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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.

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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.

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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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