Pussy Riot and the State of Punk Rock

Members of Pussy Riot in court on August 17, 2012. Photo credit: Natalia Kolesnikova, AFP / Getty Images

Readers, I have a confession to make. I’m not just a music geek who obsessively researches and writes about post-punk. I moonlight as a Russian literature geek who obsessively researches and writes about lengthy, dense, frequently moralistic novels. So naturally, when I heard about the Pussy Riot trial, I just had to write a response.

Pussy Riot is a Russian feminist punk collective that has held a number of demonstrations in Moscow in the last several months. Most recently, three members of the group (Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova) were arrested for performing their song “Punk Prayer” at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. “Mother of God, Virgin, drive Putin away,” the women chanted. “Mother of God, Virgin, become a feminist.” Alyokhina, Samutsevich, and Tolokonnikova were sentenced to two years in prison on charges of khuliganstvo or “hooliganism” (disruptive behavior, particularly behavior motivated by political dissent).

Though the members of Pussy Riot champion LGBT rights and dance around in neon outfits–things that aren’t commonly identified with the Russian literary tradition–I couldn’t help but think of the writers whose work I’ve studied as I read about the trial proceedings. Joseph Brodsky, the twentieth-century poet and essayist, was convicted of “social parasitism” (another dreaded “-ism,” meaning a failure to contribute to society); his contemporary, the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, spent eight years in a gulag on charges of anti-Soviet propaganda. In fact, censorship had been an institution in Russia long before Stalin’s rule–and, likewise, so has political dissent. As the great nineteenth-century writer Ivan Turgenev once said,

The only people who treasure systems are those whom the whole truth evades, who want to catch it by the tail. A system is just like the truth’s tail, but the truth is like a lizard. It will leave the tail in your hand and escape; it knows that it will soon grow another tail.

Pussy Riot, who demand “the system’s abortion” in their song “Putin Got Scared,” would probably agree.

In addition to upholding the tradition of artistic self-expression in the face of the Russian government, Pussy Riot is also upholding a tradition of punk rock, an art form that met its demise sometime in the last 30-some-odd years, depending on whom you ask. Some say punk died with the Sex Pistols; ever the good adoptive Pacific Northwesterner, I maintain that punk at least drew a few last breaths in the ’90s with the Riot Grrrl movement. I listened to my fair share of pop-punk bands back in the day, but I recognize that those groups were more concerned with high school politics than the American government. The ice age isn’t coming anymore, folks, and the sun sure isn’t zooming in. If I want to hear something political, I listen to hip-hop, or Radiohead, or stuff that my dad likes.

But maybe punk is still alive and kicking, after all. Maybe it just got so bored with the U.S.A. that it decided it needed a change of scenery. It traveled to Russia, became a feminist, and donned a brightly colored balaclava. It called for the removal of a president who has occupied some office or another since… well, a time when punk was thought to be dead. It laughed when it was sentenced to two years in prison because it knows it isn’t going anywhere.

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  1. […] A REFRESHING TAKE ON THE BULLSHIT PUSSY RIOT HAD TO EXPERIENCE There is no need to explain why this band is a big deal, but we explained it all for you in this article, in case you are stupid and you don’t read the news. (It is a good article.) […]

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