Pussy Riot, punk and the legacy of protest

The remaining members of feminist Russian punk group Pussy Riot – who have spoken out for causes ranging from LGBTQ rights to the corruption of the Russian government – were finally freed from prison Dec. 23.

Originally jailed for “hooliganism” after a controversial performance in an Orthodox Church, their release comes as a great relief to rights watchers around the world, many of whom had rallied around the band’s image to use as an international symbol not only for Russia’s misdoings, but for other unrelated instances of repression as well.

This type of attention given to a protest group is especially intriguing in today’s world, where it seems that the tradition of musically driven protest has been lacking compared to past movements in the ’60s and ’70s.

“When we look at today’s environment, we should ask where are all the songs written and sung for the Occupy Movement?” Deena Weinstein, a DePaul sociology professor of popular culture, said.

However, despite the boldness of the members of this band, the effectiveness of protest acts in creating change in the government should be challenged. Indeed, it seems that the main role of protest groups would lie in their ability not to influence higher officials, but to create public awareness.

“People often underestimate the power of ‘raising awareness,’ but I believe that increased awareness is extremely influential,” Elise Manchester, the vice-president of DePaul’s chapter of Amnesty International, said.

“When enough people are aware of an important issue and vocal about that issue, as the members of Amnesty International and I try to be, our representatives generally react accordingly. This happened in the U.S. with Pussy Riot. President Obama is no longer attending the Olympics in Sochi because of the human rights abuses/LGBT abuses in Russia that have become increasingly notorious thanks to awareness of Pussy Riot. This, in turn, puts pressure on the Russian government to change its laws in order to maintain international credibility.”

Internationally, it seems, people will easily bring awareness to the cause. But the Pussy Riot movement is unlikely to lead to any change in a nation such as Russia, where public opinion can often be as hostile to the group’s ideas as the government. For example it should be noted that, according to a 2013 Pew Poll, 74 percent of the Russian populace remains hostile to homosexuality, despite continued outrage by the members of Pussy Riot and other members of the international community.

In fact, the idea that protest groups will lead to the actual changing of Opinions can be challenged as well. Far too often, it seems that such protest movements attract the attention of people who would already be predisposed to their cause.

“I studied protest rock in the past, and I am most unhappy to conclude that it often amounts to ‘preaching to the choir,'” Weinstein said.

“Even Pussy Riot – and we should all admit that they were brave – embarrassed Putin only because he was able to be embarrassed by his vanity about the Olympics,” Weinstein continued. “Without that situation, it’s very possible that they would have been strung up on a pole or merely forgotten.”

As people, we often want to romanticize the idea that protest in music and popular culture will lead to a grand “revolution” against injustices. However, the reality remains that the majority of people are not politically driven by music, and that those who do listen all too often lack the influence to create real changes.

“Rock ultimately is understood by the vast majority of those who listen to it as entertainment, not politics,” Weinstein concluded.