The Pussy bandwagon
As the number of Pussy Riot’s foreign allies grows, the women’s compatriots remain reluctant to join them.
Published: August 1, 2012 (Issue # 1720)
Lilya Dashkevich / spt
Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers put on a Pussy Riot T-shirt at the Tuborg Greenfest on July 20.
With more and more Western musicians — from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Peter Gabriel and Sting — showing their support for Pussy Riot, the female punk-rockers who have found themselves behind bars for an anti-Putin performance in a Moscow church in March, Russian musicians are being criticized for not showing enough support.
The trial against members of Pussy Riot opened in Moscow’s Tagansky District Court on Monday.
Last week, a Pussy Riot support committee — featuring opposition activists and artists — was established in St. Petersburg with the aim of holding benefit events in the city beginning in early September.
Televizor’s Mikhail Borzykin and the Electric Guerillas’ Vadim Kurylyov are so far the only musicians on the committee, which includes opposition activists Olga Kurnosova and Mikhail Yeliseyev, journalist Dmitry Gubin, actors Andrei Devotchenko and Larisa Dmitriyeva and film director Andrei Nekrasov.
However, the committee said it hopes that the number of musicians on the committee will increase, referring to international support for the cause and an open letter calling for the release of the women, who have been held in custody for nearly five months despite having young children. The letter has been signed by artists and musicians including Mashina Vremeni’s Andrei Makarevich and Akvarium’s Boris Grebenshchikov, who had earlier been criticized for their support of the Kremlin.
Kurnosova and Yeliseyev organized several rock shows and rallies featuring rock performances, including an open-air concert called Rock for Freedom in August 2008.
The infamous “The Other Song” concert, which was due to be held in February 2008, was canceled by the now-defunct ROKS Club, which argued that the club was designed to hold purely musical concerts and did not want to host any political events. The musicians suspected that the club had received a call from the authorities.
In an unexpected move, the Pussy Riot committee organizers addressed St. Petersburg venues asking them to hold an event due in early September. Venues often cancel politically-charged events out of fear of being shut down by the authorities.
“Clubs are always under scrutiny and pressure,” Borzykin said.
“Even before our most recent concert a month ago, the club’s management said they had received a call from the FSB (Federal Security Service) warning musicians to be more cautious and not to say anything that could cause them to be prosecuted under the law. This was an attempt to intimidate the musicians.
Televizor’s Mikhail Borzykin.
“Such attempts to gain control happen all the time. But we need some breakthrough with somebody independent taking on the responsibility of holding such a concert.”
Even if bands manage to hold protest concerts, they tend to do so in a secretive way, which does not help much to promote the cause.
Few heard about a punk concert in support of Pussy Riot that was held last month at a local bar on Dumskaya Ulitsa on July 20, the day before the court prolonged the detention of the imprisoned women by six months.
Advertised on a Russian social network and attended by about 50 fans, bands spoke out about the cause from the stage and dedicated songs to the imprisoned women, but no posters were to be seen, while a sign on the door described the event as a “private party.”
According to the frontman of anarcho-punk band Electro Zombie, who identified himself only as Alexander and who organized the concert, venue managers are so afraid of anything political taking place that when the band put an anti-Putin leaflet on the wall for its recent concert in another bar, the group was immediately approached by the bar’s management, who demanded they take it down. He also said the organizers wanted to avoid a possible attack from Orthodox radicals.
During the past few years, most opposition-themed cultural events have officially been canceled due to alleged roof leaks or fire safety violations. Although the authorities deny playing a role, insiders insist they are the ones behind the cancelations.
Borzykin says the organizers hope to hold a bigger concert, featuring some well-known acts, to be held on either Sept. 1 or 2.
“The situation is aggravating and something should be done immediately; it’s not clear what will happen to the girls if they are sent to a [prison] camp,” he says.
“This rampant obscurantism is well-organized. It’s fed by the church but commissioned by the political leadership. They started this war deliberately. That’s why we should have some organization on our part. It’s interesting even as a social experiment — to create a public structure to confront the attack of clerics and the authorities.”
