Pussy Riot: a riot of their own

A little while ago I was blogging about protest songs and Bob Dylan. I'm sure you'll recall (!) that I was saying that Dylan's often described as a "protest singer" more because of his artistic decisions than the content of his songs. Or something like that ...

By contrast, I don't think there's any ambiguity over the (now well-known) Russian punk band Pussy Riot. Everything about this band screams "protest". Their name, their brightly-coloured clothing, the fact they wear balaclavas. And where they play. They're known for their staged "protest"-style outdoor performances - they’re a sort of cross between street theatre and political demo. Have a look at some videos: here, here and here.

Personally, in purely musical terms, I reckon we might be talking style over content. I like a good dollop of punk rock like the next man/woman, but Pussy Riot do strike me as being more Sigue Sigue Sputnik than the Sex Pistols.

Anyway, rock and roll has been about stylised confrontation ever since … well, always. Pussy Riot's stuff wouldn’t cause much of a stir in many parts of the world, yet the Russian authorities seem to be out to make an example of them. A stunt of theirs in a church in  February (see the video) has led to three of the band’s members being arrested and charged with a criminal offence (“hooliganism” under article 213 of Russia’s criminal code). They could end up with a seven-year prison sentence.

Right. What about what they did ...? Provocative? Yes. Offensive to some people? Undoubtedly, not least, I imagine, for some Christians. But should they go to prison for it? You’re joking ….

Nevertheless, three Pussy Riot members - Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samusevich - have now been behind bars for weeks awaiting a hearing to determine whether they are going to go on trial; they’re likely to stay locked up until at least 25 April.

What’s really just a piece of attention-grabbing political theatre, a statement of political anger with guitars as props, should not be the concern of the courts. What they did was somewhat disruptive and not to everyone’s taste, but it surely wasn’t in the least bit criminal. The right to free expression, to be able to speak openly and sometimes give rise to offence whilst doing so, is a firmly established human rights principle. Amnesty says that Maria, Nadezhda and Ekaterina - the Pussy Riot Three - are prisoners of conscience and should be released immediately. That’s surely right. (Meanwhile, of course, there’s the utterly unbelievable case of two brothers in Cuba who’ve been jailed for listening to political hip hop ….. bloody hell. Take action on their case).

I should declare an interest. Not only do I work for Amnesty but I also like a bit of political music, especially the flamboyantly in-your-face kind that the pussy rioters specialise in. Over the years I’ve enjoyed Crass’ militant anarchism, Billy Bragg’s proletarian balladry and Huggy Bear/Bikini Kill’s riot grrl stuff (quite a good gig this last one: Hacienda, in about 1993). And if I want to go and hear a punk-poet decrying capitalism in a bookshop in east London (I have been known to do exactly this!) then I think I should be able to do so without fearing the police will arrest either me or the person on the mic.

In their punk classic White Riot, The Clash used to shout out the lines “Everybody's doing / Just what they're told to / Nobody wants / To go to jail”, their rallying cry against conformity and fear. Like a lot of disgruntled Russians, Pussy Riot want to be able to speak out without going to jail. They want a (symbolic) riot of their own.

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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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