As occasionally noted by Reason, especially in the kick-ass Reason.tv 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 freepussyriot.org 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.