The night after the Pussy Riot verdict, with bruises still on my arms from fighting legions of other foreign journalists to get inside the courthouse, I had dinner with a good Russian friend.
Apolitical until the Moscow protests took off last December, she was angry at the verdict. She predicted Russia would see a new wave of young urban professionals leaving the country. She had changed her Facebook banner photo to one of Pussy Riot.
But when I mentioned that I felt sympathetic towards the three band members she looked at me aghast. “Of course I don’t have sympathy for them,” she said.
The affair has captivated the west. But it has provoked more of a mixed reaction domestically. That Russians seem to be confused by Pussy Riot is clear in everything from anecdotal evidence to opinion polls. At the start of the trial, for instance, an independent pollster found that more than half of Russians thought the proposed sentence was excessive or that the band should not be punished at all. Three weeks later, the same pollster released data showing only 6 per cent of Russians felt sympathy for Pussy Riot – the other 94 per cent presumably including at least some members of the west’s favourite Russian demographic: educated middle-class Russian protesters.
It is hard to reconcile this lack of sympathy with the idea that Russians believe the sentence to be harsh – the simplest explanations usually cite the deep conservatism of Russian society or the fact that the band’s political protest threw religion and the church into the mix.
It has also been difficult for Russians to understand why Pussy Riot has been such a big sensation in the west.
Why are stars such as Paul McCartney, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Pet Shop Boys, and, well, Danny DeVito falling over themselves to proclaim their support for the band? Or, as my Russian friend put it, why is the band’s photo always on the front page of the FT? (For the record, it has only been there twice.)
Pussy Riot haters will be pleased to know that the band’s indie-rock star edge is starting to wane.
As Miriam Elder, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, put it in a tweet this week: “Love how Pussy Riot ‘story’ followed traditional music arc: ‘Like this band, they’re cool!’ ‘Ugh, they’re famous now, I’m over them.’”
Gene Simmons, the bassist in the band Kiss, who has been late to get on the Pussy Riot train, finally spoke out this week with a statement that defended the women’s “right to do whatever they want” while simultaneously slamming their music. “They’re very pretty girls,” he told the Agence-France Presse, but added: “It’s not a good band”.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic magazine ran a piece on its website this week warning of the “Kony-ification” of Pussy Riot, a reference to the viral but subsequently discredited video about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.
An independent Russian TV station dedicated a segment to the band’s commercialisation. According to its report, the Pussy Riot brand could now be worth millions.
If there is one saving grace for Pussy Riot’s punk credibility, it is the band’s name, which has become the subject of a whole new genre of jokes and double entendres following the verdict.
While the reality of three young women spending two years behind bars would suggest this is an inappropriate time for this sort of humour, it is actually their comrades in arms who are encouraging it.
This week, as Pussy Riot’s lawyers were encouraging people to read the judge’s dense verdict, Voina – a performance art group with ties to Pussy Riot – was encouraging people to Google search the first word of the band’s name – an experiment that, disappointingly to some, now yields photos, sites and articles almost exclusively about the punk band.
“A blow to the porno industry!” Voina crowed in its official Twitter account, @gruppa_voina.
The jokes range from low to highbrow. One currently making the rounds on Facebook is a 2010 photo of good friends Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi at an energy conference that has been imbued with fresh dialogue.
“What are you doing here Silvio?” Putin asks, leaning in.
Berlusconi smirks and offers a lewd punchline playing on the band’s name.