Pussy Riot: putting the punk back into punk rock

Media coverage of the Pussy Riot case in Russia has gone into overdrive today, with the first day of the trial getting underway. Maria Alekhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova are accused of “hooliganism on the grounds of religious hatred”. They’re on trial at Moscow’s Khamovniki Court and could be sentenced to seven years in jail if found guilty.

In a sense battle lines on the case are already drawn. The Russian authorities - both prosecutorial and religious - see the Pussy Riot “action” in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February as a criminal act. To them the Pussy Riot “Punk Prayer”  video stunt was not only offensive to many Russian Orthodox believers in Russia (and beyond), but also - crucially - criminal in nature.

On the first part, offensiveness - I can see that. Personally I’m not at all religious but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect other peoples’ sincere beliefs over issues of faith. A few years ago I watched a moving ceremony in an Orthodox church in Kiev, complete with beautiful chanting and clouds of incense smoke wafting from three ornate censers swung by priests with (rather magnificent) beards. (Those knowledgeable on Orthodox Christian ceremony - do correct me on this or add to my not-very-well-informed account here … ).

So OK, jumping around on a church altar while a CD player blasts out rock music is not very religiously “sensitive” and is exactly the sort of thing that will get you labelled “offensive”. But does it also make you a criminal? My view: not at all. Pleading not guilty to hooliganism, the three women have already acknowledged what they call an “ethical mistake” in offending religious believers. That’s surely the right way of viewing this: yes offence was caused and the women may have been unwise to cause that offence; but no, this was not a question of criminal behaviour.

(There's a very popular text campaign from Amnesty which is calling on the Russian authorities to drop the charges against the three women who it considers are prisoners of conscience. Do support it. You do not need to wear a yellow day-glo balaclava to do your bit, but I've no objection if you feel the urge to slip one on ... ).

Let’s step back for a second. The band is called “Pussy Riot”. Yep, shades of the Sex Pistols, Bikini Kill and a host of bands that have played around with images of sex and violence. Their “concerts” are actually better described as stunts-with-music. Radio Free Europe's Brian Whitmore deconstructs the notion that they're a musical outfit in any traditional sense (in fact he almost seems to be accusing them of musical inauthenticity because of their agit-miming). He's right though, they're political provocateurs. Pussy Riot are a politicised art collective using music as a vehicle (in this they’re quite like Malcolm McLaren whose interest in the Sex Pistols was much less about their Stooges-esque rock than their ability to annoy the social conservatives of mid-1970s Britain, the Mary Whitehouse tendency).

Ekaterina Samutsevich, one of the three women now behind the bullet-proof glass of Khamovniki Court’s jury cage has said she sees the trial as “the start of a repressive authoritarian campaign which aims to hamper the public’s political activity and build a sense of fear among political activists.” These women are basically political activists being hounded for their temerity in publicly criticising some of Russia’s most powerful political figures/institutions. The band have been getting public support from musical big beasts like Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Sting, Franz Ferdinand and Peter Gabriel (plus smaller outfits like the not-bad-sounding Washington indie band Brenda (DC)) - all good to see - though it’s really a case of musicians supporting a group of political activists rather than fellow musicians (the gesture’s no less important).

Finally, to take up Brian Whitmore’s slightly sniffy attitude about their musical inauthenticity - are Pussy Riot punks? As a fan of the genre I reckon it’s true to say that punk is about attitude - not just (or even necessarily) about music. In this sense Pussy Riot are definitely putting the punk back into punk rock.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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