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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

The counterproductive spectacle of Pussy Riot

A supporter of the Russian female punk band "Pussy Riot" sports a mask during a protest outside the Russian consulate in Toronto on Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. Photo: AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Michelle Siu

On August 17, three members of the anarcho-feminist performance art collective Pussy Riot were sentencedto two years in Russian jail for hooliganism and religious hatred. Their crime? Holding a 40-second “punk prayer” inside a prominent Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, demanding an end to the reign of Vladimir Putin and decrying the Orthodox Church’s cozy relationship with the Kremlin.

Their sentence – which will be carried out in a notoriously horrible and violent women’s prison – is cruel and unjust. In response, the world’s artists have rallied around them: Madonna, Paul McCartney, Bjork, Peter Gabriel, and countless others, have taken to publicly declaring their support for the three women. It’s become a cause célèbre: standing up for women and art and free speech and liberty all in one fell swoop.

It’s easy to see why. Pussy Riot seem almost created to inspire western interest. “In Russian, Pussy Riot’s name is the English words “Pussy Riot” written in Cyrllic,” notes anthropologist Sarah Kendzior, in the Atlantic. The relentless media focus, she argues, actually trivializes and misstates their cause. “State media have sexualized and infantilized the women of Pussy Riot, likely in order to marginalize their critiques and to drain them of their political value.”

But the western media focus on the Pussy Riot trial has also marginalized other Russian activists and obscured far greater abuses by the Russian state.

Just days before the Pussy Riot verdict, Radio Free Europe profiled some of the male activists whose plight was being ignored by the west. Artyom Savyolov, a former subway worker, joined the anti-Putin protests this past May. He’s been arrested and, unlike the Pussy Riot women’s 2-year prison sentence, faces a decade behind bars. Savylov has no connections with any media-friendly protest groups, and he has not made a name for himself; while Pussy Riot have drawn penises on prominent bridges, engaged in public orgies, and done unspeakable things to frozen chicken, Savylov simply marched.

At a sympathy rally and poetry reading held last week in Manhattan, attendees (which included shock artist Karen Finley and actress Chloe Sevigny) sympathized with the every-woman nature of the Pussy Riot women. An audience member told the New York Times, “Pussy Riot makes me feel like, I can imagine being thrown in jail for doing absolutely nothing.”

The women of Pussy Riot are not regular Russians plucked off the street for protesting – they performed an illegal political act, trespassing on a church to make a point. In the West, they’d be given a slap on the wrist and maybe fined; in Russia, they’re going to jail. While that is an injustice, punishing a political shock group pales in comparison to the far worse treatment non-artists face in Russia today.

At a Pussy Riot rally in Moscow over the weekend, chess grand master Gary Kasparov was imprisoned by the Russian police and severely beaten. “Inside the [police] van they threw me to the floor … then they took my right leg, they push the leg to the ceiling. I now have problems with the right side of the back,” Kasparov told the Daily Beast.

Other Russians who aren’t high profile dissidents face far worse treatment than a show trial – in 2003 business oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky ran afoul of Vladimir Putin, who then dismantled his company, stole billions of dollars in assets, and threw the man into prison for years on trumped up charges of fraud. Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer representing a British investment firm in Russia, was imprisoned after he exposed several corrupt officials. Without even standing trial, he was severely mistreated in prison and died.

Magnitsky’s death has inspired a misguided bill in Congress which targets Russian officials for travel restrictions but it never received the same media focus as the women of Pussy Riot.

On my own blog about Central Asia, I’ve tried, on and off, to keep track of the journalists murdered in the former Soviet Union since 2000. I’ve not updated it in almost five years, but even then 22 Russian journalists had been killed under mysterious circumstances, with the deaths never seriously investigated by Russian authorities. One, Anna Politkovskaya, has inspired some well-researched books on the nature of Putin’s media-murdering society, but nothing like the public outcry over some shock jocks getting a couple of years in jail.

It says something unflattering about American media’s priorities that years of state murder and savage mistreatment of prisoners has been mostly ignored while a provocatively named collective of anarchist performance artists gets rallies, constant media coverage, and TV air time. While Pussy Riot’s verdict is a travesty against justice- they were not beaten in prison, denied medical care, or murdered. Those who have faced such horrors remain horribly mistreated in the shadows of our temporary media obsession – lost in the scramble for spectacle and buzz.

Even last December’s massive anti-Putin protests in Russia never garnered this much attention. Thousands of Russians took to the streets to demand a fair election. Apart from a few interest stories, there were no rallies of support in the US, no celebrity-studded poetry readings, no balaclava-clad marches in the street. Human rights in Russia are a serious concern beyond the plight of some shock artists, yet that concern has been completely lost in the frenzy over some budding celebrity prisoners. And regular Russians, as always, will pay the price.