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The line for the public reading of Pussy Riot’s closing statements in New York stretched around the block of the Ace Hotel on the night before the women’s sentencing. Even after the doors were locked, the crowd waited on the off chance of catching the tail end of the event, whose star-studded lineup included Chloë Sevigny and members of the American feminist punk rock band, Le Tigre. Near the front, supporters exchanged views about the case with event personnel to pass the time. The banter grew heated when one disgruntled supporter evoked Madonna’s endorsement of Pussy Riot to make an impassioned argument that the cause was more important than the venue’s petty fire safety codes.
Why did this punk band, with a repertoire of only six songs, become both a pop culture sensation and the center of an international human rights crusade, seemingly overnight? August 16, 2012, was also the day that 34 South Africans were killed when police opened fire on miners on strike in Marikana, yet the Pussy Riot trial dominated media coverage and popular discourse, having 220 times the news coverage of the miners’ shooting did by the end of that weekend. Though the court proceedings and two-year jail sentence were unjust, injustices on equal and greater scale often occur unnoticed by the world at large, and certainly do not garner public expressions of sympathy from the likes of Sting and Patti Smith.
It may take more than generating a Twitter trend to overhaul a judicial system and the hype surrounding the Pussy Riot trial may be fleeting, but it will have lasting implications. Pussy Riot converted the world into fans of dissident art. While the fans queuing up in New York may have simply been jumping on the bandwagon, Pussy Riot achieved the worthwhile end of getting people listening to protest presented through art, again. As the dust settles on the Pussy Riot trial, the international artistic community has emerged with a stronger sense of camaraderie, and people worldwide have developed an appetite for the performance of dissidence. Art as protest can break down the normal communication barriers, speaking to people across languages and media forms and uniting dissent across borders.
The waves generated by Pussy Riot follow those of another dissident-artist-turned-media-sensation, Ai Weiwei, arguably the most famous living artist and Chinese public figure. International reception of the Pussy Riot trial is analogous to its reaction to Ai Weiwei’s beating and detention by the Chinese government. The element of martyrdom transforms the ordinary practice of art as protest into a spectacle. Pussy Riot’s 51-second performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, its fifth such guerilla concert, was instantly catapulted to the center of international attention only after the three women’s subsequent arrest. Their imprisonment and trial has become an allegory for Putin’s oppressiveness, and they have drawn frequent comparisons to Joan of Arc in Western media portrayals. Though the women professed that they had not expected to be arrested, they have used the trial as a platform to convey their protest more effectively than their off-key punk songs ever could have alone.
The three members of Pussy Riot were arrested on March 3, 2012, two weeks after they staged their “punk prayer” at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Prior to their arrest, there are only 152 recorded headlines about the collective, compared to the upwards of 24 million headlines that it has since generated. Though press coverage of Pussy Riot touches on the group’s prior flash performances and refers to some of its song titles and lyrics, the media has focused heavily on juxtaposing the Kafkaesque trial with the defendants’ stoic strength and anti-government statements. Though it comprises the indispensable backdrop to the theatrical court case, Pussy Riot’s musical career is hardly responsible for the group’s publicity. Whereas Pussy Riot’s political art served as a rallying point to the minority of Russians, at the fringes of society, that opposes the Putin regime, their unfair trial and disproportionate sentence has galvanized mass support across social and cultural boundaries outside Russia. In trying to use the episode as a warning to strike fear into its political enemies, the Russian government only succeeded in making Pussy Riot world famous.
In much the same vein, Ai Weiwei’s fame has increased with every government crackdown on his freedom of expression. Alison Klayman’s documentary about his transformation into an international icon focused not on his art, but on how he has captured the world’s attention by artfully rendering his daring exploits to an eager global audience through social media. And make no mistake—the power of Ai’s protest lies less in his provocative actions than in the government’s harsh reactions. However, neither would have been visible to the eyes of the world, much less would have stirred international outrage, if not for his artist status and his expert navigation of both mainstream and social media.
Ai was relatively unknown outside the circle of contemporary art until he publicly denounced the Chinese government’s management of the Olympic Games after he helped design the Bird’s Nest stadium. The Western press picked up on his audacious comment and started to follow him because open criticism of this type was not usually permitted by the authoritarian regime. His following multiplied as he continued to challenge the government through his investigation of the Sichuan earthquake, which exposed the shoddy infrastructure of the region and the opaque coverage of the event. As expected, the government did not take his muckraking lightly, attempting to silence him not only through censorship but by beating him and then by detaining him on unrelated charges.
