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  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.


Your Inalienable Right to Rock

The Plastic People of the Universe (Czech Radio)

The recent death of the dissident playwright and Czech President Vaclav Havel reminded me again how badly misunderstood politics and power are in the waning age of totalitarian regimes.  I wrote about Havel’s attempts to galvanize the opposition in Czechoslovakia during the 1970s and ’80s through the experience of the least-known famous rock band of all time, the Plastic People of the Universe. The Plastics, as they are still known, were critical to the formation of a coherent Opposition at a key moment during the Velvet Revolution in 1989. As a result, they have a lot to teach us about the nature of politics and the concept of the political.

I spent quite some time trying to publish what was, in its final form, an awkward, over-long hybrid essay combining the history of the Velvet Revolution with a theoretical treatise. But I still think it’s important because it demonstrates how political judgments can overwhelm what should be strictly left alone to the culture, and that in closed authoritarian or totalitarian states those political judgments are controlled exclusively by the state power what is left to the public in open, democratic countries.

At the core of the Plastics’ predicament in the 1970s was this: do you have an inalienable right to rock?  This is really a question of aesthetics, not politics, and in open, free states the dividing line between aesthetics and politics is broad and rarely crossed.  But under the old communist regime, nothing passed without official political judgment — including aesthetics, which served the state.  After the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, the authorities reached the point where they believed the Plastics threatened civic order and arrested the band and their fans. In effect, the state determined there was no space in the entire country free from its political judgment and control.

The galvanizing moment came when Havel and his fellow literati dissidents joined with the Catholic opposition, the labor unions and others who had until that point been organizing separately against the regime. The Plastics’ arrest was a step too far for all of them, who realized that if pure art could be under threat then there was at last no safe space free from government control. This common threat brought them all together under the aegis of Charter 77, which threw down the gauntlet under the Helsinki Accords which Czechoslovakia (along with the rest of the Warsaw Pact) had signed pledging their countries to uphold human rights.

At least as importantly, despite a decade of persecution, Charter 77 united the Opposition as an effective shadow government to challenge and negotiate the regime out of power when street protests crescendoed in 1989. None of this could have happened without the Plastic People of the Universe.

Which makes the Plastics’ avowed lack of interest in any political agenda so much more intriguing. While we in the West almost expect our cultural figures to take sides in the political debate, the Plastics wanted no part of it. Their innocence of politics makes their arrest so much more significant: because the authorities came down on them just for playing rock’n’roll, the violation had a more acute, if not necessarily higher profile than the arrest of a rabble-rousing pamphleteer like Havel.

The story of the Plastics, Havel, Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution helped me answer one deceptively simple question: what do we mean when we talk about the political?  This had already been answered definitively, it seemed, by the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, who defined the political as state interests against external enemies. Leo Strauss, in commentary on Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political,” lightened this harsh assessment by arguing Schmitt’s dialectic implied the political equates with the moral. But if that were true, then the two words would be interchangeable, and they are not.

I go one step further by referring to the political as the normative. When we talk about the political, we are talking about normative values we are choosing collectively or for others.  To put it more simply, any time we say “we should,” we are implicating the political. There is a certain moral hazard about the political, in which we are applying to or for others the values we hold for ourselves. This is best done in democratic systems but horrifying when applied without recourse in repressive, totalitarian or authoritarian systems.

The story of the Plastics, while sobering — many members of the band, but also including Havel, spent years in prison — is one of faith in politics and political change over many years, and we can take heart in their example. Indeed, their innocence is most heartening of all. Hundreds of thousands of people across Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and now the Mahgreb and the Persian Gulf are following their faith.