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


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