Riot Girls

Pussy Riot band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (left), Maria Alyokhina (right) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (center), during their trial July 23. Photo Credit: Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images via Foreign Policy magazine.

Almost everything that needs to be said about the case of Pussy Riot, the Russian all-female punk rock band now awaiting a verdict in a “hooliganism” trial in Moscow, has been said.  Nobody seriously doubts this is a political show trial in the old Soviet sense and that the Putin regime isn’t punishing this punk band as a warning to other would-be opponents of the state.

But some points can still be made.  First, the prosecutors insist this is not a “political” prosecution.  This is progress, sort of.  I think they protest too much. (I’ll sidestep my usual baliwick of trying to parse what they mean by political or the political aesthetic because I don’t know the Russian etymology.) It assumes the legitimacy of political expression in Russia despite the state propaganda barrage against the band. With tens of thousands of Russians still on the streets protesting the regime, it assumes there is still a political space to occupy that hasn’t been completely co-opted by the regime.  That space can still be enlarged and separated from the thugocratic “government” running the country from the Kremlin.

For a taste of what the band members (three of the five are on trial:  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. The band name is in English, not Russian.) — have faced (in English) enjoy the bluntly sophisticated attacks of RT.com.  Their story is buried on the site, even though when you search the site you’ll find highly misleading text stories (“‘Let Pussy Riot Go!’ Veteran Russian HR group speaks out”) pegged to the actual broadcast segments that have nothing to do with the headlines (in this case, a story about how the trial would be broadcast live over the Internet — which is probably not true).  The lead article on the Pussy Riot when I visited RT — an “op-ed,” incidentally — essentially questioned the hype after all the broadcast segments had touted the worldwide focus on the trial.

Second, the band has been favorably compared to protest acts of the past, including Fela Kuti of Nigeria and the Plastic People of the Universe, both personal favorites.  (Not incidentally, the Plastics have given a benefit concert for Pussy Riot.) I am particularly inclined to find parallels with the Plastics but it is not because the Plastics were a political act because they were avowedly apolitical, which is what made them such a transformative act. Their stories also share the show trial aspect, with Pussy Riot facing the absurd charges of “hooliganism” and “religious hatred” and the Plastics charged under “organized disturbance of the peace”.

But perhaps most importantly, they share in common something very special and important at this moment, which is a certain vulnerability. Unlike the megalithic oligarchs whom Putin targeted during the last decade — the Khodorkovskys, Berezovskys and Gusinskys, who were so rich and powerful as to evoke very little sympathy when they were prosecuted — the Pussy Riot unmasked of their provocative balaclavas turn out to be very young women.  Indeed, two of them are recent mothers and not one of them is over 30. To see them is to see not your mother but your daughter, wife or sister.

This is what their trial shared with the Plastics: the unmistakable recognition that in prosecuting these women the state had at last overreached, that in its paranoia and pursuit of control it finally achieved an essential injustice.  What was historically important about the Plastics’ arrest, of course, was that the trial united the disparate strands of the disunited opposition. Perhaps the same will happen — is happening — in Russia today.

Of course it’s impossible to know if this is the Russian public’s understanding of the trial, in a state that dominates virtually all media. Only the Internet is partially free in Russia, and I am inclined to be pessimistic about the triumphant and righteous tone the Western media has taken regarding the rights of Pussy Riot.

Because the issue is not about the freedoms we take for granted here.  It is about three women who are about to go to prison for the freedoms they don’t have. It is very easy to talk about these freedoms from behind the protection of an American passport to those who don’t have them.  Of course all those who support these women do it to give them heart, to let them know we know what is at stake and that what they are doing is important beyond their own personal ordeal.

But let us understand how much, much harder it is to demand those freedoms — to perform for them, to go to jail for them, to risk your life for them — before an armed state hostile to you and willing to imprison or kill you for your beliefs.

Thank the Mother of God that punk is not dead.  May she watch and protect her daughters on earth.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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