Pussy Riot, Putin and Romney: Seattle musicians rally for Russian punk band

Corina Bakker of the Tempers delivers her “Free Pussy Riot, F**k Mitt Romney” message at the Comet last weekend. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

The music is defiant, the bartenders studiously inattentive and the balaclavas sequined.

If it weren’t for the smell of grilled onions wafting in from the hotdog stand outside and the cold beer (instead of warm vodka) I could still be in Moscow.

But I’m at the Comet on Capitol Hill watching Corina Bakker of The Tempers growl out “Free Pussy Riot!” in all of her ecstatic, bloody-kneed and mini-skirted glory.

This is one of at least three benefit shows for jailed Russian punk band Pussy Riot in Seattle in the past few weeks.

And around the corner on 11th Ave a huge feminist mural featuring Free Pussy Riot graffiti and fliers has taken over the entire side of an abandoned building.

This is all to say that Seattle is a real Pussy Riot kindofa town.

Memes mocking Russian President Vladimir Putin, like this one on a sign in Moscow, are reminiscent of parodies of US politicians. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

It’s a pretty 21st-century-globally-connected-world type experience to have to spend a recent Saturday in Moscow interviewing Pussy Riot supporters at an anti-Putin protest for a reporting project and then come home to a flurry of Free Pussy Riot solidarity. 

“Everyone I talked to was down,” says Tim Basaraba (aka TBASA), a booker for Georgetown venue The Mix and member of the band The Valley, who organized a different Pussy Riot benefit show at The Benbow Room on September 15th, in cooperation with Amnesty International

“I don’t know if it’s a Seattle thing or what… but it’s like you could just jump right into their shoes,” Basaraba says “we’ve all been in bands, we all started them young and we wanted to have a voice.”

There’s a natural kinship between the Pacific Northwest and these international politico superstars – especially given their homage to the Riot Grrls scene. But for the organizers I talked to here, Pussy Riot also speaks to a new kind of political cause, one that uses the Internet – and the spectacular theater it tends to reward – to create movements bigger than countries and politicians.

“The layman is going to see Technicolor terrorism,” says Kyle Porter of Lazer Kitty, a band playing the benefit show at the Comet, “But look what they did. They didn’t use guns, they didn’t use bombs – they used their creative imaginations.”

Three members of “Pussy Riot” during the trial in Moscow where they were sentenced to three years for ‘hooliganism’ (Photo from REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva)

When Pussy Riot hit the Facebook feeds I was skeptical. Porter is right, at first glance it looked like a gimmick, something good for some Youtube videos but without staying power and substance.

I thought Americans liked it as a cause because it was a cool way of criticizing another country…and because of the balaclavas.

But I was wrong. What Pussy Riot stands for: freedom of expression, feminist values, and a separation of religion and politics, resonates way beyond Russia.

“Picture this,” says Basaraba, “Some kids in Salt Lake City, they have a punk rock band and they feel disenfranchised from the church they grew up in…They go into a temple, they perform some punk rock thing and put it on Youtube. The local cops…throw a bunch of charges at them…and they’re in jail for two years.  It’s not like this can only happen in Russia.”

And that connection between Pussy Riot and domestic political frustrations is no better expressed than when The Tempers start in on “Rise,” a song about politics, corruption, religion, greed and big business (a perfect list of complaints among activists in Russia).

Keybordist for The Tempers dons a Mitt Romney mask over his sequined balaklava. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

The crowd of twenty-somethings chants “Free Pussy Riot! Fuck Mitt Romney!” and the keyboardist pulls a Romney mask down over his balaclava.

“It’s mostly about solidarity tonight,” says Porter, and it looks like the spirit of solidarity is strong as the crowd alternates between wild dancing and staring rapturously at Corina Bakker as she shouts down the microphone and sways her waist-long hair.

But Porter also wonders how long it can last. Everything cools so quick.  How long did it stay on the front page of Reddit…When do we stop talking about it? When do the curtains close on that particular news item?”

To this point, there don’t seem to be any immediate plans for more events in Seattle, though the band’s case continues with appeal hearings slated for next week. But at least for now, their cache remains high.

“They’re cool because they’re just cool,” says Basaraba, “There’s just something about them.”

 

Generation Putin: stories exploring politics and everyday life for Millennials in the former Soviet Union, is produced by the Common Language Project and comes from the Public Radio Exchange, with financial support from the Open Society Foundation.

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