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Why the Pussy Riot Case Still Matters

Why the Pussy Riot Case Still Matters

By Cathy Young - October 15, 2012

A few days after a Moscow appellate court upheld the conviction of three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot but released one of them with a suspended sentence, the women's lawyers are taking their claim to the European Court of Human Rights. The case, in which the singer/activists received two-year prison terms for a protest performance in an Orthodox cathedral, may have largely faded from the spotlight; but strong international support for the group continues. Last week, the women were nominated for Germany's "Fearless Word" Martin Luther prize and voted finalists for the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Yet there are some dissenting voices from usually not Kremlin-friendly quarters on the right. Pundit Charlotte Allen's tweet on the appeal jeered the trio as "ugly, untalented chicks." Other critics, such as The American Conservative's Rod Dreher and Pajamas Media's Rick Moran, charge that the Pussy Riot lovefest is yet another example of how Christianity-trashing is glorified as artistic freedom--while attacks on Islam are decried as hateful. Such double standards do exist. But in this instance, the claims of anti-Christian bigotry are off-base, and the punk feminists' detractors are playing into the stereotype of religious conservatives as would-be authoritarians.

The naysayers' arguments boil down to two points: (1) the women's actions, which the court found to be "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," were not a legitimate political protest but a slam at Orthodox Christianity and Christians; (2) the women are no champions of freedom but radical leftists, as well as freaks whose earlier exploits include public orgies.

On the second point: Yes, Pussy Riot members have said some silly things about the evils of capitalism and phallic power. But they are no anti-male or anti-capitalist fanatics; when ex-oil tycoon and political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky spoke out on the women's behalf during the trial, they did not denounce him as a male capitalist pig but responded with gratitude and admiration. Their activism has been entirely against the authoritarian Russian state.

As for the young women's alleged sordid past, two of them, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, once belonged to a political performance art group, Voina (War), specializing in outlandish and often vulgar pranks under the umbrella of protest. Shortly before the 2008 presidential election, Voina held what one might call a sex-in at the Moscow Biological Museum. Several couples, including Tolokonnikova (then 18) and her husband, stripped and engaged in probably simulated intercourse under a banner that read, "F*** for Bear Cub the Heir!"--referring to Vladimir Putin's heir apparent Dmitry Medvedev, whose last name derives from the Russian for "bear" and who previously oversaw programs to boost Russia's birthrate. While no museumgoers or staffers were exposed to the "orgy," a video and photos of which were later posted online, it would clearly qualify as public indecency even under the most liberal laws.

But when the power of the state is used to punish political dissent, the dissenters' breaches of propriety and decorum shouldn’t matter. Which brings us back to the first point: was Pussy Riot's act in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior a political protest or a religious insult?

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Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at CathyYoung63@gmail.com.

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