11:51 GMT05 July 2020
Listen Live
    Get short URL
    0 04

    Two ex-members of the scandalous Russian action group Pussy Riot who have served prison terms have come to London on a publicity tour. They are being promoted by western media as political artists fighting for human rights. But are they?

    Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Aliokhina shot to fame after performing a riotous act at Russia's main cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which to the Russian Orthodox believers is what St.Paul's is to the Anglicans and St.Peter's to the Catholics.

    At the height of the Russian presidential election campaign in February 2012 five women from the group entered the Cathedral, removed their overcoats, put on colourful balaclavas, walked up to the altar, and began to jump around, punching the air. They were swiftly escorted out by the cathedral security guards. 

    Footage of the performance was later studio mixed and edited to create a video clip of a "punk prayer" against Putin. But that was not what the parishioners saw. To them the act did not look like an "artistic" performance at all but an act of blatant hooliganism. Which was the crime Tolokonnikova and Aliokhina were charged with and jailed for, according to the law of the land.


    In an interview with the BBC, made at a secret location during a rehearsal the day before the performance in the Cathedral, the band members argued that only illegal and "vivid" actions can bring media attention to their "cause". "Nobody would write about you, nobody would come to film you," they told the BBC reporter. "To get noticed you need to do something spectacular."

    Historically, "spectaculars" were employed by many radicals, including the IRA, to get media attention. Some of them have claimed innocent lives.

    Pussy Riot's illegal spectaculars were also held with little regard for health and safety of passers-by who were caught in their acts. During the Russian parliamentary election campaign in November 2011 they urged the Russians to follow the example of Egyptian rioters in Tahrir Square and throw cobblestones during street clashes.

    Prior to their infamous performance at Christ the Saviour, Pussy Riot staged illegal acts at the Moscow public transport facilities, jumping on top of metro trains and buses and throwing projectiles. Other "stages" included scaffolding, car dealerships and rooftops. During these acts they set fires and discharged fire extinguishers into the air.

    After a couple of such performances some members of the action group were briefly detained and fined an equivalent of 10 pounds. Undeterred by this kid glove treatment, they ratcheted up their "riot" until the public and the authorities decided they'd had enough. But even their trial on charges of hooliganism they managed to turn into a publicity stunt. In the words of one human rights campaigner "The girls were aware what they faced, but still chose to create maximum publicity, which they accomplished with great success."

    Indeed, astonishing success for a band that has done a handful of crude songs and matching videos. As an Associated Press report put it at the time of the trial, "badly recorded, based on simple riffs and scream-like singing, the feminist singers were dismissed by many critics and listeners as amateur, provocative and obscene." Obviously, this is not a view shared by the girls' promoters.

    As the Pussy Riot scandal made global headlines, Tolokonnikova's husband Pyotr Verzilov quickly seized the opportunity to shape it into a global cause celebre, although he was eventually disowned by the jailed girls as their spokesman. "It's hard for people outside of Russia to understand what's going on," Verzilov told RIA Novosti. "But the Pussy Riot story and the court case is very easy to understand for the West. Pussy Riot is basically a machine placed inside the media."

    That much is hardly debatable. The only question is, who is playing whom.

    Community standardsDiscussion