Pussy Riot sentenced: Is chorus of support helpful, or just fashionable?

Cities across the US took part Friday in Pussy Riot Global Day, but it's not clear whether the support, from governments and celebrities, will help members of the feminist punk group who were sentenced to prison for criticizing Vladimir Putin.

By , Correspondent

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    Demonstrators with painted faces chant slogans in support of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot, whose members face prison for a stunt against President Vladimir Putin, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday.
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In the weeks before Pussy Riot band members were sentenced to two years in a Russian prison, the feminist punk group’s plight had become a global cause, attracting activists and celebrities alike.

But some are already starting to question whether the outpouring of support for Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Marina Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich is little more than a star-studded fad – and if it can do anything tangible to help them.

Following the guilty verdict handed down Friday in Moscow, cities across the United States took part in Pussy Riot Global Day, with demonstrators donning colorful ski masks, or balaclavas, in solidarity with the band. Following small gatherings in New York and Washington, events are planned in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Moscow’s sister city, Chicago.

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Pussy Riot was convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for singing a song lambasting Russian leader Vladimir Putin's increasingly autocratic hold on power – and his regime's increasing suppression of protest speech – from the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral in February of this year. The band stormed the venue in protest of Mr. Putin's close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Actress Chloe Sevigny took part in the New York demonstrations Thursday night, reading a letter written in prison by Ms. Alyokhina.

Alicia Silverstone, meanwhile, wrote a letter to Putin asking him to ensure that Alyokhina would have vegan dietary options available to her in prison. "I'm sure you can agree that everyone has the right to show compassion and refrain from hurting animals by being vegan," the vegan actress wrote.

On Twitter, famous names including Elijah Wood, Carrie Brownstein, and Czech-American tennis star Martina Navratilova expressed their support. “Today is free Pussy Riot day. How great is that? Democracy at its best. And by imprisoning them, Putin is making it so much a bigger deal!!” Ms. Navratilova tweeted.

[Editor’s note: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Martina Navratilova’s nationality.]

Musicians have been especially vocal. Paul McCartney released a statement on his website Thursday encouraging “Nadya, Katya, and Masha” to “stay strong and believe that I and many others like me who believe in free speech will do everything in our power to support you and the idea of artistic freedom.”

Madonna pleaded for the band’s release during her concert in Moscow last week, taking off her jacket to reveal the words “Pussy Riot” scrawled across her back. Moby, Peter Gabriel, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting, and Bjork have all chimed in as well.

But detractors worry that despite the backing of Amnesty International and statements of disapproval from the White House, State Department, German parliament, and the European Union’s foreign policy chief, the star-studded display is just that – a display, and a simplistic reduction of a very complicated issue.

“Clueless Western supporters have glommed on to the story at its most black and white, imposing easy narratives on it and making a balaclava look as cute as a hemp tote,” writes Michael Idov in the Guardian. “The case is seen as a magnet for vapid celebs.”

Reuters points out that while Pussy Riot members have become darlings abroad – mainly in countries like the US where provocative political stunts are commonplace (and unprosecuted) – the support at home isn’t quite so enthusiastic.

Despite protests outside the Moscow courthouse where the trio were on trial, “a poll of Russians released by the independent Levada research group showed only 6 percent sympathized with the women and 51 percent found nothing good about them or felt irritation or hostility. The rest could not say or were indifferent.”

But the massive attention garnered by the punk group’s plight could have a more lasting effect, even if it does nothing to help the women themselves.

“The odd circumstances of Pussy Riot's actions mean that these three women will get far more international attention than the much larger number of political prisoners,” David S. Meyer, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California in Irvine who studies large protest movements, writes via e-mail. “If things go well for the opposition, Pussy Riot will shine a light on others in prison for their opposition to Vladimir Putin.”

Global pressure could play a more long-term role, Professor Meyer says, in intensifying the scrutiny on Putin’s methods.

“Amnesty International and other groups will work mostly on the politics of attention, getting people and governments to pay attention, again, to Putin and Russia,” he says. “Their success will depend upon just how much the political and economic powers in Russia care about the good opinion of others.”

So if nothing else, Pussy Riot has the world’s attention. Time will tell whether they keep it long enough to have the lasting impact they were fighting for in the first place.  

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