Grudge match: political reprisals against musicians

Are the pussy riot arrests just one in a continuing chain of political reprisals aimed at musicians?

The continued incarceration of members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot begins to raise questions of reason and motive. The band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhin were arrested in February following a flash gig in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral, where they sang Punk Prayer: a song containing the lyrics that appealed to the Virgin Mary, asking her to “chase Putin out”. The five minute performance ended with the band’s eviction from the building. Within a fortnight the two had been arrested, and they’ve been held without the possibility of bail since.

Of particular interest is the band’s relationship to Putin. They formed in direct protest to his campaign for a third term as Russia’s President, beginning days after he made the announcement. They’ve been present at all the major protests against his re-election; they played above a Moscow prison complex after the influential activist Alexei Navalny was arrested; their performance in the cathedral occurred days before the election was to take place, in an effort to raise awareness of their opposition. Their trial date, originally set for the week ahead of Putin’s re-election has now been shifted to a later date.

Are the courts being deliberately slow, is it pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church, or the state? The two are not wholly separate, with the prominence of the church rising in tandem with the post-Communist government. Is the treatment of Pussy Riot a political reprisal, Putin returning the favour for the headlines they caused throughout his election campaign?

There’s a long history of politicians acting out against musicians; after all, a musician may not be able to articulate complex criticism of politician’s policies, but if they can capture the mood in a phrase it can be far more damaging than an opposition campaign. Or, put more succinctly by Joe Hill: “A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once. But a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.”

Musicians from the Ivory Coast have been subject to unofficial censorship and repression for years, according to a recent report from Music Freedom. Reggae singer Tiken Jah Fakoly, and others, found the manufacturers of his CDs had been ‘advised’ to discontinue production. DJ Volcano had his house burned down for speaking out against President Laurent Gbagbo, who remained in power for six months after losing the 2010 election to Alassane Ouattara. Others fled the country fearing violent reprisals.

We don’t need to look much further back into Russia’s history to see a similar repression and exodus of musicians. A capricious and violent government used its power throughout the 20th century to disappear those that displeased it.

Perhaps best known for his troubles with the state was the composer and musician Shostakovich. Despite dying a member of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, the composer was denounced by the party twice in his lifetime, and feared arrest or worse for many years.

It began with his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. It was recieved well by critics and audiences when it was premiered in 1934, yet in 1936 it became the focus of an article in the official party newspaper, Pravda. Entitled Muddle instead of Music, the paper called the opera “vulgar”. It’s believed that the article was written at the behest of Stalin, who had seen the opera two days before and disliked it.

A second article followed, attacking another of his works, a ballet this time, The Limpid Stream. Between the two negative pieces, work for the composer began to dry up. His commissions steeply declined. At the word of the dictator, who had found the opera to be too loud for his tastes, Shostakovich’s ability to work was severely hindered.

The years of the Great Terror followed, in which Stalin purged the party of perceived foes. Members of Shostakovich’s friends and family disappeared, he lived in fear that he too would be taken. His decided to pull his Fourth Symphony from performance, despite reaching rehearsals, out of fear that it would draw the party’s attention. It did not premiere till 1961, many years after Stalin’s death.

For 12 years after the Pravda articles he (successfully) worked to dispel the aspersions made against him. He produced works that didn’t anger the party, film scores, government commissions, pieces that didn’t attack the state. Despite this, in 1948 he was again criticised, this time of displaying Western influences.

He was forced to ‘apologise’ for his music, much of which was banned. He self-censored, knowing that anything even subtly against the party line could have him and his family imprisoned, or executed.

If Pussy Riot have committed a crime they should be punished for it. But currently they are being held by an angered state, pressured by an incensed church, and they are not being justly treated.

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