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Artists of the World Unite -- For Pussy Riot

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This piece is co-written with Andrew Cash, Member of Parliament, Davenport

"I am not afraid of your poorly concealed fraud of a verdict in this so-called court, because it can deprive me of my freedom. No one will take my inner freedom away."

The statement could easily have been made by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nelson Mandela or Ken Saro Wiwa. But the words come from Maria Alekhina of the band Pussy Riot. Her "crime" was to stage a punk prayer along with band mates Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich that exposed the corruption of Vladimir Putin's regime. Their subsequent trial and conviction for hooliganism and "religious hatred" has been a travesty from start to finish.

And yet the poise with which these young artists have faced down the Russian court has revealed to the world the real face of the anti-democratic government of Vladimir Putin.

It was ironic that the trial took place at the same time as the London Olympics. The Olympic festivities served as an incredible celebration of cultural diversity and international solidarity. Thrown into the mix during the gala grand opening were the punk rock anthems God Save the Queen and London Calling.

Choosing to give a nod to the Sex Pistols as a symbol of quintessential Britishness is highly ironic.Thirty years ago, the Sex Pistols were to the British political and pop music establishment what Pussy Riot is to Putin's Russia. God Save the Queen was the only single in pop history that was considered so threatening that the song title blanked out on the Top 40 Chart (even though it hit Number 1). In addition, public officials called for the band to be banned and even killed (see the documentary Filth and the Fury) because this band from West London posed a threat to the very existence of British order and identity.

We were in our early teens in those days. The hysterical reaction to bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash immediately drew us to their records. Punk rock was a musical, social and political education. Those records served as a musical samizdat for a generation of young people who believed the world could be a better place. We never lost that belief.

In the 1980s, our band L'etranger was very active politically in the Toronto post-punk scene. One of the issues we were deeply involved in was the fight against South African apartheid. It tends to be forgotten that pressure from the international arts community in the 1980s kept the issue of apartheid on the front burner of political issues. Musicians of all genres were relentless in the campaign that led to the release of Nelson Mandela and ultimately the collapse of the apartheid system.

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Andrew Cash and Charlie Angus


Punk rock educated us in politics and cultural issues. In some ways it isn't all that far a road from opening for the Dead Kennedys to opening the 41st Parliament. We encourage the members of Pussy Riot to consider a similar route -- they would certainly be a more credible voice in the Russian Parliament than some of the punters who are in there today.

Pussy Riot's 30-second poem has been a wake up call that political music and dissent can still affect change. They remind us that the artist plays a unique role in society. Sure they entertain us, but the also have the role of serving as a cultural mirror and conscience. For this reason the right to artistic dissent must be cherished and protected.

Pussy Riot is just the latest in a long stream of artists who have been persecuted for threatening to the established order. Pete Seeger was blacklisted for decades. His career was undermined and almost destroyed by U.S. officials in the 1950s. And yet today, Pete Seeger is seen as an embodiment of the best of the American folk tradition.

Other artists haven't been so lucky. Victor Jara was a voice giving hope for change in Chile. One of the first acts of the Pinochet Junta was to kill him. Before murdering him they symbolically broke his fingers. And yet his songs continued to live on in the consciousness of the Chilean people.

Pussy Riot has spent six months in jail already. They now face another two years in prison. Their only crime has been to use art to embarrass a corrupt regime. Other artists from Madonna to Paul McCartney have spoken out in their defense. It's time for political leaders to stand up as well. If these young singers can be jailed, then anyone in Russia can be jailed. As Bruce Cockburn says: "Pay attention to the poet you need him and you know it / Don't let the system fool you all it wants to do is rule you."
Pussy Riot stood up to the man. They should be celebrated not imprisoned.

Charlie Angus (MP Timmins-James Bay) and Andrew Cash (MP Davenport) were members of the Toronto punk band L'etranger.