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Elliot Alpern: Pussy Riot's place in a social revolution

By Elliot Alpern, Daily Music Columnist
Published February 10, 2014

Back when I first inherited this column my junior year, I followed up my inagural article with a commentary on the Russian band Pussy Riot after two of its musicians had been convicted of “hooliganism.” Desperate to make an original opinion on a controversial issue, I took on the devil’s advocate to some degree, asking if perhaps the band members were entirely blameless. It was naiveté at its finest, and with recent news of the band coupled with the ongoing Sochi Olympics, I wanted to revisit the issue at this tail end of my tenure as music columnist for the Daily.

First and foremost: After being released from prison in December of last year, both Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were essentially kicked out of the band this past week. I think the standard reaction here would be confusion or frustration. Why, after gaining so much traction as advocates against various types of oppression, would the other musicians force out the two band-members who represent strongest their plight against persecution?

Once again, the issue is more complex than headlines would indicate. The decision seems to have been solidified, in some part, from a performance in New York City on Feb. 5: the Amnesty International Concert. Both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina took the stage after being introduced by none other than Madonna — is anyone really surprised that the Amnesty International Concert would feature two of the most prominent human rights activists in the music world?

Yes — according to the rest of Pussy Riot, this is the antithesis of their movement.

“Our performances are always ‘illegal,’ ” an open letter posted on the band’s blog said. “Staged only in unpredictable locations and public places not designed for traditional entertainment … Unfortunately for us, (Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina) are being so carried away with the problems in Russian prisons, that they completely forgot about the aspirations and ideals of our group — feminism, separatist resistance, fight against authoritarianism and personality cult…”

It will be interesting, to say the least, to watch what happens with Pussy Riot as we move forward. The two jailed ex-bandmates seem in no way ready to stop as they shift more toward exposing the human rights abuses of the Russian jails — but more intriguing are the possibilities with the rest of the band as it stands now.

Especially with the Sochi Olympics now underway, Russia has spent an uncomfortably long time in the spotlight for its human rights abuses (like the recent, much-condemned anti-gay propaganda laws) and widespread corruption. And despite Pussy Riot’s penchant for underground resistance movements, this is the type of stage to send a message, however “illegal” or disruptive it needs to be. The interest is there — just last week, Russian snowboarder Alexey Sobolev was reported to have a graphic of a “female figure in a balaclava wielding a knife” on his snowboard, an iconic image of the band. “Anything is possible,” he said when asked if it was a direct allusion to the band — “I wasn’t the designer.”

The reason that this becomes an even more critical juncture for action comes with an analysis of the Russian population as a whole. Back when Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were sentenced to the absurd punishment of two years in jail, even Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he thought the band members didn’t deserve prison time. But public opinion told a different story — despite Western condemnation, about two-thirds of the Russian populace thought that the sentence was either appropriate or not heavy enough. It’s not difficult to see the reason why — the percent of Orthodox Christians has risen from around 15-20% of the overall population in 1989 to near 70% in 2013. Combine that with Pussy Riot’s staunch criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church, and it’s not difficult to see why the group has fallen out of favor even among their own people.

It’s important, here, to clarify — there’s obviously nothing wrong with being religious. We’re taught that tolerance and acceptance of cultural differences is our best public policy. The complexity of the issue comes with the fact that the recent anti-gay laws aren’t, at least, as unpopular in the populace of Russia as they are here in the US. The blame can be pointed anywhere, but a growing conservatism born from an increasingly religious population must at least be considered.

Yet even in St. Petersburg and Moscow, LGBT communities are still alive and flourishing — and those are the battlegrounds where awareness can not only be spread, but maybe even diffused into the more conservative communities from there. And it will take local activists, like Pussy Riot, to really spark that social revolution.


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