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Pussy Riot's 2012 Overture: A Year on From the Cathedral Stunt

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PUSSY RIOT CANADA RUSSIA
AP

A year ago today five members of a relatively obscure Russian art-protest collective called Pussy Riot staged their now famous stunt in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.

It was all over in a matter of minutes. Security guards and cathedral workers quickly ushered them off the raised area (the soleas) beneath the church's iconostasis. That, one presumes, would have been that, had the group not almost immediately put a video of the stunt on the internet. Provocatively calling it 'Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!', presumably they would have expected a reaction. They got one. And the rest, as they say, is history ...

A year later it all seems quite surreal. Did it really happen? Did the authorities seek the arrest of the Pussy Riot women and actually put three of them on trial charged with the serious offence of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred", a crime carrying a possible seven-year jail sentence? And were they really jailed? Sadly, of course, the answer is a triple yes. Though one of the three - Yekaterina Samutsevich - is now out of jail, freed on appeal in October, the other two - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina - are still very much behind bars.

In a recent interview in Novaya Gazeta Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina give long accounts of their current situation in their (separate) penal colonies. Tolokonnikova, serving her sentence at the IK-14 women's camp in the Russian Republic of Mordovia, the region where Gerard Depardieu is reportedly planning to set up home after his self-imposed tax-exile from France, speaks of the once-weekly showers, the cold-water washing, and the prison work - sewing woollen coats for the Federal Correction Service. Alyokhina describes a similar life at the IK-28 women's colony in Perm, though one which has taken a sinister turn, with seemingly arbitrary disciplinary measures taken against her, and the authorities placing her in quarantine "for her own safety" after other inmates issued threats against her.

On the central issue of their controversial protest they are unrepentant. "It was an ironic, fun, and also reckless action, like a heart-cry of our political hearts - which, however, was meant as completely ironical, funny", says Tolokonnikova. She absolutely rejects the claim that she's anti-religious (she's not a "theomachist", she says) and claims to be extremely interested in religion, keeping the Bible by her bedside, a book she describes as "an organic part" of her life. Alyokhina, though considerably embattled in her Perm prison, also has no regrets: "in spite of these two years ... I don't regret anything".

Compared to Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina's clarity, the case against them has always seemed hallucinatory and strange. Was their short video really going to provoke religious hatred? Is it credible that their actions "undermined the moral foundations" of the nation (President Putin's words), or that the "Devil has laughed at all of us" through their "Blasphemous" actions (the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Kirill I's view).

Looking again at their stunt, there's no question that some people - adherents of the Orthodox Church and others - may have been offended by the women jumping around and shouting slogans in a place of worship. (Incidentally, see this unadorned video for an actual record of what happened in the church - a sort of shouty, messy, whirling-arm, knees-up thing; versus this - the in/famous edited version, a much slicker affair complete with dubbed-in music).

Turning three hitherto unknown art-collective feminist protesters into international figures of renown (and into Amnesty prisoners of conscience) was an amazing over-reaction from the Russian authorities. A sort of reverse engineering feat which has had newspapers like the Times revisiting its famous 1960s defence of the Rolling Stones ("Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?") and famous individuals from the 60s like Yoko Ono speaking out in Pussy Riot's favour.

As it happens, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is no stranger to loud music. Tchaikovsky's rambunctious 1812 Overture was debuted there in 1882, complete with its climactic volley of cannon fire sounds. The piece was steeped in Russian patriotism though, celebrating the defeat of Napoleon and originally commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of the coronation of the Russian emperor Alexander II. It seems that Pussy Riot's mistake was to try to elevate their scratchy punk provocation into a political protest against church and state. Yet, are we dreaming? Are they really in prison for that?

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