Whether or not you like their tunes, the artist collective Pussy Riot deserves our respect right now, and it's not just because the Russian feminist punk-rock group has made it OK to use the p-word in polite circles.
Three young, female members of the group – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich – became an international sensation last week whey they were sentenced to two years in prison for performing a "punk prayer" in Moscow's main cathedral.
The women's crime: staging a brief performance on the sanctuary platform at Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on Feb. 21 to protest oppression by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church's support of his candidacy in last year's disputed parliamentary elections.
Wearing their trademark ski mask-style balaclavas, the women crossed themselves, bowed to the altar and began to perform the song, "Mother God, Put Putin Away." Church authorities cut their act short after less then a minute, but when a video using footage from the protest was made public, the women were arrested 11 days later and charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."
Up until that moment, the obscure group's songs had dealt mostly with homophobia, feminism and the environment – issues we Americans argue freely about every day over Chick-fil-A sandwiches. But this particular song criticized the growing ties between church and state.
The women's subsequent trial – a Kafkaesque courtroom scene with the defendants kept in a windowed box – drew the attention of everybody from Madonna, who showed support by writing the band's name on her back during a Moscow concert, to Amnesty International, which declared last Friday "Pussy Riot Global Day," sparking protests in major cities around the world.
Along with political freedom, basic human rights and free speech, there are so many other reasons to pay attention to Pussy right now:
· Because it took three women – two of them moms – to do what 100,000 protesters last year in Moscow could not: wake up the world to Russia's authoritarian government.
· Because we need more smart aleck feminists.
· Because punk rock hasn't been this meaningful since the Sex Pistols mocked the British monarchy by singing "God Save the Queen" on a riverboat on the Thames outside Buckingham Palace in 1977.
· Because it reminds us that "blasphemy" is still a crime in some parts.
· Because it's titillating to hear BBC correspondents say "pussy" over and over again.
· Because these ladies have one of the world's greatest chess champions, Garry Kasparov, rooting for them.
· Because all the musicians who have publicly supported the group – Bjork, Patti Smith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beastie Boys, Yoko Ono, John Cale, Courtney Love, Peter Gabriel , Paul McCartney and Peter Hammill – could make a killer tribute CD.
· Because when the church inserts itself into politics, it shouldn't be surprised when politics shows up on its doorstep.
· Because now we know the difference between balaclavas and baklava.
· Because we forgot for a minute that Russia is run by a former K.G.B. agent.
· Because this could start a Bikini Kill revival.