Williamsburg Rallies Around A Jailed Rock Band of Russian Dissidents

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Musicians get ready for their “Free Pussy Riot” set at the Knitting Factory. Anastassia Smorodinskaya/ The Brooklyn Ink

Williamsburg’s summer concert series has taken a political turn this year, as New Yorkers rallied in support of Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk-rock band, whose members are currently imprisoned in Moscow. Maria Alyokhina, Yakaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were taken into custody in March, after the group performed “Virgin Mary Put Putin Away,” an anti-government song inside a prominent Moscow cathedral, asking the Virgin Mary to chase President Vladimir Putin out of power.


Though the women were arrested nearly five months ago, they are still being held without bail on charges of criminal hooliganism  — which carry a possible seven-year prison sentence — while awaiting a trial date, which keeps getting pushed back.  As the case generates media attention, activists all over the world are advocating for Pussy Riot’s release. In the past month, Williamsburg alone has held two separate concert events, intended to raise money and awareness for the cause.


The feminist organization Permanent Wave hosted a benefit for the band at Williamsburg’s Death by Audio in early June, featuring performances by Shady Hawkins and former Beastie Boy, Adam Horovits. An all-day concert, entitled “Free Pussy Riot,” was held on June 23 at the Knitting Factory on Metropolitan Avenue. The benefit featured acts such as Alina Simone, Dmitry Wild and Grammy Award-winning musician Frank London, among many others, all of whom performed for free.


“I am here because it’s the right thing to do,” said New York-based musician Ellina Greypell, 40, who, like a number of the days performers, was born in Russia, “I find it unpleasant that these young women are in jail.”


Between 4 p.m and 11 p.m, people arrived at the concert hall to showing their support for the detained musicians. Inside the venue, bands played non-stop sets, but the real action was out front, where fashionable attendees, dressed in accordance with Williamsburg’s hipster style, met and mingled, discussing the situation at hand over a cigarette. The dozens in attendance comprised mostly Russian exptriates, social activists and fans of the artists performing. Picket signs reading, “Jesus Loves Pussy Riot” and “Virgin Mary, get rid of Putin”, piqued the curiosity of passersby on the street, as well.


Abdrashitov stands in front of picket signs which he helped to make, wearing Pussy Riot-style ski hat to show his support for the band. Anastassia Smorodinskaya/The Brooklyn Ink

Several supporters, including Oleg Abdrashitov, 39, donned neon-colored ski masks over their faces, crafted to look like those worn by Pussy Riot during their performance in the cathedral. “I am concerned about the situation,” said Abdrashitov, a resident of Park Slope, “concerned because the women are mothers and haven’t seen their kids.”


“Free Pussy Riot” was organized in association with Amnesty International, by concert producers Bryan Swirsky and David Gross, along with writer/activist Xenia Grubstein. “We are trying to defend musicians,” explained Gross. The 49-year-old Russian native has been bringing Russian concerts to the United States since 1997.  Like most Pussy Riot supporters, Gross is highly critical the Russian government’s judicial actions, saying, “Putin is a tyrant, he wants to set an example to scare others.”


Putin’s alleged scare tactics are likely aimed at the thousands of Russian citizens and public figures, who, like Pussy Riot, have been taking part in a series of large public demonstrations against the president, ever since he won re-election in March. Putin’s amendment to the constitution, allowing him to serve a third term in office, followed by a questionable ballot count during the election, has outraged citizens demanding change in the county’s democratic system. However, the government’s case against Pussy Riot, a previously obscure band whose music mostly expressed feminist views, has only roused more protest and opposition, both in Russia and abroad.


The core issue, according to Grubstein, 31, is that the women are suffering “unfair punishment for the crime.” Many citizens and legal experts alike, feel that Pussy Riot’s unsanctioned performance should be considered a misdemeanor, punishable by court-mandated community service or minor fines. Though they have not yet been tried or convicted of any crime, Alyokhina, Samutsevich and Tolokonnikova have been kept in a jail cell, since their arrest.


“Jail without bail is very unjust,” said Gross, “The fact that they’re holding them in jail shows cracks in the system.”


