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Activists, not pin-ups

Committed and courageous, Pussy Riot is the only band that mattered in 2012.

india Updated: Jan 03, 2013 22:03 IST

Depending on how you define it, the most important performance by a rock band in 2012 lasted either less than two minutes or a full nine days.

Pussy Riot's guerrilla rendition of 'Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away' in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, on February 21 was brief even by punk standards, and less striking and significant to non-Russian eyes than the band's rooftop appearance in Red Square a month earlier.

But the vindictive trial that ensued was a major international media event which revealed both the depth of the defendants' courage and intelligence and the power of popular music to illuminate a political situation.

Contrary to Putin's sneering remark that "they got what they asked for", Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich didn't set out to get prosecuted.

A shrewder, less authoritarian government would have stayed its hand and let interest in the group peter out instead of breaking a butterfly on a wheel with a prosecution that reprised the tragedy of Communist show trials as farce.

Once they were granted a platform that they had never sought, the three women, with admirable clarity and dignity, used it to put their accusers on trial.

What Pussy Riot understand so keenly is Allen Ginsberg's observation in the 1960s that "national politics was theatre on a vast scale, with scripts, timing, sound systems. Whose theatre would attract the most customers, whose was a theatre of ideas that could be gotten across?"

Viewed purely as a pop group, they are faultless: the unforgettable name, whose punchy collision of sex and violence is a feminised, radicalised take on the Sex Pistols; the uniform of bright dresses and balaclavas, which makes them both memorable and anonymous; the terse, splenetic punk racket; the unlicensed occupation of public spaces for their performances, and their subsequent dissemination on social media

Although their unusually tight post-trial release 'Putin Lights Up the Fires' is as strong as many 'Riot Grrrl' records, Pussy Riot are, like only a handful of western bands: political provocateurs first and musicians second. They make words, image and noise tell the same story, so that you can see them in action for one minute and still get the message.

Some seasoned Russia-watchers have grumbled about young women in colourful balaclavas receiving immeasurably more international attention than other persecuted dissidents. They might as well complain that rain is wet.

Pussy Riot are clever and committed enough to express themselves in more sober ways if they wanted, but they chose to exploit the media to the hilt because they know how it works: they "fight through the jungles of TV".

Their fame has not eclipsed other injustices in Russia but highlighted them, in the tradition of opposition movements strategically promoting charismatic individuals, from Nelson Mandela to Ai Wei Wei, as synecdoches for an entire cause.

The scope of their concerns is broad, from education and healthcare to feminism, LGBT rights and Russia's culture of conformity. It's perhaps misleading to call them a band. The five who performed in the cathedral (two fled the country to avoid arrest) are only part of a shifting collective that numbers up to 20. Tolokonnikova sees their work as "modern art".

Pussy Riot, both in and out of jail, are doing what they can. For their sympathisers the challenge is to neither forget nor romanticise them. They are not our cute punk pin-ups but unflinching hardline activists whose work demands a response on two fronts.

Their supporters need to keep agitating on behalf of the jailed women and their less well-known fellow dissidents. And musicians and artists who live under less wolfish regimes should use Pussy Riot's inspirational example as a spur to action.