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Why Pussy Riot Matters

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This Friday a verdict will be announced in Russia in the trial of three female members of the punk band Pussy Riot, which could result in a sentence of three years for "hooliganism."

What was their "hooliganism?" On February 21 of this year, the three young ladies performed the song "Mother Of God, Drive Putin Out" at Christ The Savior Cathedral in Moscow in what they deemed a "punk prayer." Okay, I may be using the term "ladies" loosely, but two of the three are mothers, and they all have been held for six months in detention thus far for this seemingly harmless stunt.

What was their crime? Offending Vladimir Putin.

Putin has engineered matters in Russia so that, barring the unexpected, he will remain in power until 2024, and he is tightening his grip on opponents of his regime, and clamping down on social liberalization. Perhaps the fates of Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak (and soon, perhaps Bashar al-Assad) are on his mind. Maybe he is just really thin-skinned. But the fact is, by punishing Pussy Riot for the crime of ridiculing him he has opened himself to worldwide criticism and, ironically, ridicule.

In a moment of protest that was startlingly brave given the circumstances, Madonna took off her blouse in concert to reveal "Pussy Riot" written on her back and told the audience, "I pray for their freedom." Why was it brave? She did it in Moscow. The Russian deputy minister Dimitry Rogozin thoughtfully responded by calling Madonna a "former slut."

Why is Siberian tiger-whisperer Vladimir Putin afraid of Pussy Riot?

In her provocative closing statement in the criminal case against her, Pussy Riot Yekaterina Samutsevich stated:

"Why did Putin feel the need to exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetic? After all, he could have employed his own, far more secular tools of power -- for example, the state-controlled corporations, or his menacing police system, or his obedient judiciary system. It may be that the harsh, failed policies of Putin's government, the incident with the submarine Kursk, bombings of civilians in broad daylight, and other unpleasant moments in his political career forced him to ponder the fact that it was high time to resign; that otherwise, the citizens of Russia would help him do this. Apparently, it was then that he felt the need for more persuasive, transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the pinnacle of power. It was then that it became necessary to make use of the aesthetic of the Orthodox religion, which is historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself."

There is a line in Ridley Scott's Prometheus, where Michael Fassbender's character David states, "Big things have small beginnings." This line was also used in Lawrence of Arabia. The Arab Spring movement was started when a Tunisian merchant immolated himself, and his protest went viral through the region, upending entire governments.

Vladimir Putin might want to deliberate on the unintended consequences that might result from a harsh verdict against Pussy Riot on Friday. As we have seen in the last two years, what was once unthinkable is becoming common.

Pussy Riot's Yekaterina Samutsevich stated, "We are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won." Pussy Riot are not nobodies, and on Friday, they may become historic.

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