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August 16, 2013

Pussy Riot Day of Solidarity

By Innokenty Grekov
Fighting Discrimination Program

One year ago three members of Pussy Riot were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for staging a 40-second nonviolent protest in Russia’s main church. Today, Ekaterina Samutsevich, now free on probation, is waging a legal battle and an international campaign on behalf of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mariya Alyokhina, who will meet the anniversary in labor camps.

August 17 is a Day of Solidarity, and across the world protest actions are scheduled in front of Russian embassies and consulates. It’s easy to join the action if you’re in New York or Washington, D.C. The organizers invite you to show up with signs and wear a bright neon mask and colorful clothes reflecting Pussy Riot’s style.

The arrest of Pussy Riot drew international attention to Russia’s crackdown on dissent, which has only intensified. The band members fell victim to anti-extremism laws, which the government misuses to prosecute religious believers, civic activists, and journalists and bloggers. Just this summer, two ultranationalists were released in the court room after receiving suspended prison sentences for beating up immigrants on a commuter train outside Moscow. These thugs were deemed less dangerous to Russian society than Mariya Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.

The law on extremism lacks a definition of extremism, giving law enforcers and courts broad powers to interpret the law. In an epic legal battle, a Siberian prosecutor even tried to ban the Bhagavad Gita as extremist. The prosecutor failed, but absurd court decisions in other cases banned the distribution of more than 2,000 items—the Federal List of Extremist Materials—including religious texts and Pussy Riot’s videos. That’s partly why Pussy Riot’s international acclaim is poorly reflected in the Russian state-run media scene: journalists and bloggers can get in trouble for embedding or hyperlinking banned works that explain the artists’ hopes and worldview.

In all likelihood, Nadezhda and Mariya will serve out the remainder of their two-year sentence. They will be imprisoned during the September G20 Summit in Saint Petersburg and during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi—two key events that will shine an international spotlight on Russia. But as international scrutiny mounts, the branding experiment by the Russian authorities is under threat, and the government only has itself to blame for the stories of violence, corruption, and injustice.

The Kremlin may still come to senses and take steps to address the negative publicity. In the meantime, world leaders attending the G20 Summit should express solidarity with Russia’s oppressed, meet with activists in Saint Petersburg, and work with Russian media to reaffirm the universal values and freedoms threatened by the government’s recent behavior.

Years from now, what will stand out in the trial of Pussy Riot is not the legally nihilistic verdict, but Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s closing statement, a manifesto of everything she sees wrong with today’s Russia. Almost a year later, at a parole hearing she reiterated her views, predicting the decline of Putin’s regime and promising that “our symbolic power, rising from conviction and courage, growing stronger with each passing year, will transform into something much greater.”