The state’s brutal repression was the spark that ultimately ignited Ai’s explosion into the mass global consciousness. The artist must be given credit for his ingenious ability to render his life into art—i.e. the widely proliferated image of him holding a bag of blood from his operation following the head injury sustained from his beating—but it is the government that provides Ai with his ready-mades. Each time the government violates his human rights, it takes his bait and falls into the trap of coming across as a caricature of itself to his worldwide audience. Its brutal treatment of Ai puts him in the ranks of the oppressed as their heroic champion and provides the Western world with evidence to reinforce what it is already convinced of: that China is an authoritarian stronghold that poses a threat to the liberal democratic order. Ai’s fame and influence could not have extended to its present proportions if the government had simply ignored his taunts and refused to play.
Suffering lends protest the aura of legitimacy. When dissidents are punished by the state against which they protest, their suffering gives the subject of their protest a human face and makes it seem valid, forceful, and immediate. Russia and China selectively censor, allowing a certain amount of sanctioned criticism to release political discontent before it coalesces. Dissidents operating within these unspoken guidelines avoid trouble by restraining or obscuring their criticisms. When dissidents subscribe to these tacit agreements, they avoid arrest but are often defanged. In contrast, when Pussy Riot and Ai fill their artistic protest with scathing criticisms, it results in the heavy price of their freedom—but such insolence also wins admiration and invites canonization. In the Western world, people are eager to root for an underdog hero fighting against an oppressive political system, especially if the object of protest is a perceived rival.
The international outrage that the Pussy Riot trial and Ai’s detention provoked teaches authoritarian governments like the Putin regime and the Chinese Communist Party that repression of charismatic dissident artists can generate public relations disasters. A cost-benefit analysis weighing the value of asserting state control over culture against the damage to the state’s external image strongly tips toward the latter. If their intentions were to show that there is a steep price to pay for criticizing the government, Moscow and Beijing failed. The real takeaway is that public dissent can be rewarded with international adulation that gets the message across to a worldwide audience. Russia and China are not entirely impervious to world opinion when widespread perception of their human rights abuses contradicts the image of modernity that they are trying to project.
The world’s overwhelming support for Pussy Riot and condemnation of the Putin regime has indeed forced it to proceed with caution. Before the sentencing, Putin was quoted saying that the women should not be judged too harshly, and Garry Kasparov, who was arrested while protesting on behalf of Pussy Riot on the day of the sentencing, was unexpectedly released. Though Putin softened his rhetoric, the women nevertheless received a disproportionate sentence of two years in prison. Kasparov’s release is a small victory, but it does not erase that the police had the nerve to detain and beat him in the first place.
In an article recounting his violent arrest, Kasparov said, “Mr. Putin is not worried about what the Western press says, or about celebrities tweeting their support for Pussy Riot. These are not the constituencies that concern him.” Kasparov criticized the Obama administration for failing to respond adequately, arguing that Putin would continue to suppress political freedom as long as American financiers are permitted to continue doing business as usual with Russia. Kasparov has a point. Polls indicate that domestic opinion in Russia remained unchanged throughout the trial and that the majority of the population wishes to see the members of Pussy Riot go to jail. One recent poll by the Levada Center shows that 51 percent of Russians held negative opinions of Pussy Riot and only 6 percent of Russians sympathized with the group. The Putin regime can stay afloat as long as it retains public support of the Russian public and financial backing from foreign lenders. Still, Obama and other world leaders see the global anti-Putin protests and understand that it is becoming a political issue. The Republican Party recently made a law aimed at Russian human rights violators a central part of their official foreign policy platform.
Though well intentioned, the demonstrations in solidarity with Pussy Riot throughout major cities worldwide have not yet affected the political situation in Russia. But just because protests fail to instigate immediate change on the ground does not make the outpouring of support futile. In fact, the phenomenon of Pussy Riot and Ai may prove to be the first steps in a gradual and long-term paradigm shift. By sustaining and expanding this conversation, the Pussy Riot phenomenon has made people more aware of Russian oppression, and dissident art more generally. Pussy Riot and Ai have made the global audience more receptive to engaging with art as protest. With a ready audience for it, the press can highlight other, still-obscure dissident artists, perhaps even before they are thrown in jail.
Alice Wang was a 2012 World Policy Institute Research Assistant.