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Who Is Pussy Riot, and Why Do So Many Western Musicians Care?

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Mon, Aug 27, 2012 at 4:00 AM

click to enlarge IGOR MUKIN
  • Igor Mukin
The moment political causes officially reach critical mass is the same moment a banner espousing that cause is draped over a VW bus -- like the one we saw parked on Sunset Boulevard recently, demanding the Russian government "FREE PUSSY RIOT."

To review: three members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot were convicted earlier this month of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." (Two others successfully fled the country this weekend, according to the group's Twitter account.) Their sentence, two years in a prison camp, has made members of the band both musical martyrs and Western celebrities. The idea of censorship just doesn't sit well with folks like Madonna, Björk, and Paul McCartney, all of whom have expressed their support. There's even a benefit at the Smell tonight to raise money for the women, their families and legal fees.

With musicians rallying to their defense and shows dedicated in their honor, it might be a good time to examine exactly what Pussy Riot is. Contrary to what some headlines may lead you to believe, they are less a musical ensemble being censored for their work than provocateurs who have styled themselves as punk to bring attention to a political cause. (That may be one reason that more Russians hold hostile or negative views about Pussy Riot than don't -- 51% vs 20%, according to recent polling by the Levada Center.)

Tonight's show at the Smell will feature Vivian Girls, Pangea, Haim and a cover band called Kremlin Head, featuring members of Mika Miko and No Age.

"As an artist in a country where I don't ever think about imprisonment, ever, as an option in my artistic life it just seems insane that they can do that to those girls in Russia," explains Katy Goodman, an L.A.-based member of Vivian Girls.

We're all for rallying against censorship, but the saturation of coverage for this particular incident makes us wonder: What is it about Pussy Riot's plight that's gotten everybody so worked up? After all, their repression is, let's be honest, pretty mild by Russian standards.

An easy answer would be that they're young, attractive women with the word with the word "pussy" in their name. But that misses the real genius of Pussy Riot: this "band" is not really a band at all. Its members assembled specifically for the purpose of shit-stirring.

Western audiences might be surprised that Pussy Riot doesn't record albums or perform shows at traditional venues like the Smell. Their "concerts" were always political demonstrations, and not the kind where people bought tickets.

Take a look at the "Punk Prayer," the lip syncing stunt filmed in a Russian Orthodox Church that started it all.

In an interview with Vice, a member identified as Serafima (all participants in Pussy Riot's rotating line-up use pseudonyms to protect their anonymity) said the group formed in response to Vladimir Putin's announcement that he would seek another term in office: "We realized that this country needs a militant, punk-feminist, street band that will rip through Moscow's streets and squares, mobilize public energy against the evil crooks of the Putinist junta and enrich the Russian cultural and political opposition with themes that are important to us."

Read her lips: Pussy Riot is on a political mission to get attention. In fact, radical cries for attention are what members of Pussy Riot have been about for years.

See, before settling on music as means to an end, several band members were part of the performance art collective Viona (Russian for "war"). In 2008, they organized an exhibition (OK -- some called it an orgy) called "Fuck for the Bear" where couples publicly copulated in a Moscow museum to protest Dmitry Medvedev's ascension to the presidency. Viona also painted an enormous phallus on the St. Petersburg bridge that pointed toward the headquarters of the FSB (formerly the KGB). Its members were arrested and threatened, but the group didn't draw much publicity outside of Russia.

Suffice it to say, Pussy Riot's politics have been easier for Western audiences to digest when framed as punk rock -- something we're familiar with, and friendly to, and appreciate for its hostility to authority -- rather than fringe performance art.

Adopting the punk ethos was a fairly genius move. Because let's face it, we wouldn't be talking about their trial if Madonna hadn't been called a slut by the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia for stenciling the name of the band on her back, or if Bjork hadn't invited them to play on stage with her.

We wouldn't be talking about it, the same way we're not talking about about Artyom Savyolov or the hundreds of others arrested at an anti-government protest on May 6, now charged with inciting disorder and assaulting police officers.

According to the State Department two of the three biggest human rights issues in Russia are political prosecution and intolerance for freedom of expression. Pussy Riot has raised awareness of that problem -- and they've done it by fighting for a cause, not literally singing about one. They're closer to Emma Goldman (or even Marina Abramović) than Joan Baez.

[Editor's Note: Some changes were made to this piece after it was originally posted, around 9:45 a.m. The headline was also changed.]

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