It’s just doing hard time in a Russian gulag.
Last month three women from the Russian punk protest collective Pussy Riot were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years each in a prison work camp. No clemency was granted for having an awesome band name.
In an effort to parse out just exactly what hooliganism is, as defined by the Russian legal system, I looked to the all-seeing eye of the Internet, which framed it as “a gross violation of public order, showing a disrespect for society.” While perhaps a little vague and conspicuously convenient to interpretations benefiting the state, that definition may be the only element of the Pussy Riot proceedings that has any mooring to reality.
They’re a punk band. You know — marginalized, disenfranchised and demanding to be heard? Pointed disrespect and violations of public order are practically the entire job description.
The stunt that earned these women a prison sentence can be seen in a video where a bunch of masked girls overtake a Russian Orthodox cathedral variously genuflecting submissively and jumping around the dais defiantly. The footage was then set to a song whose title can be translated loosely as “Virgin Mother Please Banish Putin.”
That the Russian court has refused to consider the performance as a political protest and has instead determined it to be a religiously motivated hate crime is itself an interesting commentary on the coziness between the post-communist Putin camp and the de facto state religion; it is this relationship the group sought to comment on.
This bait-and-switch between religious and political protest is unfortunately at the low end of a grievous list of injustices exacted by the court whose recent ruling serves as a policy mandate from the Putin administration stating: Dissent is Still Verboten. The window dressings may have changed in the old soviet block but the view overlooking Red Square looks awfully familiar.
Sure, busting into a church to muck things up and disturb people while they worship is insensitive and crass. It’s also absolutely bound to happen under the thumb of a shapeshifting, undying, fascist junta whose domestic policy demands, effectively, “keep your mouth shut or else.”
Outside of supporting and repeating the cries of foul play that have issued forth from around the world, it seems that taking the Pussy Riot affair as a point of reflection is the most important and productive response to the situation. Mostly it comes down to the value of dissent in a society, the place of art and activism in trumpeting that dissent, and the importance of these efforts in generating productive discussions about how we should carry ourselves and respond to the task of building and maintaining communities, sometimes in the face of direct opposition.
An unbroken chain of dissent circumscribes human history from Socrates to the real Jesus Christo himself, from Galileo to R.W. Emerson, Emma Goldman to Anne Braden, Vaclav Havel to Angela Davis to Ai Weiwei to Patti Smith to Iraqi punks being executed by the moral police to Pussy Riot in a Moscow courtroom. Their arms are locked together and, like some sprawling geo-glyph that can only be seen from an airplane, it spells out “Equity. Humanity. Justice.”
Either I used to be in punk bands, or I just hung around them. I’ve never been much of a musical activist, and at this stage in my life, my punk impulse is generally reserved for little screeds that I leave lying around like wet firecrackers. From what I can tell, the punk ethic in America has been absorbed/diluted by the mainstream so much that when Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan says his favorite band is Rage Against the Machine, it makes a blip on the “What did he just say?” radar screen roughly the size of an errant plastic bag or a lame pigeon; Gwen Stefani can somehow “legitimately” gesture vaguely back to punk bona fides while simultaneously representing most of what is totally depraved about late capitalist consumerism. A long, strange trip indeed.
All that said, Pussy Riot has shown us that there’s still room for music to be delivered as a clearly focused and broadly applicable traffic sign that reads, “Keep your eyes on the road. Something’s not right here.” Regardless of their methods, or even their motivations, the Pussy Riot trial has succeeded in highlighting Russia’s oppressive streak and, hopefully, in pointing to the same tendencies elsewhere.