Jailed Russian Punks Part of a Proud Tradition

Just the latest in long line of arrested rockers

By Scott Ross
|  Friday, Aug 17, 2012  |  Updated 9:26 PM CDT
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Feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, right, Maria Alekhina, center, and Yekaterina Samutsevich sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 17, 2012.

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Russian feminist punk rock collective Pussy Riot isn't the first band whose political activism found them on the wrong side of the law. And you can be sure they won't be the last.

The band's plight — three members sentenced to two years in jail for "hooliganism" over an impromptu concert in protest of the Kremlin in a church — has drawn the attention of fellow rockers the world over, with the likes of the Madonna, the Beastie Boys, Pete Townshend, Die Antwoord, Sting, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney and Courtney Love all expressing their support.

Musicians have been getting themselves tossed in jail forever, leveraging their notoriety to shine a spotlight on their political passions, but rarely has the punishment been this severe.

Folk legend Pete Seeger was sentenced to 10 years for contempt of Congress after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee but never served time, as his conviction was overturned.

Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti's politics were inseparable from his music. He went as far as to form his own political party, Movement of the People, and tried to make a run for president. In 1984, Nigerian strongman General Mohammed Buhari had Kuti arrested at the airport as he was heading off on a tour of the U.S., on a trumped up charge of smuggling currency. Kuti's plight drew the attention of Amnesty International, who fought for his release, a struggle that ended in success after 18 months.

And then there are a host of others — Bonnie Raitt, John Densmore of The Doors, Jackson Browne, Joan Baez — who have found themselves temporarily in jail for trespassing or similarly minor offenses during protests.

But Pussy Riot's most direct forefathers have to be The Plastic People of the Universe, a Czechoslovakian rock group formed in direct response to Soviet tanks that rolled into town in 1968 to announce the country's takeover.

Formed by bassist Milan Hlavsa, they took their name from a Frank Zappa song and began playing concerts that relied heavily on covers of Western rock, specifically the Velvet Underground.

Over the years the band's members and fans would be arrested repeatedly, eventually inspiring playwright Vaclav Havel to write Charter 77, which criticized the Communist government's abysmal record on human rights.

It would take another decade, but the Velvet Revolution eventually brought down Communists, Havel became his homeland's first democratically elected president in more than 40 years and the Velvet Underground played in Prague in 1993. The Plastic People of the Universe continue to play to this day.

It's a sad day for Pussy Riot, their fans and their sympathizers. But like the Plastic People of the Universe before them, Pussy Riot will no doubt outlive, in one form or another, the oppressive regime that incarcerated them.

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