Why We Should Still Care About Pussy Riot

by February 14, 2014
filed under Activism

Pussy_Riot_by_Igor_Mukhin

Eleven Russian women in their early twenties and thirties formed Pussy Riot – a feminist punk rock group with anarchist and left leaning ripostes to President Vladimir Putin whom they openly call a dictator. No argument here. Pussy Riot was pissed off by discriminatory policies enacted by Putin and his confederacy of old white men in the Russian Orthodox Church that restricted women’s access to legal abortions.

Sound familiar?

On February 21, 2012, Pussy Riot staged one of their ‘unauthorized’ guerilla performances at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. They then made a music video of the footage called, Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away! Less than a month later, three members of Pussy Riot: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were arrested and charged with ‘hooliganism,’ were denied bail and sat in jail for four months awaiting trial. The young women were convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’, and each sentenced to two years imprisonment.

News of Pussy Riot and the Russian judicial system’s overweening reaction to their prank ignited an international outcry from fellow musicians, artists and other activist networks including Occupy. Amnesty International called the women ‘prisoners of conscience,’ while the sweetheart Putin took his usual fall back position of tough daddy saying that the band had ‘undermined the moral foundations’ of the nation and ‘got what they asked for’.

Free Pussy Riot called for a Global Day of Action a month after their sentence, urging people to sign a petition on Change.org and show up in public spaces with signs, colorful balaclavas like the ones Pussy Riot wore in the cathedral. A theater in England staged a play call Pussy Riot: Final Verdict.

The good news is that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were released this past December. Samutsevich was released earlier after an appeal. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina came out swinging, claiming their release was nothing more than Putin gussying up his image in advance of the Sochi Olympics this month.

Madonna introduced Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina at Amnesty International’s benefit concert on February 5th in New York City with performances by Imagine Dragons, the Flaming Lips and Lauryn Hill. “I have admired their courage and have long supported their commitment and the sacrifices they have made in the name of freedom of expression and human rights.”

Alyokhina was tentative in saying what the future of Pussy Riot would be and whether it would continue as it had up until their arrests, but she did say that she and Tolokonnikova plan to stay connected to the core of their brand of activism: “If a person is connected with art, then that’s forever. It’s impossible to stop. It’s within.” The two women plan build a human rights organization that will use “the brightness and illumination of the mass media” to improve the treatment of prisoners with special attention paid to those incarcerated in Mordovia, where Tolokonnikova was imprisoned. You can also watch the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer on HBO and in theaters in most places except Russia.

Why should you care about Pussy Riot? You might think their music, their politics or their tactics suck. You might be waiting for them to cash in and star in the next Hollywood movie. (Yes, offers have been made). Any time a citizen is punished for speaking out non-violently, that punishment is meant for the rest of us. Not for the ones who dare to raise their voices but for us wallflowers who look on and maybe agree with our bolder brothers and sisters but are too nervous to put ourselves on the line with them. It’s meant to scare us into line. Like sheep.

The West’s response to this case was no surprise – we pride ourselves on our assumed freedoms – but as people mobilized around these three valiant ladies, wagging the collective finger at Russia and Putin’s oppressive ethos, I was quietly nagged by that well worn quote: “You can point a finger, but there’s three pointing back at you.”

It’s enticingly easy to throw some sanctimonious shade at Putin. The problem is we run the risk of lying to ourselves that our country is ‘better.’ We have ‘more freedom.’ Fact is our country has been making hay whittling away at our rights. (See NDAA, SOPA, Patriot Act and the NSA scandal.) You can point to everything from robbing women of the dignity of choice. You can point to black and brown people being robbed of the dignity to walk down the street without being shot at with impunity by ‘scared’ white people. Look up Aaron Swartz. Look up Matthew Duran, Katherine Olejnik and Maddie Pfeiffer who were held in solitary confinement for months in Seattle for refusing to testify for a Grand Jury under false pretenses. There are countless other stories like this buried in the media of people taking a stand and risking their stability, livelihoods, peace of mind and even their lives. So while we look on the transgressions of other states, as we should, let’s always keep an eye on our land of the free because these days, we have more in common with Putin’s Russia than anyone is comfortable to admit.


Support FLURT with Spreadshirt