Pro-democracy punks

August 28, 2012

Alexander Billet reports on the global solidarity movement forming in defense of Russian punk rockers and pro-democracy activists Pussy Riot.

CHAOTIC AND dramatic. That definitely seems the best way to describe the August 17 action in front of Chicago's City Hall. If for no other reason than its inclusion of the brightly colored balaclavas, the punk rock energy and defiant attitude that crackled through the attendees.

Yes, it was small--press estimated 40 of us. But the news from Moscow earlier in the day that the three members of Pussy Riot had been found guilty of "hooliganism" and "religious hatred" certainly made everyone a lot more pissed off, and rightfully so.

Chants that went up: "What do we want? Free speech! Where do we want it? Everywhere!" "We are all hooligans!" "Women's rights are human rights! Free Pussy Riot!" "From Russia to Palestine, free speech is not a crime!"

Chicago is Moscow's sister city, so there was a certain symbolism. Ours was far from the only action taking place in solidarity with Pussy Riot, however. In Moscow itself, a crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 gathered outside the courthouse, with several demonstrators arrested. Embassies and consulates in Berlin, Stockholm, Paris, San Francisco and no less than 20 other cities were beset by supporters.

Activists in Melbourne, Australia, gather to show their support for members of Pussy Riot
Activists in Melbourne, Australia, gather to show their support for members of Pussy Riot (Mark Burban)

This, in essence, is the exact kind of bottom-up punk-infused outrage that has allowed the three members of Pussy Riot--Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina--to become so well known. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say that the face of Russia's still burgeoning movement for democracy now wears a neon balaclava.

The decision to convict Nadia, Masha and Katya (as they're affectionately called by supporters) doesn't exactly come as a shock. The three women have faced an almost circus-like variety of repression ever since being arrested in February and March. When the verdict was announced on the 17th, Judge Marina Sirovaya made the defendants stand for two and a half hours as she unnecessarily went through detail after detail of their case.

Among her list of incriminating evidence, the judge included the fact that Pussy Riot were "engaged in homosexual propaganda," and that they behaved "provocatively" due to their short dresses. In the face of all this, it's really no wonder why Alyokhina in her closing statement called the proceedings a "so-called trial."

The use of such blatant homophobia and sexism is indicative of the Russian state's vicious repression against both feminist and queer liberation movements. A poll cited by the website Jezebel finds that only 7 percent of Russian women identify as feminists, while 45 percent of men find feminism "detestable."

Though non-straight sexuality and relations are technically legal under Russian law, seven regions have passed bans on "homosexual propaganda," five of them in 2012. The very same day that the Pussy Riot verdict was handed down, a Moscow court banned all LGBT pride marches for the next 100 years!

AS FOR Nadia, Masha and Katya, all three have been sentenced to two years of labor in a minimum-security prison colony (a phrase that carries with it all the quasi-Stalinist ominousness it is intended to). Upon leaving the courtroom, Tolokonnikova's husband Pyotr Verzilov (a fellow member of the radical art collective Voina) quipped, "Whatever Putin wants, Putin gets."

Though the three women could plead for clemency from Putin himself, they have no intention of doing so, as it would entail them admitting guilt. Instead, according to their lawyer Mark Feygin, they will be appealing to the European Court of Human Rights.

This brand of repression is nothing new for Russian artists and punks. The censorship and abuse that punk bands endured during the final decade of the Soviet Union continued relatively unabated with the rise of the Russian Federation.

The stultifying political atmosphere ramped up under Putin and his lackey Medvedev during the last 12 years has until recently pushed political resistance to the margins. None of this signified any such "business as usual" for most people--in particular the brave LGBT rights movement that consistently braved billy clubs from cops, pro-Putin street gangs and even neo-Nazis.

It's no wonder, then, that Russia's avant-garde art scene has been revived during this period. All three members of Pussy riot referenced the country's rich history of subversive and revolutionary art in their closing statements--as well as a list of repression against it, going back to young Dostoevsky's prison time for his association with utopian socialists.

What seems to have truly unleashed this scene onto a whole new level, as well as put some real fear into the Russian authorities, is the political climate--not only in Russia, but around the globe. For this same reason, the fight around Pussy Riot, the artistic movements they've inspired, and the repression meted out to them, are likely just beginning.

