By Tom Peter
When the Khamovnichesky court announces on Friday the verdict in the case against the punk band Pussy Riot that is accused of hooliganism in Moscow’s main church, the world will witness how the Russian authorities respond to an artist’s smack in the face.
Many admire the braveness of Yekaterina Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Maria Alyokhina, others object to the form and the choice of location for their shock performance. But make no mistake; the impact of the “Punk Prayer” on public opinion was not the chance result of a post-adolescent prank. At least two of the three defendants have emerged from a scene of young conceptual artists that have been engaged in political activism for years. They knew exactly where to hit so that it hurt most.
I met Nadezhda and her husband Pyotr Verzilov in 2007 after they co-founded the art group Voina that gained international fame with a number of spectacular stunts in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Yekaterina joined the group a little later. I never met Maria Alyokhina during my time in Russia.
Voina emerged from a loose collective of young artists at a time when pre-financial crisis Russia was preoccupied with the little prosperity that the country’s booming natural resources sector bestowed on its growing middle class. Born into more or less privileged families, these young people shunned the career opportunities their university education could have afforded them in order to devote themselves to the artistic exposure of issues that their fellow countrymen preferred to leave hidden in plain sight.
In Russia’s predominantly conservative society homophobia is a common form of defending all things “natural”, corruption accepted as a given of daily life and feminism has to many, men and women alike, the appeal of bad breath.