Self-Expression meets Repression: Pussy Riot’s plight is only one example of mistreatment by authorities

In August, the sentence handed down to members of the feminist collective Pussy Riot was a grotesque overreaction to political self-expression.  A two-year prison term for “hooliganism” reflects how seriously Russia’s political and religious authorities treat acts of perceived subversion and dissent.

Freedom of speech has never been valued as highly in Russia as it is in the West. The members of Pussy Riot, however, participate in the punk community, a subculture in which speaking out is a basic tenet. They are following a rich lineage of personal expression and protest.

Unfortunately, there is also a history of punishment.


During the Cold War, the Iron Curtain proved especially porous to western musical styles, such as jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and punk. Nascent music communities throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were repressed by government authorities. Those with power were afraid of music’s potential to articulate protest and to provoke social unrest. A good example of this was a band called the Plastic People of the Universe (PPU).

Formed in Czechoslovakia in February 1969, the PPU was immersed in the political climate of Soviet “normalization.” The Prague Spring, which started with government-led liberalization, ended with Soviet invasion. The 1970s started amid Soviet attempts to reassert political and cultural hegemony in Czechoslovakia.

The PPU’s 1975 album Egon Bondy’s Happy Heart’s Club Banned, a clear homage to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was produced and distributed illegally. The band’s lyrics dealt not with topics of high politics, but with drug addiction, alcoholism and insomnia. Nevertheless, in an alleged socialist utopia, the band members suffered harassment and repression for daring to draw attention to Czechoslovakia’s societal ills.

By the mid-1970s, the Czechoslovak underground music community coalesced around the PPU, associated dissidents, and various artists. With the efficiency and efficacy made famous by the Communist paradigm, Prague took action against these social deviants. The bands’ mentor, Canadian poet and historian Ivan Martin Jirous, was jailed for a year and a half. Members of the band were then imprisoned. Unsurprisingly, this tactic only further unified and galvanized those elements deemed subversive.

Indeed, as Václav Havel reflected in his memoir, he and other dissidents had “built on the solidarity for the imprisoned musicians of the Plastic People of the Universe and created Charter 77.” This formation was no small feat; in Charter 77, dissidents joined from across the political spectrum, all uniting to oppose the government.

Václav Havel became the first leader of the Czech Republic following the fall of Communism. All over Eastern Europe and the former USSR, subcultures flourished, for a time, without fear of repression.

Of course, on the western side of the Iron Curtain, style held codes of subversion as well. Haircuts like the mohawk were charged with political meaning. These days in the West, however, the fashions and styles associated with music no longer hold a similarly subversive power.

This, however, is not the case everywhere. Both the content and the form of personal expression are challenged routinely, globally. Breaking away from tradition is frequently met with disproportionate punishment advocated by insecure and cowardly political, social and cultural institutions. As severe a measure as two years imprisonment for the members of Pussy Riot is, it is not a unique reprisal for running afoul of entrenched interests.

In late 2011, authorities in the Indonesia’s most conservative province, Aceh, moved against the punk community in an effort to stamp out a perceived threat to traditional values. Police arrested audience members who attended a concert, and forced them to cut their hair, remove piercings, change their clothes, and brush their teeth. Punks then had to undergo an Orwellian course in re-education at a state facility. There, they participated in military-esque drills and took classes on proper behavior.

Worse still is the treatment of members of the “emo” subculture in Iraq. Feeling disconnected from Iraq’s social and cultural mainstream, some youths in the country explored less traditional modes of self-expression. Subsequently, they became targets of festering hatred. Emos are often characterized by their sincerity and sensitivity. Extremists equated this particular strand of individuality with threats to social cohesion and stability. The government fuelled this connection. Iraq’s Interior Ministry, according to the BBC, accused emos of being Satan worshipers.

This past March, many of these “emotional” punks were attacked and even killed. Conservative militias distributed the names of dozens of youths they felt deserved punishment – between 60 and90 were shot or stoned to death.

Finally, the “goth” community in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, has, in recent weeks, faced condemnation for an alleged vandalism of a local cemetery. Police arrested two goths, easily recognizable by their dark makeup and clothes, without evidence. Normally, however, goths romanticize death, rather than desecrate it. Nevertheless, reality has not stopped Russian state television, which has a large Uzbek audience, from alleging that goths even participate in cannibalism. This has heightened an already tense situation within mainstream Uzbek society, which views goths as abandoning traditional values.

The goth subculture in Uzbekistan is estimated to be composed of about 200 members, who are loosely connected through social media. This latest crackdown by authorities threatens to fragment the community further, as it joins the ranks of other subcultures in the country like punks, who have also faced state repression in the last few years. Like in Aceh, punks in Tashkent have been arrested for simply attending concerts.

In all of these examples, politics is tied to self-expression, and also to religion. The members of Pussy Riot were rounded up after protesting in a church. The Plastic People of the Universe, if interpreting religion broadly, was perceived as threatening state socialism and the belief in historical materialism. Indonesia, Iraq, and Uzbekistan are all predominantly Muslim, and those appropriating Western styles of individuality are breaking away from religious tradition. Youths self-identifying as punk, emo, or goth is, then, a political act when doing so incurs the ire of political and religious elites. This is heightened when they face repression for it and still refuse to fall in line.

Personal expression through an outlet like music, clothing or hair style isn’t, often in and of itself, subversive. It is only when the state perceives such alternate modes of expression as insidious to the established order that they become a threat. Once they react harshly, it turns law-abiding citizens into dissidents. Sometimes, it causes these subcultures to disappear, as self-expression is stamped out.

Other times, however, it creates a rallying point to unify support, and amplify discontent, against those with power.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Matters of Debate, Punk and Politics, Punk and Protest

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