Punk Rebels Face Prison

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PRiot.jpgMy grandfather used to say, “If you don’t think, you feel.” He was right. A case in point, the birthday-party parent on America’s Funniest Videos who decides to adjust the piñata after he’s handed the stick to a blindfolded 8-year-old. Ouch! But sometimes acting without weighing the consequences can lead to more than just a blow to the head. Last week, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Marina Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich learned that lesson the hard way.

Their story actually began earlier this year when, as the punk trio Pussy Riot, the three Russian women staged a guerrilla performance at the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral. These political activists wanted to make a statement. So they donned ski masks, grabbed their guitars and created a musical disturbance via a mock prayer imploring the Virgin Mary to save their nation from autocratic president Vladimir Putin and his alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. They high-kicked and crossed themselves throughout a song reportedly titled “Holy S—.” Authorities responded by charging the women with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

Ever since the band’s arrest, this story has galvanized defenders of free speech the world over who have lionized these women for standing up to an oppressive regime. Nevertheless, last week the lawyers gave their summations, the judge deliberated, and the court handed down its sentence: two years in prison. The outcry online was swift and stern. “It’s not fair!” “They deserve justice!” “The punishment doesn’t fit the crime!”

Dozens of Western celebrities—from Elijah Wood to Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane—have chimed in as well. During a concert in Moscow, Madonna removed her jacket so the crowd could see the words “Pussy Riot” written on her back. And former Beatle Paul McCartney stated on his website, “Nadya, Katya and Masha … stay strong and believe that I and many others like me who believe in free speech will do everything in our power to support you and the idea of artistic freedom.”

Actress Alicia Silverstone even penned a letter to President Putin requesting that one of the ladies have vegan dietary options available while she’s serving time. Silverstone, a vegan herself, wrote, “I’m sure you can agree that everyone has the right to show compassion and refrain from hurting animals by being vegan.”

Indeed, this case has become the cause célèbre. But should it be?

I’m no Putin apologist, but it seems a lot of people believe that freedom of artistic expression is a global, inalienable human right. It’s not. Lest we forget, Americans have fought and died to secure that way of life here in the U.S. Russians have no First Amendment freedoms because they have no First Amendment. Whether we believe that unfettered speech should be enjoyed by everyone in the world isn’t the point. Civilized Russian culture is more than its architecture, folk dances and those cool Matryoshka dolls that fit inside one another. Like it or not, it includes ideology. Their government has never been fond of dissent. And although it has made progress in recent decades, this current situation is the latest growing pain for a country still haunted by memories of the Gulag.

Want to know who’s not outraged over this verdict? The Russian people. During the trial, a poll of Russians by the independent Levada research group found that only 6 percent sympathized with the women, while more than half “felt irritation and hostility” toward Pussy Riot. Clearly, the rest of the world (most notably Hollywood stars with a stake in artistic abandon) has a bigger problem with the court’s decision than the locals.

The Internet has made the world a smaller place. It has provided a personal peephole into foreign affairs. And headlines such as this have become, as the Guardian’s Michael Ido noted, “a magnet for vapid celebs.” My heart goes out to Russian people unable to raise their voices in protest. I feel for them. But as unspeakable injustices go, I can think of other cases far more worthy of our righteous Western indignation than three musicians with a political axe to grind who chose the wrong place to do it.

Who wrote this?

Senior Editor for PLUGGEDIN.COM. In addition to hosting the weekly "Official Plugged In Podcast," Bob also writes reviews, articles and Movie Nights discussion guides, and manages areas of this website. He has served at Focus on the Family for more than 20 years. Since 1995, Bob has penned "High Voltage," a monthly column that answers children's entertainment questions in Clubhouse magazine. He has co-authored several books, including Chart Watch, Movie Nights, Movie Nights for Teens and, most recently, The One Year Father-Daughter Devotions. Bob is also co-host of "The Official Adventures in Odyssey Podcast."

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Jeff:

In the first place, the people who founded America probably didn't intend for things like grossobscenity  to be protected. But as you said, it allows it to happen. But as for those who promote free expression, especially the ones that protest any sort of restriction, there's something that they forget about. The freedom they want does not exist. What a lot of people, even Christians, seem to not want to understand is that we are subject to God, and God does not run a democracy. People raise such a call for "freedom," but in the bigger picture, such a thing doesn't exist, and it never has since the world was first made. In a way, it seems somewhat ironic. We live in a "free" country, but even here, no one is free.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Lisbeth:

By far, one of the most bizarre protests I've ever heard of.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  William:

@That One Guy:  Well said thats what I was thinking.  The fact is these women broke their country's law.  The Bible teaches us in Galations that we should follow our Governments laws unless they go against God's Word.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Tom:

@That One Guy: Yes, what they did was wrong. And boneheaded. That the Russian Orthodox Church has given its support to Vladimir Putin's repressive tactics is irrelevant to those two things.However, their actions do not deserve two years in an American prison, much less a Russian one (and yes, Russian prisons are worse than the ones here).

