Panelists discuss Pussy Riot protests, future implications for Russia

BY KYLE GRACZYK ’16
Contributing Writer

Brooks College House hosted a candid roundtable discussion entitled “Punk, Protest, and Putin’s Russia: The Case of Pussy Riot” Thursday. A panel of four F&M faculty members gathered to reflect on the significance of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot’s protests within Russia. The radical-feminist rock band has garnered as much international attention for its actions as for its name. The members are famous for protesting the Soviet-style regime upheld by former KGB officer-turned-president Vladimir Putin.

Sylvia Alajaji, assistant professor of music, Timothy McCarty, visiting assistant professor of government, Lina Bernstein, professor of Russian, and Jon Stone, assistant professor of Russian and Russian studies, offered their answers to questions posed by moderator Michelle Carroll ’13. The diversity of their individual responses is a testament to how multifaceted and provocative this issue is.

Stone provided a brief yet descriptive historical background to the issues surrounding Pussy Riot and the presidency of Putin. He explained how Russians were flooded with optimism and anxiousness with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, most were ill-equipped to endure a decade filled with political, social, and economic upheaval, as Russian society grappled with a sudden change from communism to capitalism and democracy. Putin ascended to the presidency in 2000 amidst virtual lawlessness.

“He tamed what felt like the ‘Wild, Wild, West,’” Stone said.

Since becoming president, Putin has strengthened the already tyrannical presidency, suppressed protest and dissent, and clung to power amidst opposition from elites, the poor, and, most importantly, the young.

The main performance that earned Pussy Riot its notoriety came from late 2011 to early 2012 amidst protests around their song “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away” from late 2011 to early 2012. Band members, dressed in the ski masks and eccentric costumes they often wear during performances, stormed around the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior in Moscow, shouting and screaming lyrics, including “the phantom of liberty is in heaven.” Simultaneously, they bowed, genuflected, and prayed at the altar of the church as security personnel rushed to take them into custody.

The band intentionally chose to film the music video at the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior. Bernstein explained the history of the area: Czar Nicholas I built the first Church on the land, which was destroyed by the Soviets, converted into a swimming pool, and then rebuilt during the 1990s.

“Pussy Riot went far beyond just the lyrics,” Alajaji said.

Many claim the band masterfully combined music with in-your-face activism, similar to the protests America experienced during the Vietnam War. The band began the task of creating what was known as a “public sphere,” a neutral arena in which individuals within Russian society could engage one another and discuss politics.

“It is intriguing how Pussy Riot deviated from the norm,” Alajaji noted.

The band’s music also deviated from traditional Russian melodies and folk rhythms, which is further evidence of its more progressive, Western views.

McCarty engaged the audience and questioned the real political action behind Pussy Riot. Three members of the band were arrested and charged with “hooliganism” and went on trial. It is unclear whether the protests will spark any lasting change in Russia, especially with Putin’s strict laws, but the differences between U.S. and Russian policy are clear.

“Hooliganism in America would only warrant as much as a slap on the wrist,” McCarty said.

McCarty went on to say how Americans’ implicit tagging of the protest as civil disobedience is wrong; Americans label such actions from the dominant Western perspective. The group did not venture to Christ Our Savior to purposefully break the law, which may have happened unintentionally because the Russian legal system is full of contradictory and confusing laws. Rather, Pussy Riot was simply exercising its restricted freedoms of speech and assembly, rights Americans take for granted.

What does Pussy Riot’s staging mean not just for Russia but for the world? It is unclear whether the protests will spark any lasting change within Putin’s Russia. The panel doubted that a grassroots movement had any chance of springing up within Russia’s tightly controlled society. While the four professors disagreed frequently on what Pussy Riot meant for Russia, all agreed on one point — this incident is a step in the right direction and a step toward individual rights and democracy in Russia.

Questions? Email Kyle at kgraczyk@fandm.edu.

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