Russian band Pussy Riot Girls inspires symposium at DePauw

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"Riot Girls in Prison: Pussy Riot and Music of Protest," a symposium inspired by the currently incarcerated Russian female punk rock band was held on Wednesday afternoon in Peeler Auditorium.
The symposium, which was sponsored by the Russian Studies and Conflict Studies departments, aims to cover the culture and the motives behind music of protest and how such music challenges the meaning of freedom of expression. The band, Pussy Riot, is known for their controversial performances slamming Russian politics.
Four presentations by DePauw students and alumnae covered various aspects of Russian culture and how it is linked to the Russian punk rock group, Pussy Riot, as well as other issues concerning music of protest.
In 2012, four members of Pussy Riot made their resistance towards the political views of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church publicly known during a performance at the Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
Three of the members were arrested and convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in prison camps.
According to Director of Russian Studies, Masha Belyavski-Frank, the performers were protesting Putin's politics in the presidential election and his connections to the Church, which "[the Pussy Riot girls] personally felt were not for the good of all Russians."
The actions of the band sparked a conversation about what qualifies as freedom of expression. Their motives and their sentence inspired the symposium.
Sophomore Clay Knappenberger began the event with his presentation "Pussy Riot: Could it Happen Here?" in which he compared what qualifies as "hooliganism" in Russia and what qualifies as "hate crimes" in the United States.
A second presentation was led by junior Elleka Okerstrom and sophomore Kate Grimm who presented "Feminism: The Driving Force Behind Pussy Riot." They discussed the feminist issues that the group brings to light.
Okerstrom and Grimm referenced a quote by a member of Pussy Riot that described Russia as a country "still dominated by the centuries-old image of the woman as keeper of the hearth, and of women raising children alone and without help from men."
"[Russian women] can't live the lives they may want to live," Okerstrom said.
A female rights issue that the symposium raised is the debate about abortion in Russia, and how it is actually parallel to American debates between the pro-life and pro-choice movements.
Freshman audience member Ashley Steinkamp appreciated that the Pussy Riot girls do not just defend Russian women, but the rights of women all over the world.
"I think learning about Pussy Riot girls is good for DePauw students because it brings to light feminism and what is going on globally about women's issues," Steinkamp said.
But Belyavski-Frank emphasizes that the Pussy Riot girls' message is not solely for women, but concerns a global issue that is relevant to all.
"We wanted something our students could relate to," Belyavski-Frank said on selecting this topic for an event. "And this is something that is going on right now and has very much [to do with both] Russian culture and world culture."
The symposium continued with a presentation by DePauw alumna and second-year graduate student at Indiana University, Kate Pickering. Her presentation titled, "The Velvet (Revolution) Underground: Rock Music's Revolutionary Role in Czechoslovakia," focused on The Plastic People of the Universe, a rock band from Prague whose arrest led to protests on the freedom of speech.
Pickering used The Plastic People of the Universe as another example of the politics of music.
"It's interesting because even if you don't approve of what [the Pussy Riot Girls] did, they sort of stretch the bounds of free speech and make us really question what we think is appropriate," Pickering said.
Amanda Fischer, DePauw alumna and first-year graduate student at Indiana University, finished the symposium with her presentation entitled "Work! Drink! Resist!: Fighting Hate and the System through Russian Punk Rock."
Fischer's speech discussed trends in contemporary Russian punk music and how Russian bands approach a fight toward a corrupt system.
"A lot of people are beginning to speak up against Putin which really wasn't done before," Fischer said. "So it's interesting to see how the youth are beginning to find a voice."