In statements issued to the press, Russian officials defended their actions, saying that the women are still in custody because prosecutors fear they may leave the country prior to their trial date and that they were arrested for offending Russia’s religious community, not for speaking against the government.


Abdrashitov said he is worried about the Russian Orthodox Church, making reference to Patriarch Kirill’s (born Vladimir M. Gundyaev) refusal to plead forgiveness on the young women’s behalf. “The devil laughed at us,” said the Patriarch, referring to Pussy Riot’s performance in March.


“If they go to jail,” Abdrashitov declared, “I, my friends and everyone I know will grow to seriously hate Kirill, who has the power send them back to their families, but won’t do it.” Greypell agrees “I don’t support obscenity in church, but their actions weren’t criminal.”


Swirsky, 46, an American with Russian ancestors, is invested in the issue because of his long-time appreciation of the Russian punk rock scene, “I come from an era where music was a viable form of protest,” he said. Pussy Riot’s song — which features lyrics such as “the head of the KGB, their chief saint, leads protesters to prison under escort” —  “hit the nail on the head,” said Swirsky.


Indeed, the silencing of Pussy Riot is reminiscent of Soviet era censorship, which produced an underground protest movement amongst musicians. In Czechoslovakia, the band Plastic People of the Universe was persecuted for songs that evoked the “Prague Spring” crushed by a Soviet invasion in 1968. The Siberian punk-rockers, Civil Defense, vehemently opposed Communist rule and was targeted by Soviet authorities throughout the 1980’s. According to Swirsky, a former Williamsburg resident, “There is a lot of hopelessness among Russian kids and Pussy Riot inspires them to think.”


In a telephone interview, renowned Russian journalist and music critic, Artemy Troitsky, 57, says he believes the situation is “one hundred percent political.” Troitsky, an influential media figure in Russia, has been very outspoken about Pussy Riot’s imprisonment, stating in an earlier radio interview, that even in the Soviet Union, where the distribution of rock music was a punishable offense, musicians weren’t put in jail for the lyrical content of their songs. In April, he organized a concert to benefit the musicians in Tallinn, Estonia, which was attended by Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik.


Troitsky also encouraged other Russian musicians to support Pussy Riot during his recent onstage appearance at a music industry awards ceremony in Moscow– as entertainers become increasingly censored in Russia,  “they could be next,” Troitsky said. Following suit, hundreds of Russian writers, musicians and actors—including those who had supported Putin’s re-election such as director Fyodor Bondarchuk and actor Evgeny Mironov– wrote a public letter to the president, asking for the band’s release.


“Everyone is doing their part,” says Troitsky “journalists are writing about it, lawyers are gathering evidence to show that the charges are false—there have been many forms of support.”


According to Troitsky, “Russian officials don’t want this to become an international scandal,” but given the amount of attention Pussy Riot has received worldwide, it might be too late. Amnesty International has added the case to its human rights watch list and major American rock groups like Anti-Flag and Faith No More, have publically voiced their support of Pussy Riot in recent weeks. Even the seemingly small neighborhood of Williamsburg has seen its’ share of protest, despite the band having never performed at any local venues or anywhere in the United States.

Supporters mingle in front of the Knitting Factory in Williamsburg. Anastassia Smorodinskaya/The Brooklyn Ink

“Free Pussy Riot” took place on what was supposed to be the eve of Pussy Riot’s trail, but it came of little surprise to organizers, that government officials announced a last minute extension. “Their trial has been extended for another 30 days, so it’s quite possible we’ll have to do this all over again” said Gross, who is concerned about censorship, even in the U.S. “This could soon happen here. When all your rights are taken away, your right to riot is all that is left.”


In a sudden turn of events, prosecutors announced on July 4, that preliminary hearings will be held on Monday, July 9. The decision blindsided Pussy Riot’s legal team, leaving them only a few days to review the case and strategize a defense in accordance with the evidence presented. In response, Alyokhina, Samutsevich and Tolokonnikova turned to the only form of protest available in jail—they are presently on a hunger strike.

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