Chances are the following names won’t ring a bell: Galina Starovoytova, Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estemirova. But if you’ve paid attention to the news in recent weeks, you probably are familiar with the name of Russia’s most notorious feminist punk band – Pussy Riot.
The three women mentioned above were Russian democracy and human rights activists who were killed – assassinated, actually – for doing or saying the wrong things.
Starovoytova was gunned down in 1998 after years of promoting democratic reform in post-Soviet Russia, advocating for ethnic minorities and criticizing Russia’s deplorable conduct during its war in Chechnya. Politkovskaya, a journalist who wrote on the same subjects, took three bullets in 2006. Estemirova, a leader of one of Russia’s most respected human rights organizations, was kidnapped and shot to death in 2009.
Yet it is three members of Pussy Riot – Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – whose conviction recently on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” has made them a celebrated cause in the West, especially among digitally-connected consumers of pop culture.
The band is known for politically-loaded lyrics that are highly critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin and for guerrilla performances in their signature balaclava head coverings.
One of those “performances” took place in February at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. Authorities arrested the three women weeks later and held them in jail through their trial this month. On Aug. 17, a judge sentenced them to two years in a penal colony.
In nations with traditions of law and individual rights, the women’s offense – legally speaking – would have been something on the order of trespassing or disorderly conduct, punishable by a brief stay in jail and a modest fine. In the court of public opinion, their theatrics would be considered in the same category as Sinead O’Connor ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II – to some, a juvenile antic calculated to provoke outrage; for others, the edgy politicization of art.
In Putin’s Russia, however, offending the powerful is dangerous, even lethal. And the plight of the Moscow Three has enlightened a new generation about the fallacies of a moral relativism that posits Western governments in general and the U.S. government in particular are no different from and no better than those in countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.
Since the Vietnam War at least, Americans have become accustomed to seeing pop icons cozying up to foreign demagogues and going abroad to criticize the United States. Foolish fans mistakenly see such embarrassing displays as brave acts of dissent.
But there’s no bravery involved in Americans faulting their country or flattering its adversaries. For them, doing so is constitutionally protected. For citizens of other countries, it’s a different story.
Of all people, leave it to Madonna – on tour in Russia – to stand up for the imprisoned Pussy Riot members and set the record straight.
“As an artist, as a human being, as a woman, I have freedom to express my point of view, even if other people don’t agree with me,” she told a Moscow audience. “Even if my government doesn’t agree with me.”
Are Masha, Katya and Nadya – as sympathizers refer to the band members – more deserving of international support than the countless defenders of human rights and individual freedom who have been imprisoned, tortured and murdered in Russia and elsewhere?
Of course not. But if popular culture and social networking can make Pussy Riot a topic of global conversation, then just maybe Galina, Anna and Natalia will not be forgotten.Jonathan Gurwitz is a columnist at the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News.