Protest Lessons from the Band Pussy Riot

[Editor’s note: While we realize that Pussy Riot is all-around controversial, we’re also curious about the band’s ideology and protest methods.  Please leave a comment after reading and get the discussion going.]

Last month Maria Alyokhina, a member of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, embarked on a hunger strike that lasted 11 days before, remarkably, her demands were met.

Alyokhina is ten months into a two-year prison sentence for “breach of public order motivated by religious hatred.” In reality, the breach was a brief performance in a Moscow cathedral of the song “Punk Prayer- Virgin Mary, Drive Putin Out.”

Religious hatred or political dissent: take your pick.

The hunger strike of Alyokhina began when she alleged that prison officials were attempting to turn the other inmates against her by cracking down on security in advance of her parole hearing. She claimed inmates were denied permission to enter workplaces without escort, whereas before they had been allowed to enter freely. This requirement left inmates locked into their workplaces for hours at a time. Alyokhina was moved to a prison hospital, but ended her hunger strike when officials were able to show her that the security restrictions had been removed and returned to normal.

Pussy Riot was only formed in August 2011, but has had a significant impact on various social justice movements globally. Their manifesto claims: “We are open-source-extremists, the feminist virus infecting your thoughts.” And this idea of “open-source” movements is becoming the modern approach. There was mutual influence between Pussy Riot and Occupy Wall Street in New York, and similarities can be seen between other recent movements, like the Arab Spring. Social media is becoming the platform for protest, and youth are mobilizing it.


While it is always hard to gauge the impact that youth movements can have, it is undeniable that the actions of Pussy Riot, and notably their arrest and subsequent trial, have called attention to the Russia of Vladimir Putin. And since their trial, a glut of new legislation has been passed, clamping down on multiple forms of protest and criticism of the government. These laws are informally known as the Pussy Riot laws, and make illegal the discussion of Pussy Riot protests, distribution of footage of them, and covering one’s face in public, in emulation of the balaclavas worn by band members.

The irony though of clamping down on social protest is that, with modern media, the act of repression only serves to send the message out all the louder. And while perhaps in Russia the group is being somewhat censored, internationally their protest is sparking and leading to a much wider movement.


David Wilson graduated from the University of Texas in 2006. Since then he has gone wherever the wind blows him, living in Europe, China, and the States, and traveling extensively throughout the rest of the world. When he’s not on the move, you can find him obsessing over latte art, playing piano, or trying to bleach his hair in the sunshine. Follow him on Twitter.

Limbo at Guantánamo Bay

On the heels of President Obama’s public reaffirmation and four years after his original promise to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, many are now simply wondering, “When?”

Earlier last month, the New York Times published a prisoner’s harrowing account of his own experiences at Guantánamo. An issue long forgotten by much of the American public, the Guantánamo debate was forcefully reignited as Samir Naji al Hasan Mobeq’s plea to “the eyes of the world” rippled through newspapers and television stations.

Recent inmate hunger strikes and subsequent force feedings, which themselves have been denounced as unethical by the American Medical Association, have once again turned the nation’s attention to Guantánamo. Added upon previous allegations of torture, the hunger strikes have left more and more people with the chilling sense that this, this cannot be justice.

The Guantánamo issue exemplifies the polarizing tension between national security and the rights afforded to suspects. In the wake of September 11, it’s not hard to imagine the reactions that contributed to the detainment of suspected terrorists, not hard to justify holding them without due process. However, now more than a decade after its inception, Guantánamo still holds over 100 prisoners who have neither been charged nor tried.

We often, understandably, let personal emotions seep into the political and the legal spheres. This is not an exclusively American phenomenon (see this, for example). Catchy, I know, but far from productive. Our immediate reactions are governed by our beliefs, our fears, our hopes. But a knee-jerk response too often clouds reason. And in the case of Guantánamo, reason has come roaring to the American public that this place is at odds with the fundamental rights we value as citizens and as fellow human beings.


Amongst the rows of prison cells in Guantánamo, there is a hall of hauntingly beautiful landscapes painted by the inmates. They are a striking reminder of the humanity in us all. From the increasing support for Guantánamo’s speedy closure, I venture to say that we have not yet become so calloused that we are willing to sacrifice human rights for politics, human dignity for security. Nor should we be. These men are entitled to either release or trial. Let the law, and nothing short of the law, pass judgment.



Serena Yin graduated with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. She is joining the Washington Reading Corps to promote literacy in local schools. A New England native, she loves ballet, beaches, and hamburgers. When she’s not on the hunt for the nearest Starbucks, she’s working on realizing her lifelong dream of meeting J.K. Rowling.