Antiheroes

08.20.13

Of Punk and War: A U.S. Combat Veteran in Solidarity With Pussy Riot

There’s nothing more punk rock than joining the U.S. Army. Colby Buzzell on Pussy Riot, heroes, and antiheroes.

Early last year members of the female Russian punk group Pussy Riot stormed into Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior to protest the church’s support of President Vladimir Putin, donning masks, picking up instruments, and dancing and singing from the pulpit, all of it recorded on a low-budget video they shot and put on YouTube, “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” Three members of the group were arrested, charged with “hooliganism,” and imprisoned; two of them have 5-year-old children. The world was inflamed by this rough treatment.

But a year after the verdicts came down, a day of solidarity in New York, Washington, Oslo, Paris, and Manchester passed with hardly a whimper, judging from the sparse turnout and lack of press coverage. What happened?

Have the antiheroes we rallied behind, and who remain imprisoned, been forgotten now, much as we’ve lost sight of our American military “heroes” as we’ve grown tired of paying attention to our long slog of post-9/11 warfare?

A handful of women, vastly overpowered by the size and strength of the Russian state, went into the church at great personal peril to sing and shout for what they believe in: full equality for Russian women, individual free expression, LGBT rights, and resistance to the authoritarian repression of the Putin regime. When the power of the state came down on them, they stood by what they’d done. Comparing them to a military unit defying odds on the battlefield might not be the sort of analogy that would thrill many of their supporters, or members of the band, but I can’t help but see something I can relate to in the bravery of their actions, and the apparent loss of interest in them.

Like most Americans, I learned about Pussy Riot from the Internet. Like many, I clicked “like.” It was, quite literally, the least I could do. As an American, even as a veteran, it’s increasingly tough to find ways of supporting anything, even our soldiers, that don’t involve buying things or posting status updates on social media. But there are no official Pussy Riot rubber bracelets, no bumper stickers for sale from their online store, since they don’t have one. No album to download on iTunes or tour sponsored by the Gap, with Pepsi products on sale. So what does it mean to support a hero without a brand, a cause that’s not being merchandised?

Living out in the Rust Belt now, I couldn’t make it to any of the anniversary events, which left me with a bit of a conundrum. I like Pussy Riot and strongly believe in what they are about and are doing, but what’s a fan to do? Especially with a band that explicitly rejects capitalism, so buying a ringtone seems out of the question and beside the point, something like picking up a yellow-ribbon decal for my car while paying for gas.

I got to wondering, what’s the shelf life on heroes?

Are we as veterans experiencing the same plight as Pussy Riot: heroes today and forgotten tomorrow?

Heroes today and forgotten tomorrow?

For all the support at the start of the war and all the promises after, too many of us come home to part-time jobs at Walmart. With the hottest years of the war behind us and our national confusion between heroes and celebrities, are we just last year’s band now?

Years ago, way before I enlisted in the Army, I briefly wrote reviews for the nonprofit Maximum Rocknroll, known to those in the scene as MRR and one of the largest punk zines out there. At one of their meetings the discussion was about what to do with some of the money earned that year. Many suggested donating it to ABC No Rio, a punk collective in New York and “venue for oppositional culture ... founded in 1980 by artists committed to political and social engagement and we retain these values to the present.” We had consensus around the idea, except for one person who suggested we purchase corporate-box season tickets for the San Francisco Giants instead. He reasoned: “What would be more punk than doing something totally not punk?! That’s punk!”

Years later, well after we’d eventually agreed to give the money to ABC No Rio, several old friends questioned my decision to enlist in the military, let alone during a time of war. “What would be more punk than doing something not punk?” I told them.

At first, I kept my punk background to myself, since I wasn’t quite sure how others in uniform would perceive me. This didn’t last long. In the Army, I knew guys who read Chomsky and listened religiously to the Cro-Mags, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and on down the line.

Civilians often seem shocked when they find someone in uniform with tastes like theirs and treat them like some precious oddity. If you’ve actually been in the service, you quickly learn that its members are every bit as broad in their aesthetic and cultural tastes as what you’d find on a given college campus, and no one cares that you’re into punk unless you have something they want to borrow.

Some people end up in the armed forces for the same reasons they end up in punk-rock bands: because it’s a calling to them, because they’re at loose ends, because they think it might help them get laid, or figure out what it’s all about, or both. Sometimes we’re drawn to heroes and antiheroes both; it’s the boldness and risk that we admire as much as the cause. It’s all about having the courage of your conviction when it counts. That may be easier in the Army, where the code is drummed into you and you’re surrounded by others in the same uniform, than when you’re a young woman, in court, and all you need to go home and see your child is to say “sorry.” I don’t feel the need to choose, though, between the bravery of soldiers I’ve known and the bravery of Pussy Riot.

Some reports have indicated that the Pussy Riot brand is worth a million dollars, which they’ve rejected and refused to cash in on. They’ve also kindly turned down some of the celebrity endorsements that they’ve received and have stuck by their guns all throughout the trial and sentencing. There’s a lot to be admired about them, a lot that could be called heroic.

To quote Reagan, “Tear down this wall.” Decades later, it’s a small handful of feminist Russians who are showing us Americans how it’s done. The least we can do is press “like.”