Borzykin said that arresting the women for the song “Holy Mother of God, Drive Putin Away,” which criticized the Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill for his outspoken support of then-presidential candidate Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party, was a desperate move by the Kremlin.
British musician Peter Gabriel wrote a letter to the women on Monday.
“It’s just another application of the ‘divide and rule’ principle that they use for any situation,” he says.
“It looks like they are running out of ammo and are ready to use the smallest conflict to split society and recreate the atmosphere of a civil war. If you watch television, you get the impression that people want to live in a time before Peter the Great. They declare a small war and distract the public’s attention, while continuing to steal and lie.
“People who think otherwise should not feel they’re alone, that’s what all the letters and the committee are for.”
In July, a campaign for the release of the women, who were named as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, reached its height.
The band Faith No More offered the remaining Pussy Riot members the stage to make a statement about the cause during a Moscow concert, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis put on a Pussy Riot T-shirt when performing in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Franz Ferdinand dedicated its song “This Fire” to the imprisoned women when performing at the Afisha Picnic open-air festival in the Russian capital.
In Moscow, Kiedis and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bass player Flea as well as Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos took the time to write letters to the imprisoned women, which were delivered to the detention center by the imprisoned Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr Verzilov early last week.
Last week also saw Sting join the cause.
“It’s appalling that the musicians from Pussy Riot could face prison sentences of up to seven years in jail. Dissent is a legitimate and essential right in any democracy and modern politicians must accept this fact with tolerance,” Sting was quoted as saying on Amnesty International’s website.
“A sense of proportion — and a sense of humor — are signs of strength, not signs of weakness. Surely the Russian authorities will completely drop these spurious charges and allow the women, these artists, to get back to their lives and to their children.”
The trial prompted Finnish jazz pianist Iiro Rantala to cancel his Moscow concert. ‘I don’t want to perform in a country where free speech is at medieval levels,” he told Finland’s national broadcaster Yle last week.
Ilya Lagutenko is not a fan.
On Monday, support came from British musician Peter Gabriel, who wrote his own letter to the women.
“Nadya, Katya, Masha, you have the right to make your own prayers — from the heart,” he wrote. “I hope you will be released very, very soon. We are all watching.”
Pussy Riot supporters also appealed to Madonna asking her to show her support when she performs in Moscow and St. Petersburg next week.
Unlike their Western counterparts, most Russian leading bands, however, appear uninterested or as if they don’t want to take any risks by supporting Putin’s foes.
According to London-based activist Andrei Sidelnikov, three Russian and Ukrainian mainstream rock bands declined to support Pussy Riot at a London concert on Saturday.
On Facebook, Sidelnikov said he brought Free Pussy Riot T-shirts and asked Mumiy Troll frontman Ilya Lagutenko, Igor Sukachyov of Garik Sukachyov i Neprikasayemiye and Oleg Skripka of the Ukrainian band Vopli Vidoplyasova to wear them during the show, but all three declined.
Skripka, whose band frequently performs in Russia, was quoted by Sidelnikov as saying that backing Pussy Riot was “dangerous,” even though the musician was one of the key figures during the Orange Revolution protests in his hometown of Kiev in 2004-2005.
“I didn’t really think they would agree, so their refusal was ultimately predictable,” Sidelnikov wrote.
“The only surprising thing was the reaction of Ilya Lagutenko, who categorically refused not only to speak, but asked the organizers to ensure that I didn’t appear close to him under any circumstances — that there be no photographs in which he could be shown next to the slogan.”
Pussy Riot held several unsanctioned protest performances in unlikely places starting in October 2011, including in the metro, on the roof of a trolley bus, in a boutique and next to the detention center where protesters against electoral fraud were being held.
Until the surprise arrests of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich in March, their best-known performance was the one held on Red Square in January.
For the video of what the group described as a “punk prayer” — which featured their appearance in church — the three members were arrested in March and charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. They have already spent nearly five months in a detention center. If found guilty, they face up to seven years in prison.