My 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.