Pussy Riot is just the start of the fight for free speech in Russia

There are indications that people are ready to kick back against Putin.

Today’s guilty verdict in the Pussy Riot case has confirmed Vladimir Putin not as the sucessor to Stalin, but sucessor to the tsars. Putin is anointed little father, and the church-state monster against which Tolokonnikov, Alekhina and Semutsevich protested at Christ The Saviour Cathedral in March has bitten back.

When the three members of the art collective entered the cathedral in March, they cannot have imagined where it would end - Pussy Riot members told Index on Censorship that the arrests had been a surprise. Some of the group had previously staged anti-government actions in Moscow, and even been arrested, but nothing could have prepared them for this ordeal.

That is not to say that these are naive people. Pussy Riot is loosely affiliated to the avant-garde art group Voina (“War”), which has staged increasingly daring activities over the past few years. In 2010, the group audaciously managed to paint an enormous penis on St Petersburg’s Liteinyi Bridge. The action took exhaustive planning, but the result was brilliant, and hilarious: as the bridge was raised at night, the huge phallus pointed directly at the city’s FSB headquarters. That work, “Cock Held Captive By The FSB”, won an award for innovation in art. Two years later, Voina's feminist counterpart has been condemned.

The female nature of the protest is at least part of the problem. Though their name itself is meaningless to most Russians, the dresses and tights and appeals to the Virgin Mary to become a feminist in their “punk prayer” are a very clear signal that this is about women. In a country whose leader takes every opportunity to exhibit his manly attributes - horseriding with no shirt on, judo, magically discovering ancient artefacts while out for a swim, subduing unruly polar bears - feminism in itself is a provocation - even un-Russian, as the prosecution in the trial claimed.

Russian-ness, now the property of Putin and the church, brooks no criticism. Alexey Navalny, a popular opposition blogger and figurehead, faces charges of embezzlement. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, immensely wealthy and openly critical of the Kremlin, proved too much of a threat and is now imprisoned. Sergei Magnitsky, sent to investigate fraud by officials, ended up dead in a cell. Journalists from critical publications are routinely harassed and sometimes killed, without the hint of a proper investigation into the assaults. One newspaper alone, Novaya Gazeta (owned by Alexander Lebedev and Mikhail Gorbachev) has lost three contributors in the past six years - all, incidentally, women.

Through all of this, little father Putin has enjoyed the support of Patriarch Kirill, head of the Orthodox church. When Pussy Riot staged their protest, Kirill - a man so saintly he sought to censor evidence of his $30,000 wristwatch, lest the faithful be driven to covetous thoughts upon seeing it - called not for compassion and mercy, but for action against the blasphemers.

In February, just weeks before the Pussy Riot protest, Kirill described the Putin reign as a “miracle of God”, and denounced the "ear-piercing shrieks" of the democratic opposition as a danger to Russia, influenced by western consumer culture.

He may be right. Part of the reason why the Pussy Riot story is so big in the West is that we think we understand the references: punk rock, Riot Grrrl - these are the cool girls from school. The first martyrs of what has already been dismissed in Russia as a hipster revolution.

The generation that grew up in the brief, chaotic, democratic gap between the fall of the Wall and the rise of the new tsar know about free speech. And there are increasing signs they will fight for it.

Padraig Reidy is News Editor of Index on Censorship

A Pussy Riot supporter protests near the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Photograph: Getty Images
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“It was like a religious ceremony”: What happened at Big Ben’s final bong?

Both inside and outside Parliament, people gathered to hear the clock’s final midday chime before undergoing repairs.

“It’s just hacks everywhere,” a photographer sighs, jamming his lens through a gap in Parliament’s railings to try and get a closer look.

New Palace Yard, Parliament’s courtyard directly below Big Ben, is filling with amused-looking journalists, waiting for the MPs who have promised to hold a “silent vigil”, heads bowed, to mark Big Ben’s final chime before four years of silence while the tower’s repaired.

About four of them turn up. Two by accident.

It’s five minutes to twelve. Tourists are gathering outside Westminster Tube, as tourists do best. A bigger crowd fills Parliament Square. More people than expected congregate outside, even if it’s the opposite within the Palace. The world and his phone are gazing up at the sad, resigned clock face.


“It’s quite controversial, isn’t it?” one elderly woman in an anorak asks her friend. They shrug and walk off. “Do you know what is this?” an Italian tourist politely asks the tiny press pack, gesturing to the courtyard. No one replies. It’s a good question.

“This is the last time,” says another tourist, elated, Instagram-poised.

“DING DONG DING DONG,” the old bell begins.

Heads down, phones up.


It finishes the on-the-hour tune for the last time, and then gives its much-anticipated resignation statement:

“BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.”

Applause, cheers, and even some tears.


But while the silly-seasoned journalists snigger, the crowd is enthusiastic.

“It’s quite emotional,” says David Lear, a 52-year-old carer from Essex, who came up to London today with his work and waited 45 minutes beneath Big Ben to hear it chime.

He feels “very, very sad” that the bell is falling silent, and finds the MPs’ vigil respectful. “I think lots of people feel quite strongly about it. I don’t know why they’re doing it. During the war it carries on, and then they turn it off for a health and safety reason.”

“I don’t know why they can’t have some speakers half way down it and just play the chime,” he adds. “So many tourists come especially to listen to the chime, they gather round here, getting ready for it to go – and they’re going to switch it off. It’s crazy.”

Indeed, most of the surrounding crowd appears to be made up of tourists. “I think that it was gorgeous, because I’ve never heard him,” smiles Cora, an 18-year-old German tourist. “It was a great experience.”

An Australian couple in their sixties called Jane and Gary are visiting London for a week. “It was like a religious ceremony, everybody went quiet,” laughs Gary. “I hope they don’t forget where they put the keys to start it again in four years’ time.”

“When we first got here, the first thing we did was come to see it,” adds Jane, who is also positive about the MPs who turned up to watch. “I think it’s good they showed a bit of respect. Because they don’t usually show much respect, do they?”

And, as MPs mouthing off about Big Ben are challenged on their contrasting reactions to Grenfell, that is precisely the problem with an otherwise innocent show of sentimentality.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.