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  That One Guy:

This isn't freedom of speech here, people.  These ladies were not thrown in prison because they spoke out against the government and the government got mad.  They were thrown in prison because they created a public disturbance.  The song they were singing was called "Holy S**t" for goodness sake (yes, "reportedly", but I believe it).  They were singing it, in the most offensive manner possible, in a public cathedral.  The only reason anyone is kicking up a fuss about this, saying that they're being oppressed and should be condoned for this instead of punished, is because of the lyrics being politically and "freedom" oriented.  If they had started singing a Lady Gaga song and gotten tossed in jail for it, the world wouldn't have made a peep, except, possibly to further investigate whether Lady Gaga is a bad influence or not.

Since when have we, as Christians, applauded the instigation of civil unrest?  I believe in freedom of speech, I believe everyone has the right to it, but the fact remains, as Bob (if I may be so informal) said, the world does not enjoy that freedom like America does.  I'm not saying this is a good or acceptable thing, but it is how it is.  By all means, we should try to change that, try to find ways to give the world that priviledge of freedom of speech.  But through lawful means.  These women broke the law of the land and therefore must pay the consequences.

When I finished the above post and moved down the comments, I expected to see people agreeing with Bob and expressing surprise at the way the media was reacting.  I was surprised at the fact that there were actually people applauding these women.  Are we as Americans so egotistical that we believe that our opinions should be thrust upon the world?  As Americans we do have a responsibility, because we are blessed to have a government founded on Godly principles.  But if you haven't noticed, our government is pretty screwed up these days.  We are, sadly, no longer the nation that can be held up as an example for the world.  Once upon a time we were.  We can be again.  Getting up on our high internet horses and saying that the Russian government is unjust for punishing those who broke the law is not the way to do that though.  I believe there is a verse in the bible that goes something like "Get rid of the plank in your own eye before helping your brother with the speck in his", which I hope we all know.  We cannot possibly say to another nation "You're doing it wrong" while we ourselves are so messed up.

I'm sorry if this post's relevancy drifted at times.  What I'm trying to say here is this.  If you applaud these women, then tell me where you go to church.  I'll bring a couple of guys some Sunday while your pastor is preaching and start playing and singing a Lil Wayne song for you.  When you ask me to leave politely, and I of course refuse, and you call the cops, and they arrest me and my pals for causing a disturbance, then we can talk about how you believe in freedom of speech and all that wonderful stuff about "down with injustice" and the like.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Alex C:

replying to Nameless:

You have a point in that many people who want artistic freedom of expression and free speech just want to bombard us with immoral content and decadence and such.  But I don't think that is a reason to argue against free speech and freedom of expression as concepts, in and of themselves.  The truth of the matter is that allowing free speech and free expresion *IS* going to allow some people do do things that will offend us or that would be considered immoral, there's no escaping that, but thats not a reason to throw out the concept entirely.  as Kendra pointed out "Believing in the right to free speech...means believing in it for everyone, not just for those with whom we agree and not just for Americans."      Yes, the right to free speech and expression means there are some people who will be able to say or do or create offensive and moraly bankrupt speech or art or movies or whatever without being punished, but it ALSO means that we have the right to speak christian truth or create artwork and movies and culture that is beautiful and honoring to God and his truth without fear of being persecuted or silenced for what we said.  You can't have one without the other.   Freedom of speech and expression protects us just as much as it protects the people you spoke about.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Jeff:

I'm going to go out on a limb here I'm sure, but I think artistic expression is not a right that even we hold or should hold. Guess who's crying out for "artistic expression" these days. The only people who complain are the ones who produce and promote all the moral filth they can for the whole world to see. They have no sense of basic morality, so they think that all people should be able to view violence and nudity whenever they want. And they claim they have the right to it because of "free speech." Artistic expression is just another name for obcentiy or have we not learned that lesson? Our country, no our entire world, is one big Sodom, and it's because people strive for "freedom" in so many areas, like art and sex.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Coram_Deo:

