Pussy Riot Turns Watching the Sochi Games Into a Moral Dilemma

The protesters say Americans shouldn't tune into Putin's Olympics

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Cem Ozdel / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (L) and Maria Alyokhina (R), members of Russian punk group Pussy Riot hold a press conference for Amnesty International's "Bringing Human Rights Home" concert at the Barclays Center on February 5, 2014, in New York City

On Wednesday night, at a rock-star-studded Amnesty International concert in Brooklyn, Madonna introduced the two young Russian women whose faces have become synonymous with the anti-Putin movement. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, members of the punk rock collective Pussy Riot, spent 21 months in prison because of their political activity. The pair took the stage at the Barclay Center just two days before the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The date was no coincidence.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are on a mission to convince Americans not to watch the games in order to protest human rights violations by Vladimir Putin‘s regime. And beyond that, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina have promised to fight for a peaceful overthrow of the Russian government and have even hinted at running for political office themselves.

“First of all, we want to see Americans keep their eyes open and not just buy what Putin is trying to sell them,” the pair said through a translator. “The second thing that we call for is a boycott. This can be an active boycott where you stage protests, demonstrations and so on and so forth — whether in Russia or here, whatever form you want to give them. You can even do a Pussy Riot performance because anybody can be a member of Pussy Riot. Or you can hold a passive boycott, which means not going to Sochi, not writing about Sochi.”

It’s a compelling argument. Should Americans who believe in human rights, gay rights, feminism and freedom of speech see it as their moral responsibility to switch off the Olympics? And what about the Olympic sponsors?

Gay rights groups have already begun protests against Coca-Cola, McDonalds and other Olympic underwriters worldwide for supporting the Olympics in Sochi without mention or consideration of Russia’s so-called “anti-gay propaganda” laws, or the harsh prison conditions that Pussy Riot’s members are now seeking to change. Sponsors legitimize the games and thus lend legitimacy to Putin’s regime, the logic goes. The individual consumer arguably also has a responsibility to choose with their dollars or their television remote whether to endorse a regime that violates basic human rights.

The women are convinced that worldwide outrage both from famous supporters and thousands of individuals helped provide the momentum that got them released from prison before their two-year sentences were up. And Amnesty International repeated many times at the Amnesty press conference and concert that their 220,000 signatures helped get the three imprisoned band members out of jail.

International pressure probably did play a part in Putin’s decision to release the members of the punk feminist group. But it also played to his advantage domestically, making him look sympathetic just as the world tuned in for the Olympics. Ultimately, it probably wasn’t Americans signing an online petition that changed Putin’s mind. As Irish singer-songwriter Bob Geldof, who organized the first Live Aid relief concert in 1985, said at the Amnesty press conference, “220,000 signatures is f**k all — it’s nothing.”

Would American Pussy Riot supporters protesting Sochi more loudly compel the Russian government to change their sentencing laws or to be more tolerant of their gay citizens? Putin has proven to be singularly unmoved by international disapproval. Sure, if Sochi viewership were to hit record lows across the world, it would be a stain on his record, but a viewing boycott would probably have little long-term effect within Russia where the public is probably not seeing a lot about American ratings in the national press.

Amnesty International emphasized that the real concern will be what happens when the cameras leave. Putin has said as recently as January that gay people in Russia can “feel at ease” as long as they “leave kids alone.” But when the Russian parliament passed the controversial law, protesters were beaten and arrested. Once the athletes in Sochi pack up their gear, we can likely expect violence against protesters to continue.

According to Pussy Riot, with the games right around the corner, there seems little that we can do to protest besides flipping off our TVs. It’s unlikely that Americans are going to stop buying Coke, after all. But even choosing not to watch the games is a tough decision. The competitors did not pick the location for the Olympics, but they have trained their entire lives for this competition. Many will only get one shot to win a medal, so it might be our patriotic duty to support the athletes representing our country, regardless of the location of the Olympics.

One solution for journalists, and for viewers, may be to keep an eye on Pussy Riot in the future. The band can do what most cannot (or choose not) to do, which is to protest from within Russia. When asked whether they would return to Russia, even if they would face danger, the band members replied, “We want to live in Russia. There is no question about it. It is our country, and we want to make it a free country.” They don’t believe they are in danger of reprisals from the government, and even if they were, they are not afraid to suffer for their cause.
Thanks to the eloquence 0f Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina and — frankly — their physical attractiveness, they have become international symbols of human rights. By removing the masks they normally wore during their protest concerts, and showing their faces in court in Russia and here in the U.S., these women have earned enough attention to muster more support than petition signatures. So whether or not we tune into the games, we should keep watching Pussy Riot. 

4 comments
JamieGoodman
JamieGoodman

A friend of mine had a great suggestion -- Don't boycott the athletes, who have worked so hard to get to these games, but make little protests (like Johnny Weir's pink suit!) and support companies that are pro-gay, and make a donation to an organization working on LBGT rights in Russia. 

BreezHelly
BreezHelly

You don't boycott Olympics! Olympics is when there are no wars, etc. And what you ask of is pure BS. Screw you! Go boycott something that is useful to boycott. NOT THIS!

Sherm
Sherm

The Olympics were created to transcend politics.  Guess the activists didn't get the memo?