Pussy Riot Comes to Brooklyn Only to Go Mainstream

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- It's 12:30 am, and the crowd at the now half-empty Barclays Center looks drained after a four-and-a-half hour show dedicated to human rights and organized by Amnesty International. That all changes when Yoko Ono comes on stage, grunting, screeching, and moaning, "We're gonna make it," over and over. Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips stands behind her on a podium entwined in LED lights, lips painted blue, waving the long shiny fringe of his sleeves. The audience shakes its exhaustion and suddenly finds itself singing along to the Beatles' hit "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Glitter shoots in the air.

Thus wound down Amnesty International's dissident-chic benefit concert, a show built around an appearance by Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, two members of the radical feminist punk collective Pussy Riot. On Dec. 21, Russian authorities released the two women 18 months into their two-year jail sentences for staging a performance mocking Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral. They were freed after they became the focus of intense international pressure -- and Putin decided he needed some positive press before the Sochi Olympics. And on Wednesday night, they joined a bevy of celebrities -- Madonna, Blondie, Lauryn Hill, and others -- for a show with the amorphous title "Bringing Human Rights Home."

But, first, a complication: Just before the show began, the remaining members of Pussy Riot expelled Nadya and Masha from the group. "They are no longer Pussy Riot" six members of the group wrote. "We're a female separatist collective," the six said. "We never accept money for our performances ... we only stage illegal performances in unexpected public places." Another irony: Forty-five percent of the "home" where the artists performed is owned by the Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, one of the giants of his country's post-Soviet economy and a Kremlin-approved opposition politician.  

So what was it all good for?

Following their "punk prayer" in a Moscow cathedral and Putin's harsh response, the West eagerly adopted Pussy Riot as the latest and greatest anti-Kremlin dissidents, but the group grew out of a more radical ferment than many of the group's Western backers would like to admit. Former members of the Voina political art collective, the women of Pussy Riot don't preach a mealy-mouthed free-speech liberalism but are instead opposed to the whole "corporate state system." Voina's art-protest stunts included Nadya having sex on film while nine-months pregnant at a biology museum to ridicule then-president Dmitry Medvedev and painting a giant penis on a St. Petersburg draw-bridge, which, when raised, faced the local headquarters of the FSB, the successor to the KGB.

A few hours before the Barclays concert, where they would be introduced by none other than Madonna, Nadya and Masha sat down for a press conference. I asked the pair what it was like to participate in such a pop culture event, considering their counter-culture background. "I think that's insulting to the other artists present here," Nadya replied. This was maybe 20 minutes after Bob Geldof, the founder of the LiveAid concerts, said that he was "ashamed of his profession" and of "rock'n'roll's complacency."

Though they're loath to admit it, Wednesday's concert represented a turn away from Nadya and Masha's radical roots. So it was that this breakaway faction of Pussy Riot came to Brooklyn to go mainstream. Madonna, a self-described "freedom-fighter" who spoke of receiving death threats after her performances in Russia were bashed for promoting "homosexual behaviors," introduced the pair. She asked for a "hell yeah" for Pussy Riot and thanked them for making it possible to say "pussy" in her household. That was a familiar theme throughout the night. The actress Susan Sarandon said she relished the way she could now say "pussy, pussy, pussy" over and over. Debbie Harry of Blondie, when asked what she thought of Pussy Riot, gestured toward her crotch in a bad-ass, rock-star sort of way.

When they finally appeared on stage, Masha and Nadya had shed their technicolor balaclavas and tights and traded them in for understated T-shirts adorned with crucifixes but partially covered by blazers. Today, they aim to start an organization that will fight for the rights of Russian inmates, and the two women delivered a passionate, emotional, and angry appeal for Russia's political prisoners. They read the closing statements delivered in court earlier Wednesday by the so-called Bolotnaya Square protesters, who have been jailed and prosecuted for demonstrating against Putin the day before his 2012 inauguration. By the end of their speech, Masha and Nadya had the crowd theatrically screaming "Russia will be free" along with them.

But did anyone at Barclays know what they were talking about?

Earlier in the night, I conducted a little survey on the red carpet of the night's stars. I asked them what they considered the most pressing human rights issue of the day. Debbie Harry shrugged, helplessly shook her head, and walked away. Isaac Slade of the pop-rock band The Fray delivered a lengthy answer about human trafficking, citing statistics and what seemed like a genuine interest in the topic. The very fidgety Wayne Coyne first asked me what Foreign Policy does and why I was at the concert. He then went on a slightly incomprehensible diatribe about how everyone should be able to do what they want, ending his rant by emphasizing the importance of legalizing marijuana. And then there was Colbie Caillat, the bizarrely tan pop sensation, who when asked about Pussy Riot answered that she "just learned about them."

As for the concert's attendees that I spoke to, most knew little to nothing about Pussy Riot. They had come for the music; Pussy Riot was a sideshow: "I didn't know this was a charity concert," "Who are they?" "I know they were in prison, I don't know why," "I'm only here for Ms. Lauryn Hill,  she's my favorite artist."

Then again, the show's organizers may have had the ignorant in mind as their target audience all along. Michael O'Reilly, the deputy executive director at Amnesty, told FP that the group hoped to launch another era of activism and mobilize a new generation of celebrity-activists. "It's a re-birth of the spirit," he said. Wednesday's concert was the first arena-size show hosted by Amnesty since the uber-popular 1986 "Conspiracy of Hope" and 1988 "Human Rights Now!"concert tours featuring stars like Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Tracy Chapman.

