Punk Continues to Be Punker Outside the U.S.: The Continued Detainment of Russian, Protesting Feminist-Punk Band Pussy Riot


As occasionally noted by Reason, especially in the kick-ass interview with Cuban dissident-punks Porno Para Ricardo, punk is just punker in other countries. As much as the U.S. has a whole lot to worry about when it comes to government oppression, often during protest situations in particular, well, we don't have a Putin yet. 

Putin has, in the words of the Democracy Index, played an integral part of turning Russia from "a hybrid to an authoritarian regime." So, in the middle of massive Russian protests against then-almost-President Putin (after 12 years of being more or less in charge of Russia, why stop now?) in February, two members the feminist-punk band Pussy Riot were arrested after they staged a flash-mob-esque performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Inside the lovely, holy place they sang "Punk Prayer," which included the lyrics (as translated by a youtube person):

St. Maria, Virgin, Drive away Putin
Drive away! Drive away Putin!

Black robe, golden epaulettes
All parishioners are crawling and bowing
The ghost of freedom is in heaven
Gay pride sent to Siberia in chains

The head of the KGB is their chief saint
Leads protesters to prison under escort
In order not to offend the Holy
Women have to give birth and to love

Holy shit, shit, Lord's shit!

Another member of the masked and brightly-dressed (I covet their tights, not their oppressive home country) band was arrested two weeks later. The ladies, held since March, are now facing up to seven years in prison for "hooliganism." Two of them have kids. Meanwhile Moscow in particular continues to have some serious scuffles and clashes over just why the hell that guy Putin is president again.

Today CNN has an interview with Pyotr Verzilov, the band's manager and the husband of one of the ladies whose arrest has caused some serious ripples across the world, in feminist, leftist, and generally humanitarian circles. Amnesty International dubbed the ladies "prisoners of conscience" and noted that they didn't hurt anyone or damage the church in any way.

And for those not wild about causing such a blasphemous (if the existence of such a thing is your bag) ruckus in church, please note the intention was specifically to protest the close ties of the Russian government and the Orthodox Church. Notes The Nation:

The case has also illuminated and exposed divisions in the Russian Orthodox Church itself—between the hierarchy and many in the rank and file. The church has been at the forefront in calling for all involved in the Pussy Riot performance to be punished for their "blasphemy." In fact, according to the New York Times, priests said they were "ordered to circulate" a letter calling for the punk rockers "to be punished as severely as possible." The Moscow patriarch denied it. But a senior Orthodox cleric said the performers "have declared war on Orthodox people, and there will be a war."

Many in Russia view the actions and hyperbole the church is engaging in as a thinly veiled effort to deflect attention from its own corruption, power and immense wealth.

In March, RT America published a scolding editorial from a Russian priest that didn't outright call for jail time for crazy punk rockers, but certainly didn't bemoan the idea of a prank (blasphemous or not) deserving seven years in prison.

The website further describes the point of the protest:

Pussy Riot said their performance was a reaction to the Orthodox Church head Patriarch Kirills backing of President-elect Vladimir Putin in the run-up to his landslide March 4 election victory. The patriarch called the 12 years of Putin's rule a "miracle of God" in a televised meeting. 

The band also plays in more purely anti-authoritarian locations:

CNN: They were performing in these places that were difficult to get to—on top of a prison or in Red Square. How did you set that up, logistically?

Verzilov: Logistically it's not really difficult if you want to get on top of a prison. It was a building standing on the corner of the prison territory, so they just got up a big ladder and had people to help them. They climbed up on top of the roof and they performed and then they were done, in five minutes. In Red Square, anyone can do anything on the Red Square. It's that you get arrested afterwards. And they did get arrested. They got a minor charge, a $30 penalty and that's it. A so-called administrative arrest.

Playing screamy, ragey punk on top of a prison is objectively awesome. You cannot deny that. People in America should do that all the time.

The more taunting, arguably immature aspects of Pussy Riot are a familar part of grand old punk tradition as well. Think of the Sex Pistols getting arrested in 1977 for playing on a boat that rode down the Thames during the Queen's Silver Jubilee. Or even their legendary moment of swearing on The Bill Grundy Show. It's punk at its most basic and youthful and stupid, and it's marvelous. And though it's not quite being in a Burmese punk band, it's not nothing either.

Of course, it's been a while since punk was scary in the U.S….But not as long as you'd think. Just 26-odd years ago Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra had his home raided and was brought up on obscenity charges because of the graphic poster included in copies of the band's Frankenchrist album. And in a country where obscenity — that is to say, a type of speech ruled to not have First Amendment protections — exists a graphic, gross piece of art becomes a whole lot more meaningful. Seemingly juvenile, or even obnoxious stunts can serve a greater purpose and send a message of freedom, be it disturbing a church over there, or selling verboten lemonade or refusing to stop dancing at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial over here. It can backfire and alienate, sure, but it can also bring more attention and notoriety to causes that cry out for attention. Indeed, that is why the ladies of Pussy Riot might get to go home after all. Without the attention their stunt bought, it would have been a hell of a lot easier to just have them disappear for a few years.

Reason on punk rawwwwwk and on protest and on Russia.

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  1. Putin is behaving like the Reagan and Meese Commission against artistic freedom. Right-wing Authoritarianism is the same everywhere.

    1. Right-wing Authoritarianism is the same everywhere.

    2. How did Reagan impinge on “artistic freedom”? Oh yeah, he threatened to cut government funding!

      1. Uh, you’re forgetting the Meese Commission which had nothing to do with art (or “art”) funding, and everything to do with declaring porn harmful.

