I went to see Pussy Riot – if they’re serious protesters, I’m Sid Vicious

Balaclava ballast. Perry Brandon

Many years after my first punk concert, when I met Pete Shelley and the other Buzzcocks at the old Apollo Theatre in Glasgow, I was excited at the age of 69 to be in Edinburgh to attend my second one.

Pussy Riot’s variable membership can run as high as double figures on occasions, but tonight there were four performers on stage – two women and two men, one of whom was stripped to the waist. They performed punk songs and monologues to video footage, on top of which were brief explanatory comments and slogans. These included “Abort the system”, “Show the freedom of civil anger”, “Riot in Russia. Putin Peed his pants”, and “Condoms – the word Putin used to describe the opposition’s white ribbons”.

The band certainly had stage presence. They made little eye contact with the crowd, but their intense expressions commanded attention. They didn’t move much but there was a powerful energy about them.

Putin the world to rights. Jack Kirwin

I enjoyed being part of this warm and enthusiastic audience, but they seemed to enjoy this performance more unequivocally than I did – at some points, their cheering and hand-raising bordered on the evangelical. As an entertainment, a theatrical performance, an artistic event even, it certainly felt like a success. Yet it purported to be more than that. As a political protest, it was a bit disappointing.

For those about to riot …

The show is essentially Pussy Riot the musical – a companion to central member Maria Alyokhina’s recent book Riot Days, with direct readings from the text along the way. Riot Days majors on the infamous protest by Alyokhina and four other female Pussy Rioters at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in February 2012, footage of which was in the Edinburgh show.

Wearing colourful clothing and balaclavas, they sang a “punk prayer” entitled Virgin Mary, Banish Putin. The song rails against Putin, the fusion of the state and the church, and the anti-gay, anti-feminist policies that ensue.

I am all in favour of justice for gay people and women, but at a time when many would argue we need more emphasis on the rational aspects of political discourse – on ideas, arguments, evidence and so forth – this is predominantly a howl of identity politics. Virgin Mary classifies its opponents as morally inferior rather than fellow citizens with a different point of view. It emotes rather than debates, with refrains like these:

Crap, crap, this godliness crap! Crap, crap, this holiness crap!

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Be a feminist, we pray thee! Be a feminist, we pray thee!’

Alyokhina and two other band members were sent to prison after the protest. The conditions sounded horrible. The sentence of two years seemed very harsh, though two of them were released after 18 months as part of a prisoner amnesty. Be that as it may, it is not clear that the action was justified in the first place.

Space invaders

There is a prima facie moral obligation to obey the law, but it can sometimes be morally justifiable to perform illegal actions that shock, disturb or offend people to make a particular political point. It is not sufficient merely to say that the action was done for political reasons. The case of Rosa Parks sitting in the whites only section of a bus in Alabama in 1955 is a good example. The whites may have had a legal right to sit only with other whites at that time, but they didn’t have a moral right to do so.

Contrast this with the Pussy Riot cathedral incident: people have a right to go to their church to pray or worship or have a period of quiet reflection without being disturbed by punk rockers making a political protest. There is no apparent awareness of a dilemma here for Pussy Riot and their supporters on tour. There seems to be a lack of critical self-examination.

It was the same, incidentally, when several members of the band invaded the pitch during the football World Cup final dressed as police officers. Unlike the whites on those Alabama buses, I would argue these spectators had a moral right to enjoy the game without interruption.

When Pussy Riot took responsibility afterwards, they called on Russia to release political prisoners, for free political competition, and for an end to fabricated criminal cases. I’m not objecting to these causes, only the style of protest. I would equally have backed the Suffragette movement and many of their ways of protesting to the hilt while making a similar criticism of Emily Davison throwing herself in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby.

The Edinburgh show glorified this style of protest, even if Pussy Riot are not infringing anyone’s moral rights when they play for a paying audience on stage. But as the images and captions flashed too quickly to read, let alone digest and contemplate, the show reinforced my impression that Pussy Riot doesn’t have a high regard for the rule of law either in Russia or in general. Why and when are they prepared to break the law? It would have been interesting to get at least a flavour of the rationale of their position. None was apparent to me.

Before the performance, there was a scare that Maria Alyokhina had been confined to Russia and it may not go ahead. We were told by a compere that although she had been denied a visa to leave Russia because she had failed to pay a fine, she had defied the court, crossed the Russian border by car and would now appear before us.

Why had she not paid the fine? Why had she disregarded the demands of the court? We know that Putin’s Russia has a risible reputation for imprisoning dissidents, but things have improved since the days of the old Soviet Union and political prisoners such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn. At least Alyokhina can take a cavalier attitude to observing the law.

At the band’s stirring performance in Edinburgh, it was standing room only for all apart from me and a retired history teacher who, on medical grounds, were allocated seats at the back. As I sat there, the following thought struck me: what if political protesters had disrupted the performance and brought it to a halt? How would the band or the audience have liked that? There might even have been an actual riot. Punk rock is certainly good. But I’m afraid punk politics can be another matter.

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