The Kony-ification of Pussy Riot

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How Western interest in their story risks both misunderstanding the group's mission and misdirecting attention away from the dire challenges Russian political activists now face.

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Members of the female punk band "Pussy Riot" sit in a glass-walled cage after a court hearing in Moscow (Reuters)

Pussy Riot have been found guilty of "religious hatred" for their February 21 protest at the Christ the Savior Cathedral. You can watch the offending 55 seconds that got them into so much trouble here. The case itself is troubling for many reasons. For one, Pussy Riot are clearly not expressing hatred of Orthodox Christianity, but they are protesting the Church's close relationship to Vladimir Putin and his regime. Hating Putin is not hating religion, unless Putin is now religion in Russia.

The world wants to help, and that's great. but that effort may actually misunderstand both Russia and its challenges in ways that are not always constructive. Pussy Riot have been turned into a cause célèbre by Western pop culture mavens. Madonna, Paul McCartney, Bjork, even Sting -- who apparently learned his lessons after screwing up in Kazakhstan, where he once sold his services to a dictator -- have publicly issued statements supporting the fem-punkers.

Feminist punk is great, but it's not the solution to this problem. Pretending it is takes away from more worthwhile efforts.
Pussy Riot are being unjustly persecuted (in a free society, they'd have been given a slap on the wrist and a fine, then let go), and that's appropriate and good to protest. But the support movement also carries some uncomfortable echoes of the Kony 2012 campaign and its many less-infamous predecessors, repeating an unfortunate practice of activism for the sake of activism, of enthusiastic support for someone who seems to be doing the right thing without really investigating whether their methods are the best, and privileging the easy and fun over the constructive.

The Kony 2012 campaign, by an American NGO called Invisible Children, was the most successful social media effort ever. Centered around a short movie of the same name, it was meant to raise the international profile of Joseph Kony, a notorious warlord in Central Africa famous for conscripting child soldiers and other horrific atrocities. While the Western celebrity efforts around Pussy Riot don't have the same ring of neocolonialism as the Kony 2012 videos and events -- Russia was a perpetrator of colonialism and not a victim, after all -- they do suffer from similar fundamental problems of commercializing political activism.

In a real way, Kony 2012 took a serious problem -- warlords escaping justice in Central Africa -- and turned it into an exercise in commercialism, militarism, and Western meddling. Local researchers complained about it, and a number of scholars used it as an opportunity to discuss the dos and don't of constructive activism.

In Russia, Pussy Riot's newfound Western fans are taking a serious issue (Russia's degrading political freedoms and civil liberties) and turning it into a celebration of feminist punk music and art. Feminist punk music and art are great, but they are not the solutions to this particular problem, and pretending that they are takes attention away from more worthwhile efforts. Pussy Riot might have made punk music, but they got themselves imprisoned for an act of political dissent. Their unjust imprisonment doesn't necessarily make anything done in their name -- or, particularly, in the name of their punk music -- a step forward for Russian political rights.

The Democracy Report

Ask yourself, how much have you heard about Pussy Riot's two-year sentence compared to the much harsher sentences facing their not-famous, not-female co-protesters? Radio Free Europe reports:

With the eyes of Russia-watchers trained on Pussy Riot, the feminist punk performance-art group whose now-famous trio is bracing for a verdict over their iconoclastic performance at a Moscow cathedral, the plight of Artyom Savyolov has drawn little attention. ... Sixteen of the demonstrators remain in custody and at least 12 of them, including Savyolov, have been charged with calling for mass disorder and assaulting police officers. They could each face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

When Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer in Russia who was arrested after he drew attention to what he says was widespread political corruption, died from the abuse he suffered in prison -- having never even gotten the courtesy of a trial, as did Pussy Riot -- there were some peeps of protest by some politicians but nothing on the scale of the Pussy Riot movement. Russian authorities acted suspiciously after his death, leading many to suspect they may have had something to do with it.

Magnitsky's death did prompt some movement in the U.S. Congress, where a bill named after him, which would sanction foreign officials found to have been involved in human rights abuses, now awaits enactment. It's great that Pussy Riot can stand in for the regular Russians who face far worse brutality and mistreatment by Putin's government every day, perhaps drawing some attention to that much larger problem. But the obsessive focus on these three women, not for their activism or political dissent, but for their status as female punk rockers, risks drawing attention away from other Russian activists or political prisoners and focusing it instead of the plight of all-women punk bands, which is decidedly less dire.

That's not to downplay these three women or their plight. Focusing on the spectacle of Pussy Riot actually obscures the real issues that prompted their trial in the first place. Pussy Riot are not peasants grabbed off the road and put on trial for being women -- they are rather famous (at least in Russia) political activists who got arrested for political activism. That is a horrible, ludicrous thing for Russia to do, but making them into innocent everymen misunderstands both their actual efforts and why they matter. 

Pussy Riot are part of a larger movement within Russia to demand political freedom, one that Putin's regime thugs are literally, physically beating back. American celebrities are right to be outraged about Pussy Riot's treatment, but it's a shame that so few seem to have investigated what happens to the activists who aren't Western media darlings for their all-women punk bands with sexually suggestive names. Rather than the Pussy Riot trial catalyzing a broader Western awareness of Russian authoritarian backsliding or even a popular movement to pressure Moscow to loosen its restrictions, it seems to have inspired little more in the West than outrage about how sad it is for some punk rockers to go to jail for a silly little church concert.

A version of this post also appears on Registan.net.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.

 

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