        1. So the Meese report was an example of a wasteful government study arriving at a dubious conclusion. How did it interfere with artistic freedom?

        2. It interfered with freedom, of which artistic freedom is a subset, by providing a pretext for ridiculous BS porn prosecutions by the feds.

  2. I still want to “bang” the chick in the photo of the Burmese punks.

    End communication.

  3. “the U.S. has a whole lot to worry about when it comes to government oppression, often during protest situations in particular”

    Really? What I’ve seen is that a “protest” gives carte blanche to do all sorts of things that would ordinarily result in arrest, in the US. These things would include camping out in parks where it is prohibited for everyone but certain protestors, committing acts of vandalism, theft, assault, obstructing public thoroughfares, etc.

    I’m far more concerned about creeping authoritarianism that impacts regular people in the US, going about our business, than some imagined oppression of protestors.

    The reason punk is punker outside the US is that it’s very difficult to get arrested in the US for protesting, or singing, or doing any of the other masturbatory things that American “punks” do and claim they’re “fighting the system”. In places like Russia, they actually are.

    Nobody is really afraid of art, in the US. That’s why art seems so silly, sometimes, when artists of all sorts claim to be “challenging” something or somebody. Nobody feels challenged, or threatened.

    These are good things.

    What’s bad is that American authoritarians have figured out that protestors really don’t do anything, and in fact help to divert attention from the authoritarians and to keep up an illusion of liberty.

    1. Plenty of protesters in the U.S. are annoying, some are thuggish, nearly all (I am afraid) are at least totally clueless about economic issue. But if you’re not worried at ALL about crack-downs you are not paying attention. Or you are not actually worried about creeping authoritarianism at all.

      1. That’s not “creeping authoritarianism”.

        Name a crack-down that worries you.

        1. Free speech zones. Pre-emptive raids on houses of protesters before NATO 2012 and the RNC 08. The G-20 where there were about 900 riot cops and about 30-actual protesters, yet hundreds of people were arrested. The fact that OWS was cleared out by riot cops in the middle of the night last year. Any law that hinders protest, and there are countless local and state ones. H.R. 347.

          Shall I go on?

          1. I hears ya, Lucy, except for the bit about OWS being cleared out by riot cops. On the whole, I’m not sure what else was going to get the job done. And I’m quite sure the job needed to be done, yes. “Free speech” doesn’t encompass criminal enclaves and public health hazards.

            1. Riot cops are one thing (of which I am not a fan) but doing the clearing at 4 am, doing it without much press and while haranguing the press that was present? Not acceptable.

            2. I agree with you regarding OWS, but be wary: “”Free speech” doesn’t encompass criminal enclaves” is basically the Putin line. Anytime there’s a protest, find a few criminals in amongst them, and declare the whole thing compromised and needing busted.

    2. One…two…three, he’s down for the count, folks. The winnah and new champeen Lucy.

    3. Bear in mind, that was only permitted because the protesters wanted more government.

      Had a right leaning group done anything like that, they’d certainly be locked up. Already Tea Party members are considered borderline terrorists

  4. “massive Russian protests against then-almost President Putin”

    Ten thousand protestors in a city of 10 million is not massive. Outside Moscow the protests were far smaller then that.

    1. Congratulations. You win a Duranty award for this, tovarich.

      1. No, Duranty used fake numbers, I use real ones. Do you deny that the protests in relationship to population were very small? You may want the numbers to be larger, I may want that, but you should never ignore reality, even if it goes against the story you are trying to tell.

        The fact is that Putin is still more popular then not. That the real opposition in terms of numbers to Putin is the Communist Party and the far right parties and the people like Pussy Power are a tiny minority in Russia and are not popular.

        Ignoring that falls into the same trap as the Bush and Obama and MSM did in Iraq and Egypt. They only wanted to talk to and about the non religious parties and were surprised when the religious parties in those countries did so well in elections.

  5. OK wow that makes a whole lot of sense dude. WOw.

    1. Doesn’t it just?

  6. I think a band called Pussy Riot is awesome.

    However, that music was skullshitting garbage even by the low-bar standards of punk

    fuck, even *i’d* send a band WORSE than Le Tigre to the Gulag.

  7. Anything more than a small fine and brief probation would be excessive. Seven years is just nuts. Or rather, it’s just another smack-down against opposition.

    But calling them “prisoners of conscience,” as Amnesty does? Their PoC category involves people who *should not be punished at all,* not people who are being excessively punished or denied fair trials. To see why the govt can legitimately punish such behavior, imagine a metal band getting in front of a synagogue while people were praying in it and doing a song featuring the lines “holy s***, God’s s***.”

    I still admire their balls in doing this sort of thing in Russia – and on top of prisons, too. Imagine a group of US lefty artists with the courage of their convictions and a more or less worthy cause (if not means), and you might get these girls.

  8. Articles like this would have a lot more weight if you know, you didn’t constantly appear in Russian propaganda (aka Russia Today)

  9. My Russian friend, who’s kind of a paleolibertarian (that is, he despises lefties like them) or whatever, has been pretty incensed about this.

    The most amusing image I’ve seen is this. It’s the head of the Russian Orthodox Church signing something. The left is the original, the right is the widely distributed Photoshop intended to conceal his $30,000 Breguet watch but failed to fix the watch’s reflection on the table.

    1. “It’s good to be the Patriarch.”

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