And perhaps Amnesty did succeed in creating some new human rights activists. By telling the world about their unfair trial and the horrors of Russia's prison system, Nadya and Masha have surely contributed -- at least a little -- in giving some Americans a greater sense of the injustice and cruelty of Putin's Russia.

In announcing the schism in Pussy Riot, Nadya and Masha's former colleagues sounded a note of sadness: "We have lost two friends, two ideological teammates, but the world has gained two brave rights activists," they wrote. Perhaps, after seeing Nadya and Masha, the world gained more such activists on Wednesday.


Theo Wargo/Getty Images for CBGB


A NATO War Dog Is The Taliban's Newest Hostage

Early Thursday morning, Taliban forces in Afghanistan released a video proving, it claimed, that the militants had captured a U.S. military dog. The footage shows a group of bearded men holding up machine guns and standing around a brown dog tied to a length of chain.

The BBC's David Loyn had one of the earlier reports detailing the Taliban's claim that they had captured the dog -- allegedly named "Colonel" -- after a night raid which, among other alleged triumphs, netted weapons "of a type frequently used by American special forces."

Headlines and Twitter chatter furiously repeated the news: The Taliban has a U.S. war dog.

But about midday Thursday, Military Times reporter Jeff Schogol, after doing some admirable digging, revealed that the dog seen in the footage was in fact not part of the U.S. military -- but rather from another NATO force. 

Reached via Twitter, a Taliban spokesman claimed the dog was captured following a Dec. 23 raid by U.S. forces in Alingar district, Laghman province. The spokesman also claimed six U.S. troops were killed in the raid. NATO announced two deaths for that day in separate attacks: One in eastern Afghanistan and one in southern Afghanistan.

When asked if the dog would be released, Military Times was referred to another Taliban spokesman, who did not respond to repeated emails.

A NATO spokesman did not have any information about how the dog was captured.

"We can confirm that a military working dog went missing following an ISAF mission in December 2013," Army Lt. Col. Will Griffin said in an email to Military Times on Thursday. "It is [International Secutiry Assitance Force] policy to defer identification to the appropriate national authorities."

This news then ricocheted around the Internet. The BBC updated its original report to say that "U.S. military sources say the dog belonged to a coalition partner and the BBC understands it was working for British forces." To my knowledge -- though I imagine this story will continue to unfold as it gains even more attention -- this is the latest and most up-to-date information about the dog in the video.

The initial reaction and mostly unquestioning acceptance that this dog was attached to U.S. forces wasn't a bad guess. Based on the footage, I would guess the dog is a Belgian Malinois, one of the two breeds most often employed by U.S. forces. He's trim and fit and looks like no other Afghan hound I've ever seen, eliminating the possibility that these fighters stumbled across some gear and outfitted a random dog. Moreover, the dog's gear appears to be legitimate. Depending on the mission, military dogs are often outfitted with these kinds of packs, which sometimes include a flexible camera with night vision capabilities.

So, how did this dog end up in the Taliban's hands? It's not as uncommon as you might think for a dog to get separated from his handler during a firefight. Most of war dogs have excellent off-leash capabilities and are not always by their handler's side or tethered to a retractable leash. And even the best-trained dog who has shown nothing but a hearty endurance for the sound of gunfire and RPG blasts can still have a bad reaction to an explosion or the chaos of a mission gone wrong. Still, as one handler I spoke to Thursday morning and who deployed to Iraq with his dog in 2004, said "If the guys had to leave the dog and weapons behind, they were in some serious shit."

To some, it might seem silly or even ridiculous that the Taliban is touting the capture of a dog as if they've delivered a major blow to their enemies. It's not. In fact, no one has a better understanding than the Taliban of how effective these dogs are in countering asymmetric warfare and how many improvised explosive devices they uncover.

These dogs are such a threat to insurgents that they have become a sought-after target. In Iraq and Afghanistan, militants have placed enormous bounties on handlers and their dogs. Handlers and other service men and women who have gotten hit in a firefight have speculated to me that the original target had almost undoubtedly been the dog. As one handler who was about to depart on yet another deployment to Afghanistan told me in an interview last year, he didn't necessarily feel more prepared for another tour of hunting IEDs simply because he'd done it before. The insurgents watched the dog handlers, he said, and constantly tried to outpace the animals, both in how they planted bombs and where they hid them.

In every war that dogs have been employed, they have become prime targets. The Vietcong placed bounties on U.S. dog teams and offered upwards of $20,000 for a kill. During WWI, war dogs were often captured and retrained rather than killed, as they were considered a valuable asset. Though they clearly understand the animals' value, I doubt very much that the Taliban would take such a nuanced view of these dogs.

I actually find this video a bit hard to watch. While the dog appears docile, he is to my eye ill at ease. His ears remain mostly flat, his tail might wag, but it does so uncertainly and is otherwise tucked between his hind legs. These are not men he knows.

The person I'm thinking of now is this dog's handler. If he has seen this footage, maybe it's given him a sense of hope or maybe a clearer sense of the fate his dog will meet. But either way, these service men and women have lost one of their own. Sure it's "just" a dog, but that dog was in the business of keeping them safe. At the end of the day, that counts as a loss. And I'm sorry for them.

Rebecca Frankel is the special projects editor at Foreign Policy and the author of the forthcoming book War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love.