Pussy Riot Sentenced to 2 Years in Prison

The highly anticipated trial of Russia's most brazen, anti-Putin riot grrrls closes with a controversial verdict.

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 3:08 PM EDT

Protest outside the Parliament of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, in April. Mark Burban/pixelwhipProtest outside the Parliament of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, in April Mark Burban/pixelwhip
This explainer has been updated. Click here for the latest.


What is Pussy Riot?

Pussy Riot is a Russian, anti-Putin, riot grrrl art collective. The group formed in September 2011, directly after Vladimir Putin announced his run for president (again). The 10 performers are known for dressing up in balaclavas (knitted ski masks with eye and mouth holes cut out) and staging punk-infused protest art shows in Moscow's public spaces.

On February 21, five members of Pussy Riot performed a "punk prayer" at the altar of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. The original cathedral was destroyed by Stalin in 1931 and rebuilt as a godless celebration of the state (later becoming the world's largest swimming pool), but it returned to its function as an Orthodox church in 1994. Pussy Riot stood under the cathedral's elaborate frescoes, punched at the air and cursed, pleading with the Virgin Mary to kick Putin out of power. Watch the video here.

What happened after that?

Two weeks after being led out by cathedral security, three members of Pussy Riot were arrested with a warrant for "hooliganism," a charge for which they could serve up to seven years. They were denied bail, and their trial was repeatedly postponed. Two of the women are mothers of young children, and all three have remained imprisoned for nearly five months.

On Monday, the trial finally began. The defense had little time to pore over 2,800 pages of an indictment, and tweets from Violetta Volkova, one of the defense lawyers, tell of the women being given five consecutive days, from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., to read their charges in a cage-like cell at court.  Today, the defense claimed that after 11 hours in court yesterday deprived of food or sleep, the women were too exhausted to proceed. According to the Moscow Times, Judge Marina Syrova eventually promised to let the defendants take a break.

A demonstration in Dresden, Germany, April 2012. Solidarity Action in Dresden/Freepussyriot.orgA demonstration in Dresden, Germany, April 2012 Solidarity Action in Dresden/Freepussyriot.orgSounds like people are angry. Who?

Well, the Russian Orthodox Church, for starters. Patriarch Kirill, the Russian Orthodox religious leader, has said that the church is "under attack by persecutors," and spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin announced that Pussy Riot's sin "will be punished in this life and the next." Chaplin is also asking the women to repent. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has shrugged off the notion that the treatment of Pussy Riot has been unnecessarily harsh. "In some countries the responsibility for such actions would have been much more strict," Medvedev told the UK's Times last week.

The case has folks peeved all over the globe: A symbol of artistic struggle against political repression, the band's treatment has sparked grassroots protests from Helsinki to Mexico City. (Check out the slideshow.) FreePussyRiot.org, the support organization started soon after the arrest, has spread to at least six countries, and helps coordinate actions and benefit shows. As the result of a mysterious DDoS attack last month, FreePussyRiot.org has set up proxy websites to keep the updates flowing. Musicians, artists, anarchists, feminists, and advocates of free expression continue to take up the balaclava in protest.

Is that why Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers wore a Pussy Riot T-shirt at the band's show in Moscow?*

Yes. Peter Gabriel has also written a letter of support, and British actor, author, director, and comedian Stephen Fry has taken up the fight through his Twitter account. According to Pussy Riot lawyer Mark Feygin, the Chili Peppers' Anthony Kiedis has also spoken to Madonna and texted Bono about the cause.

Okay…but what if celebrities texting other celebrities doesn't work?

Those protests mentioned above aren't going away any time soon, and high-profile pressure outside the country and within is mounting. Last week, Amnesty International hosted a protest outside the Russian embassy in Washington, DC, and in Moscow, one anti-Putin/pro-Pussy Riot rally's numbers swelled to 1,500. Supporters are planning another protest during the trial, tentatively set for August 11 and 12. Meanwhile, artists like Stuart Semple and musicians like Finnish jazz pianist Iiro Rantala have announced they will not show their work or perform in Moscow on Pussy Riot's behalf, and another supporter even held a hunger strike for 25 days.

Members of the Independent Social Ecological Movement in Brno, Czech Republic, decorated city statues in balaclavas in June.  Nesehnuti/Freepussyriot.orgMembers of the Independent Social Ecological Movement in Brno, Czech Republic, decorated city statues in balaclavas in June. Nesehnuti/Freepussyriot.orgWhere's Putin in all of this?

Defense lawyer Mark Feygin submitted to the court a list of 34 witnesses he'd have liked to call on, including Kirill and Putin. The court rejected it. But while Putin may be lying low, there's no doubt that the Kremlin's crackdown on Pussy Riot has hit a nerve with both the Russian public and abroad. Tens of thousands of Russians, including celebrities and the pious, have signed a petition asking the government to release the women. Not exactly a good look for the president. (See the update below.)

So, what's going to happen to Pussy Riot?

