich, also speculated that the draconian response stemmed from the government’s “failed policies” and desire to regain power in the minds of citizens by resorting to Russian Orthodox religion, “which is historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God himself”.

Silas Harrebye of Roskilde University in Denmark, who is writing his PhD dissertation on creative activism, political imagination and participation, told University World News: “The young, beautiful, progressive and well-educated women stand in clear contrast to the old, conservative, male-dominated regime.

“As such this drama reflects the generational cultural clashes that are also shaping Russia for the years to come.”

He argued that Pussy Riot captured the public's and the media's attention because “they ventilate some of the democratic frustration that seems to be boiling just beneath the surface in Russia.

“They do what most other people cannot or dare not do. They ridicule those in power and put Putin in a double bind: if the state is too forgiving, they risk giving space to new movements; if it is too hard on the rebels they become martyrs.”

A research topic

New York University and the Network of East-West Women are inviting speakers this autumn to a “Gender and Crisis across Europe” workshop, setting the Pussy Riot case on the agenda.

The conference will examine “various notions of crisis and the efforts that women have made in response, including in NGOs, European-level networks such as the European Women’s Lobby, and radical bursts of activism such as Pussy Riot, the Feminist Offensive in Ukraine, and the Occupy movements”.

In June Alexei Yurchak, associate professor of socio-cultural anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke at a conference at the University of Bergen on “Pussy Riot and the Politics of 'Blasphemy’”.

Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek argues that against all postmodern cynics, the Pussy Riot members “demonstrate that ethical-political engagement is needed more than ever…From my own past in Slovenia, I am aware how punk performances are much more effective than liberal-humanitarian protests”.

And 2004 winner of the Nobel prize for literature Elfriede Jelinek has cautioned: “If these three Pussy Riot [members] really are locked up, then Russia is locking herself up. Then another dance begins, which makes me tremble with fear.”

At the international literature festival in Berlin in September, a large number of writers supported an appeal for Pussy Riot.

Professor Stevan Harnad, of the Université du Québec à Montréal, an external member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and signatory to the Canadian-Hungarian Democratic Charter, told University World News:

“I support with all my soul their right to name themselves ‘Pussy Riot’, play their music, style their style, and criticise dictators. A prison sentence for this is an appalling assault on freedom, and the surest vindication of their indictment of Putin's dictatorial propensities.

“It makes even the likewise autocratically inclined prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, with his FUD campaign against critical philosophers, look like Thomas Jefferson.”

And the Nordic Council has appealed to the Russian authorities to reconsider the case against Pussy Riot.

Democracy and freedom of expression are prerequisites for growth, was the message from the Nordic countries to Russia at a meeting of the Baltic Sea parliamentary conference in August in St Petersburg.

Meanwhile, two of the band's unconvicted members told Radio Liberty-Radio Free Europe in an interview that the band was preparing a new performance.

They did not elaborate on the event's date, place or form, saying only that it “must get more publicity than the previous one” and that they were doing physical training for it.