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CAT SCRATCH FEVER: PUTIN VS. PUSSY RIOT

“Pussy Riot” might evoke images of the 2011 DreamWorks hit, Puss in Boots, or perhaps a restive cat.  The name doesn’t usually prompt thoughts of human rights abuses in Russia, but it should.

 

Pussy Riot is a Russian punk rock band whose members were arrested for anti-government expression and denied due process, according to the State Department 2012 Human Rights Report.  This followed the charge that the three female band members were allegedly involved in “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”  Pussy Riot reportedly is made up of 11 to 15 women, between 20 and 33 years old, who use pseudonyms, wear brightly colored balaclavas, stage “guerrilla” performances in various public locations, and use lyrical themes of feminism, LGBT rights, and opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

 

Unfortunately, the band’s story doesn’t pivot to a happier tale of a sword-fighting cat or house pet.  Alas, the  tale of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, three band members arrested in 2012, instead exemplifies the worrisome state of human rights in Russia.  In the run-up to the March 2012 elections, the tightly controlled election environment had no oxygen for opponents of Putin and most certainly not for a group of edgy young female punk rockers.  Just before those controversial elections, pro-Putin apparatchiks threw the women in jail for their performance of “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away” at a Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow.

 

So, the playing field is this: the most powerful man in Russia is threatened by a group of young women, who sing at random locations and distribute their “performance art” over the Internet.  The women are arrested, but even the show trial is not enough.

 

While Samutsevich has been released, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina remain in prison, with Alekhina’s appeal for release to care for her child denied in July.  A star-studded cast, including Sting, U2, Madonna and Sir Elton John has appealed for release of the rockers, labeled “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International.

 

Some freedom lovers may be chagrined at the issues advocated by Pussy Riot.  Others might see their tactics as lacking the serious approach demanded by topics as critical as retrenching democracy, rights for disenfranchised populations, or freedom of expression in Russia.  But they are far from an isolated case in Putin’s Russia, as the recent convictions of civil society activist Alexei Navalny and Sergei Magnitsky (posthumously) demonstrate.  And even the most hesitant must admit that the messages sent by Pussy Riot appeal to a new generation of Russians, the same young people who have a great opportunity to challenge Putin and bring freedom back on track in Russia.

 

Pussy Riot should be embraced like an agitated housecat, but instead the Putin government is treating the punkers like rabid dogs.

 

M.C. Andrews is a special contributor to the Freedom Collection blog. M.C. is the senior advisor for communications, management and international affairs for Vianovo L.P.  Andrews was Special Assistant to the President for Global Communications (2003-2005) and Democracy Director on the National Security Council staff (2001-2003).