The women are pleading not guilty, and the trial will last until mid-August, according to Rob Lieber, a representative from FreePussyRiot.org. In the meantime, the outcome remains unclear. (There's also this unhelpful poll, which suggests US asylum and an appearance on Oprah as potential fates for the prisoners.)

How can I follow the trial?

FreePussyRiot.org is the go-to for most things Pussy Riot-related. However, you can also follow Pussy Riot's defense lawyers individually on Twitter (and with the help of online translation tools) here: @mark_feygin, @Moscow_advokat, and @volkova_v.

Action at the UN Plaza, in San Francisco.  Audrey Wright/Freepussyriot.orgAction at the UN Plaza in San Francisco Audrey Wright/Freepussyriot.org

Update (Thursday August 2 2:00 PM PST): On Thursday, after weeks of escalating public pressure, Vladimir Putin announced to Russian news agencies that he doesn't think Pussy Riot "should be judged so harshly for this," Reuters reports. "I hope the court will come out with the right decision, a well-founded one," the Russian president added. This is an auspicious sign for the defense, which now expects a "softening of the prosecution's position" as a result.

Update (Thursday August 2 6:30 PM PST): The Russian Legal Information Agency, coordinated by the Russian judicial system and the state news agency, has been publishing live updates from the trial in English. The beginning of Thursday's report reads like fiction: First, the court was cleared out for an hour and a half because of an anonymous bomb threat to the court; the three defendants, though, weren’t evacuated. After proceedings resumed, a group of Hare Krishnas and Pussy Riot supporters stood outside the court, chanting with tambourines.

Then, a panel of experts diagnosed all three defendants with personality disorders based on their "activist" stances, "desire for self-realization," "overstated self-esteem," and tendency to voice their opinions. That same panel of experts conceded, however, that the women's actions and lyrics show no signs of animosity towards any group or religion. Today, FreePussyRiot.org also published the prison writings of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, which echoed the sentiment: "The prosecution accuses us of hiding our true motives (which supposedly are religious hatred and enmity) to avoid punishment," she wrote. "But we do not hate anyone."

UK Foreign Office Minister and Parliament member Kerry McCarthy is expected to observe the trial in person next week. A photo of Patti Smith's Oslo show this week is also now making rounds online, showing the godmother of punk herself with a T-shirt that reads, "Putin has pissed himself." Tomorrow, there are rumors that leading anti-Putin activist Sergei Udaltsov could appear at court, and lawyers are expecting a verdict sooner than they had originally predicted—perhaps by early next week.

Update (Friday August 3 1:30 PM PST): Tensions erupted on day five of the trial. A journalist was removed from the court for laughing, and the judge stopped multiple defense witnesses, including Yaroslav Nikitenko, a founder of FreePussyRiot.org, and famed activist Alexei Navalny from testifying. (Navalny, who was named one of Time's most influential people this year, is the nation's leading Livejournal muckraker—in the next few years, he anticipates a popular revolt in Russia to match the Arab Spring.)

When Nikitenko and other defense witnesses tried to enter the courtroom to testify on behalf of the women, a bailiff stopped them. The witnesses were asked to arrive by noon, but at 5 p.m. they were still waiting. According to Nikitenko, who spoke to Mother Jones today, the judge ordered that the witnesses be blocked from the courtroom. Nikitenko then tried to take a picture of the bailiff with his phone, but the officer slapped it out of his hand, sending the battery pack flying. Nikitenko was pushed down the steps and away from the building. Today, only three out of 16 defense witnesses were allowed into the court to testify.

All eyewitnesses to the “punk prayer” proposed by the defense, Nikitenko adds, were prohibited from testifying—while the prosecution’s witnesses were permitted. "We see that they just want to make this fake justice, not real justice," Nikitenko said. "We have no justice."

Like the day before, a crowd of Pussy Riot supporters gathered outside the court. Three masked men who stood on the ledge of a building across the street shouting, "Free Pussy Riot!" were eventually removed by mechanical crane.

Update (Monday August 6 4:30 PM PST): It's coming down to the wire: Pussy Riot is set to hear the verdict this week, according to Reuters and defense lawyer Violetta Volkova.

In the meantime, and after much speculation, Madonna has made a statement on the trial. "I'm against censorship, so I hope that the judge is lenient with them and that they are freed soon," she said. The Russian Orthodox Church, on the other hand, has pegged the country's moral future on Pussy Riot's actions. "The moral conscience of our people and future of the country depend on its outcome," church spokesperson Vsevolod Chaplin said on Friday.

And, in keeping with procedure from last week, this week Judge Syrova continued to reject the defense's efforts to call witnesses to the stand. Today, she refused the defense's request to question Igor Ponkin, the "expert" whose opinions served as the basis for the charges of vulgarity against Pussy Riot. (Fun fact on Ponkin's expertise: In 2008, he co-authored a bill that tried to regulate Russia's emo teenagers.) RAPSI, the Russian Legal Information Agency, has also stopped publishing live updates of trial coverage, but today British parliament member and trial observer Kerry McCarthy was there to take up the torch. "Women brought to court at 8am, 2 hours before start, and with long journey from prison. They say they’re getting 2-3 hours sleep," she tweeted.

