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February 20, 2014

Pussy Riot vs. Cossacks at the Olympics: A War of Images (This Time)

Pussy Riot’s arrival in Sochi caused a predictable stir on Wednesday when the feminist punk protestors clashed with Russian security forces. At first glance, the images of uniformed men brandishing whips invoke other instances of men brutalizing women who agitate for personal freedom and/or political rights—for example, the 2011 Egyptian pro-democracy protestor or the woman suffragists overtaken as they picketed Woodrow Wilson during World War I:

In this case, however, the women appeared to maintain the upper hand in the altercation with what turned out to be a quasi-official police force: Russian Cossacks. According to the Washington Post , the Cossacks, modern descendants of “czarist-era horsemen who patrolled the borders of the Russian empire,” are a “sort of volunteer citizen patrol” that has been enlisted to help the police provide security for the Winter Olympics. Their violent response to Pussy Riot can potentially be explained by their socially conservative politics and support for the Russian Orthodox Church (an entity offended by Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” demonstration against Vladimir Putin at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 2012). Despite the Cossacks’ forceful deployment of their whips, the members of Pussy Riot stand defiant, their colorful attire mocking the Cossacks’ staid dark uniforms and furry hats.

Video of the altercation reveals that the attack was brief but brutal, with Cossacks spraying the dissidents with pepper spray, striking them with whips, and throwing them to the ground. Despite the ferocity of the response, however, the clash was less of a melee than it was a media event. Pussy Riot was filming their performance as part of the release of a new song entitled “Putin Teaches Us to Love Our Motherland.” Police were snapping photos of Pussy Riot members as they were being unmasked by the Cossacks. Journalists and bystanders were dutifully recording the events as they unfolded. Once all sides obtained the necessary footage, the crowd dispersed (presumably turning to the more important task of posting their footage on social media).The Telegraph’s video shows Pussy Riot members calmly gathering their coats and guitar after the scuffle subsided.

Media event or not, the images of Wednesday’s altercation will linger, as will the impression the images connote:  powerful, undisciplined women defying masculine sentinels of a bygone era. Members of Pussy Riot are, of course, risking both their personal freedom and bodily safety by speaking out against Putin.  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina (in the blue and pink balaclavas, in the lead image) were recently released after spending nearly 2 years in a Russian prison for previous protests, and the pair was briefly detained upon their arrival in Sochi on Tuesday. Who knows what will happen when the Olympic spotlight is no longer trained on Putin.

– Karrin Anderson | @KVAnderson

(photo 1: Morry Gash/AP. caption: Members of the punk group Pussy Riot, including Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in the blue balaclava and Maria Alekhina in the pink balaclava, are attacked by Cossack militia in Sochi, Russia. photo 2: Reuters. illustration: Founding Feminists 1913 via feminist.org. screenshots 4 & 5: Telegraph.co.uk video.)

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