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The Pussy Riot Verdict, and the Boundaries of Expression

When members of the Russian indie-punk collective Pussy Riot went into the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow on Feburary 21, 2012 to utter a profanity-laced “unauthorized” public prayer to the Virgin Mary to remove Vladimir Putin from power, their apparent intent was to shock and to draw attention. In that regard, they have certainly succeeded, probably far beyond their expectations. The entire world is now talking about a band that would otherwise have probably had no name recognition beyond the Russian borders otherwise.

But at what cost?

This morning, the news is filled with reports that the Russian courts have convicted the members of Pussy Riot of “hooliganism” and have sentenced them to two years in prison, citing that the feminist band mates displayed “religious hatred” in their expression.

While the likes of Paul McCartney, Madonna and Amnesty International have expressed public support for the band’s actions, it’s obvious that the case is far more complex than an issue of free speech. Ignoring the severity of the sentence for a moment, the irony here is that for a nation that has had a long history of suppressing religious freedom (dating back to the days of the Iron Curtain), the court’s ruling against Pussy Riot was actually in the name of protecting religious rights. The judge’s ruling admitted that feminism and gender equality are embraced by the Russian government, but that such values are not shared by the Orthodox Church, and that the band’s entrance into the church to pray that prayer was considered a violation of the church’s rights. In other words, the problem wasn’t in what Pussy Riot said, but where they said it.

The general opinion (at least outside of Russia) is that this is a farce—that the real issue is that the band spoke out against Putin, not that they violated the rights of a church or desecrated a holy place. This, of course, raises the ire of the entire western world, because our right of free speech (especially against tyranny) is almost as sacred to us as the church building is to certain religious practitioners.

But honestly, it isn’t as cut-and-dried as all that. The fact is, many Russian Orthodox believers did feel offended and violated by Pussy Riot’s actions; they did feel that the way the band chose to express themselves violated their rights, and that if the band wanted to speak out against Vladimir Putin, they should not have done so in the church. So while the Russian government may be using religious rights as an excuse to make an example of the band, it doesn’t change the fact that in the eyes of some, an unwarranted desecration did take place here.

Now, I think there are few people on the planet who actually believe Pussy Riot deserves prison time for what they did, so the severity of the sentence likely exposes the Russian government’s true motives. But the whole ordeal raises some questions that are worth considering regarding music, art, and freedom of speech. Should freedom of expression have boundaries—and if so, did Pussy Riot cross them? Was it warranted for Pussy Riot to transgress the boundaries of the church, especially when apparently their real beef was against their government leader? Does this band’s right to free speech supersede the rights of a religious group to have its own traditions and boundaries protected?

Or perhaps to dig up an age-old question: does the ends justify the means?

I’m not claiming a particular opinion on this issue, because I personally believe in freedom of speech, freedom of creative expression, and religious freedoms pretty much equally. I’m more interested in knowing what you think about all this. Feel free to weigh in on the comments section; all I ask is that you be respectful. :)

Photo credit: Denis Bochkarev/Wikimedia


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About the Author

on MUSIC IS MY OXYGEN WEEKLY.

David Tillman is an independent composer/arranger whose primary work involves writing jingles for commercials for radio and television, with several film and television placements to his credit as well. David has a fascination for all things related to the music business and the music industry in general, an obsession which his wife finds to be mildly unhealthy at times. His personal tastes in music are in electronica and industrial rock, and include The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk and Nine Inch Nails (he loves that Trent Reznor is writing soundtracks!). When not in his office or in his man-cave, David enjoys skiing, hiking, the occasional game of golf, and sometimes just lounging by the pool. David lives with his wife and three children in Los Angeles, CA.

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