Pussy Riot Fails to Riot

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Some problems with the Russian activist band

Pussy Riot talk at Harvard helps highlight loopholes in the much feted guerrilla movement that has taken the world by storm.
I recently had the chance to explore perspectives on political activism when I won a ticket to see the members of the Pussy Riot at the Institute of Politics’ JFK Junior Forum. An all-girl punk rock protest group, the Pussy Riot is known for its bold public performances, most prominently the performance of Mother of God, Drive Putin Away at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February, 2012; the performance not only earned them global fame as crusaders for human rights, but also a two-year prison sentence back home. For all of the moderator’s (Jill Dougherty) decided enervated questions, the band members — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina — managed to keep the audience riveted and enthralled in equal measures with their incisive opinions, and stories of encounters back home.
As an active spectator and occasional participant on the college’s activist scene, I unequivocally admire the band for daring to do what it does — rearing its head against the tentacles of an all-vicious regime. However — as with college activism — going into the talks I was wary of the group turning out to be a product of misplaced intentions; of the group embodying blind activism done more for the sake of activism than with predetermined goals to justify the means used. And if I were to call it out as I saw it, the group failed to pass this deceptively simple hurdle.
One of the first questions that the moderator asked them straight away was what they hated most about Vladimir Putin. Given the context, and the history of their own actions, one would believe that the group would have a surfeit of reasons for being opposed to Putin. Yet all that the group had to offer as a response was a distinctly anti-climactic ‘brain drain’ from Russia. They chose not to broach anything that even broadly approached specificity and reality: the Russian president’s persecution of the LGBT and the free media; they overlooked entirely the forgotten murders of the innumerable political opponents of Putin, and his questionable action of annexing crime. The group uses ‘feminist’ as one of its defining markers; yet nowhere in the conversation did they broach their feminist antagonism to the Putin regime. I am from India, and there is comparable or even greater annual brain drain from our own reserves because of the administrative policies that stem enterprise and innovation; yet I don’t wish to overthrow an entire regime for that single reason. If that was the best they had to offer to justify their clearly inflammatory means of debasing the sanctum of a holy institution, their actions begin to come across as that much questionable then.
The band is composed of members that are self-proclaimed anarchists: individuals who are skeptical of the structures and institutions of capitalism. The band members’ letter exchange with radical Czech Marxist philosopher Zizek during their time in prison is well known. They appeared to stand on shaky ground Monday when they said that they aimed at a revolution in Russia — they offered little scope of what the revolution aimed at, or what their revolutionized state might look like. They had much of the semblance of your average Harvard freshman that talks of changing the world, but little knows how.
And that is precisely where much of the problem lies with Pussy Riot as with many feted young activists. They set for a good cause no doubt but their actions are impelled by all the wrong — or at best tangled — motivations. I have no doubt that with time and age, maturity and clarity of view will come. What I am concerned about, however, is with all the global hype and hoopla that Pussy Riot received, much of their attraction will be diverted from actually refining the goals of their pushback efforts. Any movement or organization in order to be successful needs to find a niche area of focus, and concentrate their energies on salvaging precisely those aims. Pussy Riot needs to start out with feasible goals to focus their activism on; goals that include not revolution but little goals that each collectively build up towards revolution.

Aditya Agrawal ’17 ([email protected]) hopes to see activism with better motivations in the future.