News / Europe

A Year On, Pussy Riot Claim a Victory in Russia

August 3, 2012: Pussy Riot members, from left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina sit in a glass cage at a court room  in Moscow, Russia. August 3, 2012: Pussy Riot members, from left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia.
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August 3, 2012: Pussy Riot members, from left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina sit in a glass cage at a court room  in Moscow, Russia.
August 3, 2012: Pussy Riot members, from left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia.
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Reuters
— Yekaterina Samutsevich has few regrets about the day a year ago when she marched into a Russian Orthodox church with four other members of the Pussy Riot punk band, pulled on a balaclava and reached for her guitar.
       
Guards grabbed her before she could join in the band's "punk prayer'' against Vladimir Putin, and she went on to spend several months in detention before facing trial last year with two bandmates who are still in jail.
       
The protest did not stop Putin winning a presidential election the next month, and demonstrations against the former KGB spy who has dominated Russia since 2000 have lost momentum.
       
But a year on, Samutsevich still regards Pussy Riot's protest as a success, saying it drew attention to what the band regards as Putin's unhealthy and dangerous relationship with the church and a lack of genuine political freedoms.
       
"When we got to the church, we above all wanted to make a video clip and release it,'' the 30-year-old computer programmer said in an interview outside the Christ the Saviour Church, where the band staged its protest on Feb. 21, 2012.
       
Three uniformed police stood watching Samutsevich throughout the interview on a bridge near the church, its golden onion domes and tall white walls towering above her.
       
"We wanted to start a discussion in society, show our negative view of the merging of the church and state ... The problem was raised internationally, the problem of human rights was put sharply into focus,'' she said.
       
"I don't regret the performance. I only regret that they put us in prison. But it's the government, which brought criminal charges, that's guilty in this.''
       
Two of the other band members remain at large and are believed by some to have left the country.

Radical Protest Group
       
Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, were sentenced last August to two years in jail on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, although they denied intending to offend Orthodox Christians.
       
Samutsevich was released in October after hiring a new lawyer who argued successfully that she had not taken part in the performance itself because she was seized by guards before she could start playing her guitar.
       
The change of lawyers and a battle over use of the Pussy Riot brand have prompted speculation about the relationship between the two jailed band members and Samutsevich.
       
But Samutsevich said: "Our relations are good, we are fighting together ... We are not afraid.''
       
Pussy Riot, which describes itself as an art collective of anonymous members, has not, however, carried out any significant protests since the performance a year ago and Samutsevich did not say when there might be another.
       
The Pussy Riot case attracted fierce international criticism, but it divided Russian society. Although opinion polls showed few Russians wanted jail terms for the band members, many saw their profanity-laced protest as sacrilege.
       
Even so, two women showed their sympathy by putting on the band's trademark balaclavas in Christ the Saviour Church on Thursday. They were hauled away by guards.
       
Pussy Riot says it has about 10 to 20 members at any given time and no fixed lineup. Its members hide their faces behind balaclavas, and wear short dresses and mismatched garish tights.
       
The goal, as the group puts it simply, is to change Russia through radical protest.
       
Fading Protests

Critics challenge Pussy Riot's ability to do so, or that of the opposition movement that grew out of protests that began 14 months ago over alleged fraud in a parliamentary election won by Putin's United Russia party.
       
The demonstrations have faded since Putin's re-election as president after four years as premier, and opponents accuse him of cracking down on dissent since then, including by using his party to push repressive laws through parliament.
       
Samutsevich said many Russians saw mass arrests at a protest last May 6, the eve of Putin's inauguration, as a turning point.
       
"Many people have noted that since May 6 there's been a fall [in attendance at rallies]. But in fact it's a clear process and there's an opposition all the same,'' Samutsevich said.
       
"It's just that now, when you go out on to the street, they immediately pack you up and haul you away. We need some other form of protest now.''
       
Life has changed dramatically for Samutsevich since last year's protest in Christ the Saviour. She is now constantly in the public eye and focuses on work related to Pussy Riot rather than her previous job.
       
She dismissed suggestions the protest worked in Putin's favour by enabling him to paint the opposition as sacrilegious liberals and rally support among conservatives.
       
"Many people are now critical of the government and state authorities [because of Pussy Riot]. They see the injustice. The situation has changed,'' she said.

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