Russia – The "Pussy Riot" Case – Why Freedom For Punk Rockers May Be One of Russia’s Most Important Issues Right Now – 29 July 2012

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/29/entertainment-us-russia-pussyriot-trial-idUSBRE86S0AZ20120729

Is this possibly the face of a new generation of protest? The Russian feminist punk band and art collective known as “Pussy Riot” has been in jail now since February, and faces up to – get this – seven years in prison, all for the horrifying crime of going up to the altar of a Russian Orthodox church and singing/chanting a “punk prayer” that Putin leave office…beseeching the Virgin Mary with a song entitled “Mother Of God, Cast Putin Out!”

Sounds petty, doesn’t it? Even if you may think it rates as some kind of disorderly conduct for this punk band to borrow the altar of the church to put on a show of their anti-Putin political beliefs, isn’t it amazing that anyone would think this was so bad that seven years in jail are being seriously contemplated for these women? And also, isn’t it amazing that it isn’t just the government that is so over-the-top threatened by them, but indeed also the Russian Orthodox church itself?

Russia has made great strides towards democracy since 1991, but its commitment to “shock therapy” during the Yeltsin years led to many Russians identifying democracy with austerity, and ultimately to the regression of the country towards a defensive and conservative Putinist ideology that sacrifices civil liberties for more economic certainties. The trade off Putin offered was “you let me lead and don’t ask any questions, and I’ll protect the national interest”. That’s great if the way Putin leads counts your interests in with the nation’s, but not so great if it doesn’t. After twelve years of Putinist rule, those who have consistently been left out are finding their voices.

You might think it odd that where one stands on matters relating to a punk band called “Pussy Riot” could be a vital concern in one of the world’s largest and most populous countries. But for today’s democracy movement in Russia, it is. Of course, this is not the first time we’ve seen that kind of thing in an Eastern European country – one of the most important events in the history of the country of Czechoslovakia involved popular resistance to the censorship of the Czech avant-garde band Plastic People of the Universe (a band heavily influenced by Frank Zappa as well as the Velvet Underground). The Plastic People of the Universe trials left many dissidents in Czechoslovakia devotees of Zappa and the Velvet Underground – Vaclav Havel was a huge fan of both.

The comparison can be overplayed, of course. “Pussy Riot” doesn’t always seem to get the nuance between free speech and active incitement. The performance they gave at the Orthodox cathedral, for which they were arrested, doesn’t cross that line, but an earlier performance they gave at an anti-Putin rally, where they sang “A rebellious column moves toward the Kremlin, windows explode inside FSB offices” and “Revolt in Russia – Riot! Riot!” did pretty clearly cross the line.

But how odd, then, that these women were not arrested when they clearly sang those inciting lyrics, and only were arrested when all they did was publicly criticise Putin, and in a way which was considered impious by Russian Orthodox church members. Apparently it’s of more use to Putin to have people singing about violence, but when they switch gears and merely mock their leaders, they’re too dangerous to be allowed to walk the streets.

Maybe there’s a lesson in that for everyone. The big shots want you to foam at the mouth about violence – they’ll keep you around to do that because it’s good propaganda: “the only people who oppose us are violent”. But when artists choose instead to satirise a corrupt and ethically challenged regime, it’s much more dangerous to the regime. Maybe some protesters over here would do well to recognise that.

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