Pussy Riot Goes to Washington

Members of the Russian punk group came to Congress with a list of Russian officials they want sanctioned.

Nadya Tolokonnikova (R) and Maria Alyokhina (C), members of the Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot, answer questions after meeting with U.S. senators, including Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) (L) at the U.S. Capitol May 6, 2014 in Washington, DC. 
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
May 6, 2014, 10:19 a.m.

Con­gress went punk for a day, in the name of hu­man rights.

Mem­bers of Pussy Ri­ot met with law­makers on Cap­it­ol Hill on Tues­day, in an ef­fort to high­light hu­man-rights ab­uses in Rus­sia. They also came armed with a list of 16 Rus­si­an au­thor­it­ies they want sanc­tioned by the United States for hu­man-rights ab­uses.

“We have to talk about these people. We have to talk about polit­ic­al pris­on­ers,” Maria Alyokh­ina said through a trans­lat­or. “Si­lence is the most dan­ger­ous thing for polit­ic­al pris­on­ers, and if we al­low these people to be for­got­ten, they might be killed.”

Their list in­cludes In­teri­or Min­is­ter Vladi­mir Ko­lokolt­sev and five judges, one of whom was in­volved in the Pussy Ri­ot case. Alyokh­ina and Nadya To­lokon­nikova spent nearly two years in a Rus­si­an pen­al colony after per­form­ing an anti-Putin song in a Rus­si­an church in 2012.

“One of the main slo­gans of Pres­id­ent Putin is sta­bil­ity, where­as today we can state that Putin is lead­ing Rus­sia not to sta­bil­ity but to in­stabil­ity and chaos,” To­lokon­nikova said through a trans­lat­or.

The mem­bers of the Rus­si­an punk-rock group were in­vited to the Hill by two Hel­sinki Com­mis­sion mem­bers, Demo­crat­ic Sen. Ben Cardin of Mary­land and Rep. Steve Co­hen of Ten­ness­ee. “These wo­men are her­oes to people around the globe,” Co­hen said. 

The names the wo­men brought will be used, as law­makers con­sider wheth­er more in­di­vidu­als should be ad­ded to the list of those sanc­tioned un­der the Mag­nit­sky Act, Cardin said. Passed in 2012, the law bans U.S. travel by cer­tain Rus­si­an hu­man-rights vi­ol­at­ors and freezes their Amer­ic­an bank ac­counts.

The band mem­bers met privately with law­makers and spoke about what they en­dured in Rus­sia; they also dis­cussed crack­downs on the LGBT com­munity, NGOs, blog­gers, and oth­ers.

“It puts a face on what we’ve heard, and you can see the pain in their faces as to what they went through,” Cardin said. “It al­ways amazes me, the per­son­al cour­age and de­term­in­a­tion of young, tal­en­ted people who put their lives at risk in or­der to help oth­ers, and that’s clearly what they’re do­ing.”

The band is ac­tu­ally a per­form­ance-art col­lect­ive of many in­di­vidu­als, but the two im­prisoned mem­bers be­came in­ter­na­tion­ally known after their con­vic­tion on charges of “hoo­ligan­ism” and in­cit­ing re­li­gious hatred. Their songs are pos­ted on the In­ter­net for free, and they stage guer­rilla-style per­form­ances.

On Monday, Putin signed in­to law a ban on ob­scen­it­ies in the arts.

“My wish is someone could make a Pussy Ri­ot song with a lot of ob­scen­it­ies, post it to the In­ter­net, and see what hap­pens,” To­lokon­nikova said.

The wo­men were also in the U.S. to at­tend the PEN Lit­er­ary Gala in New York on Monday.

Rus­si­an au­thor­it­ies’ treat­ment of Pussy Ri­ot has sparked bi­par­tis­an con­gres­sion­al out­rage be­fore — al­though many mem­bers have re­frained from say­ing the band’s ac­tu­al name. (For what it’s worth, Cardin did refer to the band by name nu­mer­ous times Tues­day).

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Chuck Grass­ley if Iowa has tweeted about the “ri­dicu­lous sen­tence giv­en punk band mem­bers.” And in a Janu­ary floor speech, Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said, “I’m go­ing to de­claim from ar­tic­u­lat­ing their name and leave it to oth­er sources. But it says something that the gov­ern­ment of Rus­sia views the per­se­cu­tion of punk-rock bands as with­in its pur­view and per­fectly ap­pro­pri­ate.” 

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