Free the Grrrls!

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Liberalism, in its better sense, hardly exists in Russia. Male chauvinism, gay-bashing, and other aspects of cultural reaction are rampant throughout contemporary Russian culture. Tolerance for edgy and avant-garde cultural expression has improved only slightly since the days of Communist rule. A prime example is the response to the antics of the Russian grrrl band Pussy Riot. Last February 21, three members of the band — Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova — entered the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow and gyrated before the altar for about 40 seconds. The women were taken into custody and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” for which Russian law provides a penalty of up to seven years in prison. The verdict in the case will be announced tomorrow.

That Russia’s thug-president Vladimir Putin and the Russian patriarch Kirill I have led the way in condemning Pussy Riot should surprise no one. What is somewhat surprising is the lack of sympathy for the women in Russian society generally, including among so-called liberals. The three women maintained a stoic front during their trial, which has only exacerbated the hostility toward them expressed by many Russians. That women should act up and then refuse to show remorse or beg for mercy clearly touches a nerve in a society still dominated by hypermasculine posing. It has been left to the so-called international community to take up the cause of Pussy Riot. A broad mix of prominent organizations and people — including Amnesty International, German parliamentarians, and Madonna — has helped put Pussy Riot’s plight on the world’s front pages.

The international uproar has had some effect. President Putin stated recently that the women’s punishment should not be too harsh. Apparently a not guilty verdict was never a possibility. As for the punishment, we shall know tomorrow how severe (or not) it will be.

The women of Pussy Riot are not especially talented. Compared to PJ Harvey or even Bikini Kill, they are rank amateurs. And they probably exercised poor judgment by making a scene in the cathedral. But in a normal, civilized, liberal (in the best sense) society, they would face trespassing charges and a small fine. In Russia they face the prospect of several years’ imprisonment for what amounts to a harmless prank.

The Russians are a great people with a tragic history. And in general I believe that the internal affairs of other nations are none of my business. But the Pussy Riot show trial is a blatant affront to artistic expression and individual freedom. Libertarians should join the Pussy Riot Global Day protests that will be held tomorrow, August 17.

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