Confront the evil in your own house before you try to confront the evil in your neighbor's house.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Kate:

I think that the author of this article had good intentions in pointing out that the media tends to hype up less atrocious forms of injustice while ignoring things that should invoke far more outrage. However, as Kelley says above, we as Christians are to stand up against ALL forms of injustice, whether we see them as minor or major. The author also states that "whether we believe that unfettered speech is a right that should be enjoyed by everyone in the world isn't the point", but I would say that such a belief is impossible to divorce from this issue. Either one believes everyone should enjoy free speech, or that only Americans should, which is an ethnocentric and prideful assertion. Americans are blessed with their rights, yes, but we are not better than any other person in the world, no matter their nationality. We do not deserve more rights; we are blessed to have them and should desire and work for rights for those who do not have them. In addition, "little" injustices such as refusing to allow free speech, etc, are often the first step to larger atrocities. The Holocaust didn't start wth dragging Jews off to concentration camps; it started with Hitler's government removing a few citizenship rights, one at a time. In closing, I will just say that Christians are encouraged by "above reproach" by the apostle Paul, and one aspect of that is to never defend even the slightest examples of oppression.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Kelley:

We are not suprerior because we are Americans. People in other countries are no less deserving of freedom just because their governments forbid artistic expression. Our Founding Fathers believed free speech was a right given to 'all men' by God. Was sacrilegiously storming a church the most effective, morally "right" path? Of course not. But neither is an unjust, repressive sentence.Certainly there are far worse, unnamed oppressions continuing every day that deserve more attention than this case. Still, that doesn't change that a travesty of justice did occur in the 'trial' of Riot. Injustice, great or small, is still wrong, and as Christians, we should stand against all injustice.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Coram_Deo:

I agree with you Bob, there are other cases more worthy of indignation. There's outcry about these ladies' right to express themselves. What about the individuals here on American soil who are murdered on a regular basis? Individuals who have their basis right to live snuffed out in the name of convenience.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  ua13_kendra:

I agree with what atomic said as well.  No one should ever be punished for expressing their beliefs; thought is not a legitimate crime regardless of whether your country recognizes it as such or not.

Sometimes tells me that if the band had been standing up for something you agree with, you would feel differently.  Believing in the right to free speech (I consider artistic expression to be a part of this) means believing in it for everyone, not just for those with whom we agree and not just for Americans.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Alex C:

I think I agree with Atomic.  I don;t see why we should donwplay or ignore an issue like this just because it happened in a country that happens to currently have a different cultural view on things like this.  Some things definitly should be left to cultural issues, but some things are just wrong or right regardless of culture.  I know its an extreme example, but I mean, if another country condoned murder or slavery or something like that, I doubt most of us would say "its just a cultural thing, they have different laws than us" and leave it at that.  and maybe "freedom of speech and expression" aren't nearly as big a thing as something like slavery, but its still an issue that many people here feel is very important morally.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  atomic:

Okay but no.My grandfather came to Canada from Estonia after WWII because if he had returned to his home he would have been killed or actually sent to the Gulag you mentioned. Estonia gained its independence from Soviet rule in 1991 without any bloodshed. It was called the singing revolution. Hundreds of thousands of people would gather and spontaneously sing songs, mainly traditonal folk tunes and hymns that were banned by the Soviets. (Estonia only has a population of about one million people, and a large percentage of them had already been sent to labour camps. Hundreds of thousands is an incredible number). Music is a important tool.Artistic freedom is a very big deal and does deserve our attention. Everyone has a stake in protecting it. It can foster great social change without violence. These women do not deserve to go to prison for what they did. They deserve our respect. Though you may not agree with their message or their means, what they did took incredible guts and bravery. I applaud them. Other people of Estonian heritage are applauding them as well. They recognize bravery in the face of persecution when they see it.Just because it's happening far away in a place you may not understand, in a manner you may not approve of, does not mean that it lacks importace or that these women deserve what they get because they "chose the wrong way to do it". Any way would have been the wrong way.(What they are getting by the way is two years in a "corrective labour facility". For singing a song that made some people mad and "choosing the wrong way to do it".) c:

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  bjthe4th:

And I used to wonder why Russia still acted like the USA was an enemy...  It is interesting to me that these same Hollywood stars that support the "Americanizing" of the Russian legal system, also abhor the spread of Christianity through missionary work. They don't want the Church to "wreck" other cultures, but they don't mind pushing their ideas on others.

I know it is not every star that does this, but I think free speech in Russia would be won easier if people engaged in less offensive ways.