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In Defense of Pussy Riot and the Russian Punk Movement

Yesterday CounterPunch printed an ignorant defense of the pending imprisonment of Russian female punk band Pussy Riot by economic columnist Mike Whitney.  I choose the word “ignorant” carefully; Whitney seems genuinely uninformed about the decades-old Russian punk movement and the Russian social conditions they navigate.

Once upon the time the Left was in favor of free speech, feminism, and confrontational protest, and simultaneously suspicious of authoritarian predatory privatizers, misogynist clerics and prudish censors.  From the many articles and comments like Whitney’s in the (putatively) left of center blogosphere, we learn that the American Left is now quite alright with misogynist religion, censorship, rigged trials and the like just as long as the oppressing government is a foreign policy foil of the United States.  This turns so-called progressives into just another group of intellectually dishonest bigots.

The first logically erroneous and morally indefensible position of the Pussy Riot-bashers is the notion that because Vladimir Putin sometimes has decent (and self-interested) foreign policy positions, it should not nor could not be possible to criticize him for any other reason.  Potable water is a resource of which our planet has shortages; wrongness unfortunately is in abundant renewable supply.  It’s entirely possible to be critical of American foreign policy and Russian internal repression at the same time, and none of the champions of the Pussy Riot prosecution have even attempted to explain their impossible and ridiculous implication that the two are mutually exclusive.  It becomes intellectually dishonest on the part of Whitney and others not even to attempt to make any such case.

Putin and the very rich thugs who run Russia – the new 1% of that country – came to power in the climate of privatization pushed by American economic hatchet men such as the vile Larry Summers.  They have been stripping Russia of natural resources through former state-held utilities and other newly private companies and the economic growth this has spurred has been very poorly distributed, by design ending up in the pockets of well-connected oligarchs.  In the first ten years of an independent Russia, a small number of people became rich while the average life expectancy for a male dropped a shocking three years.  This led to the new sardonic Russian aphorism that “Everything they told us about communism was a lie and everything they told us about capitalism was true.”

Just a few months ago Putin backed a harsh austerity regime titled Strategy 2020 for Russia’s poor, indistinguishable in its detail from the sort being imposed in Greece, Spain or here in the United States.  Putin is raising the male retirement pension age by five years for men and eight for women, which, given Russian life expectancy, will effectively rob many poor Russians of any retirement at all.  Putin is also shifting the burden of funding pension funds, which had been 100% the employer’s responsibility, to workers themselves, now planning to get workers to fund up to 15% of those funds from their already meager salaries.

Strategy 2020 also calls for renegotiating the salaries of public workers downward, and for cutting social spending across the board.  While the Pussy Riot critics in the US like to paint Putin as the second coming of Fidel Castro, he is in fact more accurately compared to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Against this backdrop of unfettered crony capitalism, the Russian state has maintained a repressive attitude toward the right to speak and protest, most viciously launching repeated brutal police attacks upon gays and lesbians attempting to hold peaceful marches for basic civil rights.  These marches too have also upset the patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church, a hypocritical church – if this is not a redundant phrase – which has managed to make peace with any human rights-denying power structure in the country for several decades somehow without noting any evident sin.

It was my understanding that the Left was fine with upsetting vicious old men who lie about a special relationship with God in order to oppress women.  Pussy Riot detractors have a responsibility to tell us how and why this has changed.  I don’t believe they will because I don’t believe they can.

The less said about the alleged popularity of Putin the better.  In 1984 Ronald Reagan scored a crushing victory over Walter Mondale among that portion of the population who bothered voting.  I have no recollection of the American Left at that time declaring that criticism of Reagan, his policies, or the religious charlatans who supported his administration therefore became inappropriate or somehow invalid.  We have regressed several decades, if not centuries, if it becomes necessary for anyone to defend the act of criticizing a politician who wins an electoral victory.

The United States badly needs an angry group of young women charging the altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and denouncing the many crimes of Barack Obama.  Shame on us as a society for not yet producing the same.

Whitney and others commit lazy, craven and inaccurate libel against Pussy Riot and their millions of supporters within Russia with the claim that they are “useful idiots.”  These critics place themselves in general agreement not only with elders of the church but with Russia’s neo-Nazi skinhead movement, both of whom have denounced Pussy Riot for being misbehaved little girls.

Punk has been a major influence in Russian (and Soviet) counterculture since the early 1980s.  It is not as if these ladies have taken up something new nor something that’s just landed in Moscow last week, courtesy of American intelligence.  This isn’t NSC or CIA money; these people are real artists steeped in Russian counterculture and they want better lives for themselves and their fellow citizens.  The band members have been pulling stunts like this since their teens, their most infamous previous stunts include filming themselves kissing subway police and a media-invitation public orgy.

It would be refreshing if for once Americans, even and especially ones labelled progressives, could imagine that non-Americans have some agency in their own lives and societies.  It would be refreshing if not every action of foreign residents were assumed to be for the benefit of Americans.

I became aware of Russian punk in the late 1980s through issue #59 of the essential American hardcore punk zine MaximumRocknRoll, which focused upon the brave bands of the former Soviet Union, people who faced prison time and police beatings for their songs and haircuts.  By that time the controversial Yegor Letov and his band Grazhdanskaya Oborona (Civil Defense) were major figures and influences in underground arts and politics in Russia, and had been for several years.  I still have a cassette the band sent me me for the princely sum of US$3 when writing to their listed address.

Whitney and others would do well to use the internet to delve into the 30 year indigenous history of Russian punk, not only Grazhdanskaya Oborona but classic bands such as Va-Bank and Naive, the latter having met by chance in the same Soviet tank corps.  Through old guard communism, perestroika and now the oligarchy, Russian bands have taken heroic stands against bigotry, censorship, and abuse of power.  The bravery and intelligence of these groups can not be overstated; Pussy Riot is their rightful heir.

There is one vital question the American cavalier Pussy Riot critic needs to answer.  If they are “useful idiots,” what variety of idiot are you?

Chris Randolph lives in Philly and can be reached through his blog.

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