ONE CAN'T help but see the similarities between the Pussy Riot case and that of Hamada Ben Amor. On the morning of January 6, 2011, Tunisian secret police busted down the door of Ben Amor's home in Sfax and arrested him. Ben Amor's "crime" was recording and releasing a hip-hop song under his moniker El General.

The song, "Rais Lebled," was a protest against the corrupt, neoliberal regime of President Ben Ali. These were the initial weeks of revolt in what would become the Tunisian revolution, and Ben Ali's security forces were going to every length to crush dissent of any kind.

As the world now knows, they wouldn't succeed. As word spread of Ben Amor's arrest, and as the video for "Rais Lebled" rocketed around the world, demonstrators began to rally outside police headquarters in Tunis where he was being held. After three days, Ben Amor was released unharmed.

Of course, there are obvious differences between the case of Pussy Riot and that of El General. For one thing, Russia is (at least nominally) a democracy, while most serious Tunisians had disposed of that pretense about the Ben Ali regime years ago. For another, El General's case never went to trial.

Where the similarities converge the most, however, has been the amount of mobilization that both have provoked among newly radicalized layers of young people. In fact, for better or for worse, the level of solidarity for Pussy Riot has far outstripped that for El General.

Here is a cursory list of artists who over the past several weeks have come out in support of Pussy Riot: Sting, Kate Nash, Madonna, Franz Ferdinand, Kathleen Hanna, Björk, Peter Gabriel, Faith No More, Jarvis Cocker (formerly of Pulp), Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, Die Antwoord, Yoko Ono, Rise Against, Nina Hagen, Peaches, Johnny Marr of the Smiths and Modest Mouse, Paul McCartney, Corinne Bailey Rae, Patti Smith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bryan Adams, Pete Townsend and several others.

Some of these artists have a genuine history of political activism (Patti Smith, Rise Against). Others, like Die Antwoord and Peaches are relative newcomers to the realm of solidarity. And still more like Madonna and the Chili Peppers find themselves in contradiction between their support for Pussy Riot and their refusal to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians.

All of them, however, reflect a genuine groundswell of activism and support that sprung up from the beginning. Within days of news of the arrests, impromptu actions came together emulating the group's signature balaclava-clad performances. Plenty of DIY benefit gigs were thrown by local punk bands and avant-garde performers. In a matter of months these small actions have snowballed into such pressure that even Russian oil tycoons and the German Bundestag have been forced to express support (albeit quite often for their own opportunistic reasons).

Activists should be aware that Russia's powers that be and Putin himself have felt this pressure too. On July 20th, state officials were so sure of themselves that Judge Sirovaya was able to rule that the three women would face at least six more months in jail without even the mention of a trial. The uproar from artists and public figures of every stripe was so sweeping that within a week the same judge not only pushed through a trial date but started the trial itself!

A few days later, Putin, who had said very little about the case in an effort to appear not so "l'etat c'est moi," mentioned that he didn't believe the women should be treated too harshly. Even the two year sentence, as opposed to the seven years that a religious hatred sentence can potentially bring with it, reveals to a certain extent the results that public pressure can yield.

It also reveals that in times like these, even the most unshakable powers can be scared. Not of the musicians themselves, but of the movements they represent. It's hard to imagine the public support of Pussy Riot or this scale of repression if tens of thousands hadn't protested the winter elections. In turn, it seems impossible to separate the revived Russian democracy movement from the revolutions that shook the Arab world, the Occupy movement, or the general strikes in Greece and Spain.

In this context, lyrics like "do Tahrir in Red Square!" and "Putin's pissed himself!" seem like a lot more than mere words. They're living breathing realities. I'm not the only one who thinks so either. Even Masha, Katya and Nadia have been taken aback by how much traction their ideas have gained. As Tolokonnikova said in her closing statement:

[S]trange as it may seem all our songs have turned out to be prophetic, including the one that says: "The KGB chief, their number one saint, will escort protesters off to jail!" That's us. What I'd like to quote now, however, is the next line: "Open the doors, off with the shoulder-straps, join us in a taste of freedom."

It tastes sweet. And all of Putin's sourness can't take that away.

First published at Red Wedge Magazine.

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