Even with the deadline approaching, Peaches, electronic musician of "Fuck the Pain Away" fame, has announced she'll be recording a song for Pussy Riot tomorrow, and is asking for help with the music video. "Please send a 30 second video of yourself showing support by dancing, jumping on your bed, breaking shit, laughing, holding a free pussy riot sign etc.," she wrote in a post on the Riot Grrrl Berlin Facebook page.

Update (Tuesday August 7 4:30 PM PST): With verdict and sentencing expected in the coming days, today Pussy Riot prosecutors asked that the women receive three years in prison as punishment. One attorney representing an alleged victim of Pussy Riot's punk prayer, however, suggested that the women be sentenced to two years of probation instead. In addition, another attorney asked that Judge Syrova mandate universities to take action against future "hooliganism" from students.

The Guardian's Miriam Elder reported that defense attorney Mark Feygin made an impassioned speech in court, telling journalists, the judge, and witnesses that Pussy Riot's verdict could "tear up relations between society and government." He's not the only one to come to this conclusion: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the subject of another high-profile, politically-charged Russian trial, published an op-ed in the Guardian on Monday, arguing that the state is "profaning Russia with its utter lack of conscience."

Madonna, too, is praying for the women's freedom, as she told the packed crowd at her Moscow show today. She also donned a balaclava during the performance and printed the words "Pussy Riot" on her back.

Update (Wednesday August 8 11:30 AM PST): After a week and a half of debates, protests, witnesses being refused entry into the courtroom, a bomb threat, and bolstered international support (see Yoko Ono; Madonna), Wednesday's proceedings saw moving final arguments from the three Pussy Riot prisoners themselves. Tolokonnikova quoted the likes of Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky, while Alyokhina told the court, "No one will take my inner freedom away." Each speech ended in applause, much to the apparent chagrin of Judge Syrova, who informed the crowd that the court was not a theater. Pussy Riot's verdict will be delivered the afternoon of August 17.

Update (Thursday August 16 6:30 PM PST): If the Kremlin and Judge Syrova were hoping international interest in Pussy Riot would die down with the hiatus between closing arguments and a verdict, those hopes have likely been crushed.

On Saturday, the mayor of Reykjavik sported a balaclava during the city's Gay Pride parade, and French and German lawmakers echoed concerns regarding Pussy Riot's sentencing last week. On Tuesday, Amnesty International delivered more than 70,000 petitions to the doorstep of the Russian embassy in Washington DC, only to have Russian officials dump those petitions on the sidewalk. Paul McCartney, The Who's Pete Townshend, Bjork, and Pulp's Jarvis Cocker have also voiced support of the imprisoned women, and pro-Pussy Riot rallies in more than two dozen international cities are mobilizing for marches on Friday. This week, literary magazine n+1 published Pussy Riot's closing arguments in English, and tonight electro-punk feminist musician JD Samson (Le Tigre, MEN) hosted a reading of them in New York City, featuring Chloe Sevigny, performance artist Karen Finley, and poet Eileen Myles, among others.

Before the trial's closing arguments, Kathleen Hanna (formerly of Bikini Kill) argued for a global Pussy Riot movement. "Who knows this could be the start of a whole new thing," Hanna wrote on her site. "A whole new motivating source for a globally connected unapologetic punk feminist art and music scene."

Judge Syrova is to read the verdict at 3 p.m. in Moscow tomorrow.

Update (Friday August 17 4:50 AM PST): It appears Judge Syrova has found Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alekhina guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, and their lawyers have tweeted as much from the courtroom, but a formal declaration has yet to be made. Those in the packed room are standing, waiting for the sentence. According to multiple accounts from journalists outside and inside the court, a number of crowd arrests have been made, including former World Chess Champion Garry Kosporov. Judge Syrova is rereading details of the girls' charges and testimonies, and has accused the women of homosexual propaganda, as well as a premeditated crime (as evidenced by their face masks).

Update (Friday August 17 7:05 AM PST): After a lengthy rereading of the Pussy Riot charges and testimonies that took three hours, Judge Syrova sentenced each of the Pussy Riot members to two years in prison. After the verdict was delivered, cries of "shame" could be heard throughout the courtroom.

Update (Friday August 17 10:25 AM PST): Protesting this morning's guilty verdict and sentencing, six people were arrested in a New York City march down Fifth Avenue. Two arrests were made at 10 a.m. EDT, and four more followed in the next 45 minutes, according to the National Lawyers Guild. More marches in Chicago and San Francisco are planned throughout the afternoon, but in the meantime, the scene in Times Square looks something like this.

Update (Friday August 17 1:15 PM PST): The U.S. State Department has issued a statement on Pussy Riot's behalf: "The United States is concerned about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences handed down by a Moscow court in the case against the members of the band Pussy Riot and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia," it reads. "We urge Russian authorities to review this case and ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld."

Additional reporting and translation by Hannah Levintova.

Correction: The original version of this article stated that Sting also wore a Pussy Riot T-shirt at his Moscow show. He did not wear a T-shirt, but he did call for Pussy Riot's release. The text has been corrected.