Saturday, August 18, 2012

Pussy Riot Controversy: Nothing New Under the Sun


By John Sanidopoulos

Three members of the punk band Pussy Riot – Maria Alyokhina, 24, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22 – were sentenced to serve two years in a penal colony on Friday after being found guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred". A Moscow judge rejected the defence's argument that the band's performance of an anti-Vladimir Putin "punk prayer" was a form of political protest and found that it was motivated by hatred for Russian Orthodoxy.

Unfortunately the prosecution has not read its history to know that such an extreme reaction to a protest only vindicates and fuels the growth of the movement and ideology, and creates a deeper controversy than what could have been prevented.

For example, when the news first reported on the Pussy Riot performance in Christ the Savior Cathedral a few months ago, my mind immediately went to a performance in 1977 by the English punk band the Sex Pistols. That year they had released the single "God Save the Queen", amidst very much scrutiny, criticism and protest. By chance it coincided with Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee celebrations. Hardly anyone would sell it, let alone play it on the radio, and the band were prevented from playing at any venues. Till this day it is the "most heavily censored record in British history". In England the monarchy is considered a God-established institution, and to mock the Queen is seen as a form of sacrilege.

On June 7 that year it was arranged by the record label for a private boat to have the Sex Pistols perform while sailing down the River Thames, passing Westminster Pier and the Houses of Parliament. The event, a mockery of the Queen's river procession planned for two days later, ended in chaos. Police launches forced the boat to dock, and constabulary surrounded the gangplanks at the pier. While the band members and their equipment were hustled down a side stairwell, many of the band's entourage were arrested. Soon after they were released on bail.


After 35 years it was announced this year that "God Save the Queen" was being re-released in honor of Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, and surely the Pussy Riot trial makes it just as relevant as ever. But this likely would not have been so if everything was handled much more wisely and the Russian courts learned from history rather than repeated it, and even now have gone beyond it.

It may be a good thing however that the Pussy Riot girls will be in jail for the next two years, unless the courts give in to the overwhelming pressure from around the world and release them sooner. History also tells us what happened to the Sex Pistols after their controversial trip along the Thames. Violent attacks on punk fans were on the rise. In mid-June lead singer Johnny Rotten himself was assaulted by a knife-wielding gang outside Islington's Pegasus pub, causing tendon damage to his left arm. Jamie Reid and Paul Cook were beaten up in other incidents; three days after the Pegasus assault, Rotten was attacked again. Everywhere they played there were huge protests, sometimes even outnumbering those who attended the concert. The band eventually only released one album and broke up during their first tour of the United States, which began with strong protests in the Bible-belt states. Maybe two years in prison will be enough time to calm everyone down a bit, but only the future will tell. However, it was within those two years that the Sex Pistols had already broken up and gone their separate ways.

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