Free the Grrrls!


Liberalism, in its better sense, hardly exists in Russia. Male chauvinism, gay-bashing, and other aspects of cultural reaction are rampant throughout contemporary Russian culture. Tolerance for edgy and avant-garde cultural expression has improved only slightly since the days of Communist rule. A prime example is the response to the antics of the Russian grrrl band Pussy Riot. Last February 21, three members of the band — Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova — entered the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow and gyrated before the altar for about 40 seconds. The women were taken into custody and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” for which Russian law provides a penalty of up to seven years in prison. The verdict in the case will be announced tomorrow.

That Russia’s thug-president Vladimir Putin and the Russian patriarch Kirill I have led the way in condemning Pussy Riot should surprise no one. What is somewhat surprising is the lack of sympathy for the women in Russian society generally, including among so-called liberals. The three women maintained a stoic front during their trial, which has only exacerbated the hostility toward them expressed by many Russians. That women should act up and then refuse to show remorse or beg for mercy clearly touches a nerve in a society still dominated by hypermasculine posing. It has been left to the so-called international community to take up the cause of Pussy Riot. A broad mix of prominent organizations and people — including Amnesty International, German parliamentarians, and Madonna — has helped put Pussy Riot’s plight on the world’s front pages.

The international uproar has had some effect. President Putin stated recently that the women’s punishment should not be too harsh. Apparently a not guilty verdict was never a possibility. As for the punishment, we shall know tomorrow how severe (or not) it will be.

The women of Pussy Riot are not especially talented. Compared to PJ Harvey or even Bikini Kill, they are rank amateurs. And they probably exercised poor judgment by making a scene in the cathedral. But in a normal, civilized, liberal (in the best sense) society, they would face trespassing charges and a small fine. In Russia they face the prospect of several years’ imprisonment for what amounts to a harmless prank.

The Russians are a great people with a tragic history. And in general I believe that the internal affairs of other nations are none of my business. But the Pussy Riot show trial is a blatant affront to artistic expression and individual freedom. Libertarians should join the Pussy Riot Global Day protests that will be held tomorrow, August 17.

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What's wrong with protesting Putin out on the streets, like thousands of other Russians, that were not arrested?

Maybe the difference does have something to do with property, and selfagrandizing publicity. Which seems to have reached the heights of absuridty in Russia.

Putin has taken Reagan's horseback riding to show virility to new levels. He rides the horse shirtless. Pussy riot has taken Saneed O'Connor's attack on religion and state relations to the same extreme.

It's all PR. Which is why the young ladies were so unconcerned even at their trail. It means big bucks to them, and probably little jail time.

And honestly, how different is their ideal Russia, to that of Putin's?Not much. Not much, at all.


There's no justification for a trespassing charge, nor for any other charge based on the premise that the girls violated someone's property rights. Their protest took place in a government-owned cathedral.

Incidentally, they've maintained from the start that their protest was directed against Putin, not against the Catholic church. Indeed, the band was formed as a reaction to and protest of Putin's running for a third term as Russian president.

Jon Harrison

Thank you Mark, for knowing that the grrrls were protesting against Putin's authoritarianism and the slavish (no pun) support he receives from the Orthodox Church. I deliberately did not mention this in the reflection, as I was curious to see who among readers of the piece (or at least commenters on it) were aware of the actual motivation for Pussy Riot's action.

Fred Mora

On the one hand, I tend to agree. On the other hand, I don't side with initiating aggression. And make no mistake: These girls *are* the aggressors. Their little stunt was clearly designed to bait churchgoers and to provoke a reaction. Do you consider it OK to violate another person's religious beliefs in order to score media points? Hey, how 'bout spreading some pork grease on a synagogue wall? Just a prank, right?

So I am a bit conflicted here.

What is certain is that Putin made a big mistake. As a former KGB exec, he should be familiar with the provocation-repression cycle, and he is sticking his head out big time by doing the repression.

Jon Harrison

Actually, Fred, the grrrls' stunt was a piece of agitprop against the thug-president Putin and the Orthodox Church, which strongly supports his rule. It was not meant to offend churchgoers.

Still, it undoubtedly did offend some churchgoers. How do we strike a balance here? I don't think it's okay to violate (through deeds like trespass) another person's religious beliefs merely to achieve notoriety. On the other hand, if that person's church actively supports an authoritarian and repressive regime, then I would have no problem with actions such as those carried out by the grrrls. (As a sidebar, were the grrrls really the aggressors, or is the oppresive Russian state committing aggression against the people, every day and in so many ways?)

I would agree with your last paragraph if we were talking about a "normal," liberal society. But Russian society isn't there yet. Putin will get a lot of heat from abroad; at home I fear he's won more respect from many Russians.

Rodney Choate

It's cool to stand up for fair and equal treatment of women in other countries. But when will more people stand up for fair and equal treatment of MEN in this country. Here, it is the men who are oppressed- and the better men tend to be hurt the most. Here, women don't have to be responsible for themselves and for their own bodies- they get bailouts.

I know of no place on earth where the people want true just treatment under the law, irrespective of gender.


I agree the proposed penalty is disproportional to the mere trespass that occurred. However, one can only assume the Pussy Riot girls are not totally ignorant, and it's therefore difficult to work up too much sympathy for them. It's not as if we, as libertarians, believe they have the right to enter private (Church) property to do whatever, right?

If you know, for instance, that your neighbor keeps a loaded gun inside his house, and if you break in during the dead of night to steal a chocolate chip cookie from his wife's cookie jar, and if he blows your head off with his S&W 357 magnum .... it's tragic .... but it's your own damn fault.

I'm an athiest. I love Toll-House cookies. I'm not a FOOL!

Jon Harrison

I take your point, which has also been made to me privately by a leading libertarian writer and thinker. Certainly, I don't want anyone trespassing on my property. I said that I think the grrls erred in going into the church. However, they did no material harm to the church's property, and they had a larger point they wanted to make about political repression in Russia and the Orthodox Church's role in support of the Putin regime. Sure, they should expect some punishment. But a charge of hooliganism inspired by "religious hatred"? A show trial resembling those of the Brezhnev era? The possibility of a seven years' sentence? No. A conviction for trespassing with a fine and/or community service would be appropriate. The Russian state is indulging in overkill to intimidate other citizens seeking a freer, more liberal society. Libertarians who place the property argument ahead of concerns about state repression of individuals are failing to see the forest for the trees.


Thanks for the additional thoughts on this. I didn't realize (though I suspected) the Church is run by the state.

Jon Harrison

Under communism what was left of the Orthodox Church was indeed run by the state. Under the current authoritarian regime the Church is independent, though very much tied in with the authorities. A symbiotic relationship exists between church and state; one might perhaps compare it to the situation that prevailed in 16th and 17th century Spain.

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