In Britain, we do things differently – differently from Russia when it comes to punk music, at least. 35 years ago, when a punk band called the Sex Pistols assailed one of our beloved national institutions by releasing a nasty, sneering song called God save the Queen during Silver Jubilee week, we merely tutted a bit, declined to play the song on Top of the Pops, pretended that the number-one slot that week had gone to Rod Stewart and not to the Pistols, and rolled our eyes with Schadenfreude when Johnny Rotten got duffed up by outraged and patriotic teddy boys. Thereafter, we clutched the punk movement to our bosoms and turned it into yet another British tourist-pulling gimmick. Witness the presence of pogo-ing punk rockers at Danny Boyle’s 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony. Why, online, I even saw a photograph of a statue, somewhere in London, of one of those silly Olympics mascots – Wensleydale or Mandelson or whatever they were called – togged out as a Mohican-headed punk. Elsewhere in London, there were statues of them dressed up as beefeaters and pearly kings.
Which has not been the response of the Russian authorities, increasingly deferential to the will and whims of President Vladimir Putin, when faced with Pussy Riot. Back in February, the gimp-masked feminist punk band gave an unscheduled performance on the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, as a protest against the Russian Orthodox Church’s stance towards Putin – the relationship between church and state in modern-day Russia is becoming as gruesomely cosy as it was in Franco’s Spain. This resulted, last week, in three members of Pussy Riot being sentenced to two years’ imprisonment as punishment for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’. Since then, two more members of the group are believed to have fled the country.
During the past week, I saw one of Putin’s lackeys interviewed on the BBC’s Newsnight programme and he said that Pussy Riot had incurred such punishment because the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was demolished by Stalin in 1931, rebuilt during the 1990s and re-consecrated in 2000, is seen by Russians as a symbol of the repudiation of communism and the repudiation of the brutal Stalin years in particular (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral_of_Christ_the_Saviour). In other words, Pussy Riot’s brief (it lasted less than a minute before church security officials chucked them out) and cheeky performance there was an attack on Russians’ hard-won religious and political freedom. If you can call it that nowadays.
So let’s get this straight. Pussy Riot rocked the boat by performing in a building that is a symbol of freedom from a dictator, who was notorious for punishing people who rocked the boat in his regime by sending them to the gulag, and they have now been punished for rocking the boat by being sent to the gulag. You know it makes sense.
In the West, musicians wanting to sing, perform and dress in a manner that defies convention and offends prevailing tastes, and fans wanting to emulate them, have had it relatively easy. Even back in the 1970s, when you cut through the hype and hysteria, all that the new British punk bands were really up against were Mary Whitehouse, a few excitable tabloid editors and a few flatulent old Conservative MPs. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan might have been a bit of a knob, but he wasn’t going to send anyone to the British equivalent of the gulag for composing songs with some sweary words in them and dyeing their hair a colour that departed from the normal human spectrum of black, blonde, brown and ginger.
Compare that with the treatment meted out to punks during the same era in East Germany, on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The DDR Musueum in modern Berlin, which I visited during a trip to the city last autumn, has a display chronicling the trials and tribulations of those East German punks. According to a 2009 article in the Daily Beast, they “experienced arbitrary detainment, brutal police beatings, and invasive searches of apartments and other spaces where they congregated. The police also began to recruit informants—often by extreme coercion. Finally, before the end of 1981, the ‘punk problem’ was eventually passed over to the dreaded Stasi, taken up by the division charged with fighting political opposition.” (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/11/08/did-punk-rock-tear-down-the-wall.html)
And still it goes on. In Aceh province in Indonesia in 2011, 64 fans were arrested at a punk concert and imprisoned in a police training school, where they had their heads shaved and were forced to undergo ten days of ‘re-education’. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STkG0ondNnk) It’s not just punks who get it, either. A recent article on the BBC online news magazine detailed how goth kids in Tashkent, capital city of Uzbekistan, have been persecuted after getting the blame for vandalism at a local Christian cemetery. Uzbekistan is a Muslim country, which leads me to reluctantly suspect that the real vandals of that Christian cemetery might have had a religious motive – well, the Salafists have been doing it in Libya recently. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-19009188).
And of course, there’s the sad story of the Iraqi heavy metal band Acrassicauda, which was told in the documentary movie Heavy Metal in Baghdad. (http://heavymetalinbaghdad.com/uk/) They eventually had to flee Iraq, to Turkey, after getting death-threats from insurgents and religious extremists who accused them of devil-worship.
In Tunis, where I work at the moment, I occasionally see on the streets kids who are ‘gothed-up’ or wearing heavy metal T-shirts. I wonder how long it will be before Tunisia’s new, self-appointed morality police, our local Salafists, get tired of hassling TV stations for broadcasting ‘blasphemous’ films and hassling galleries for exhibiting ‘blasphemous’ paintings, and start hassling them.
Finally, returning to Pussy Riot, I can’t help but wonder how many of the old punk musicians in 1970s Britain — who, as I’ve said, had things relatively easy — would’ve had the nerve to pull a stunt like that pulled in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour this February, with spending God-knows-how-many years in a Russian prison as a possible outcome. I can’t imagine Johnny Rotten doing it. I can’t even imagine the Clash, politically motivated though they were, doing it. In fact, the only one of those 1970s British punks I can visualise can-canning alongside Pussy Riot on that Russian Orthodox altar is Sid Vicious, who was always willing to try anything that’d get up people’s noses with little thought about the consequences. Sadly, that’s not because Sid, who once swaggered through a Jewish area of Paris wearing a swastika T-shirt, was a political rebel. It’s because he was too thick to understand the principles of cause and effect.
Anyway, here’s footage of those gimp-faced ladies doing their stuff in the cathedral six months ago: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALS92big4TY. Enjoy, Mr Putin.