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Pussy Riot: back in the USSR

In this country at least, the punk music I loved as a teenager lost its ability to shock long before Johnny Rotten started appearing in butter commercials. So safe has it become that brief snatches of Sex Pistols songs even made it into the Olympic opening ceremony.

Not so in Russia, where it has obviously mutated into something that still maintains a little of its founding ethos. The clips of Pussy Riot I have heard on YouTube strike me as utterly cacophonous, and I say that as a man who still gives his Clash, Gen X and Television CDs the occasional spin.

Even by the standards of the genre – and the musicianship of many of the bands was greater than was widely appreciated at the time – it is pretty rough stuff. That, indeed, may well be the point.

Rock, of course, has a long history in Russian counterculture, as detailed in Artemi Troitsky’s seminal 1987 book ‘Back in the USSR; the History of Soviet Rock’.

The story starts in the 1940s, with the emergence of a youth cult called the Stilyagi, who demonstrated their sartorial defiance of Stalinism by donning brightly coloured zoot suits and listening to jazz.

By the time I got to visit the USSR in the Perestroika years, it was obvious that many city kids were crazy about rock and roll.

My girlfriend and I got invited to a party in the basement of a grim social housing project in what was still Leningrad, where teens and twentysomethings had managed to rig up a mono cassette player to some sort of speaker, enabling them to stage a rockabilly hop.

I can also remember going back to one guy’s flat in Moscow and teaching him a few rock classics on his almost unplayable Russian guitar. He made me promise to send him a Chuck Berry songbook when I got back to London.

I have no idea how popular punk is among today’s Russian youth. Most of the local bands I saw on a trip last year were heavy rock oriented, although I did not get anywhere near the sort of alternative venues in which the likes of Pussy Riot presumably perform.

These three women have, of course, been in jail for five months now, after filming themselves dancing on the altar of an orthodox cathedral and later overdubbing a soundtrack deemed to be both blasphemous and – what is no doubt worse than any insult towards the Almighty – derogatory towards Putin. They could get seven years in prison.

The whole affair is a telling statement of what Russia under its current leadership has become. Back in the USSR? In some respects, indisputably so. At a time when the country is gripped by a protest movement led by the young, the symbolism of jailing the obvious figureheads will be lost on no one.

Pussy Riot have rightly become a cause celebre among western rockers. Every fiftysomething in Britain who can remember the transformational impact of the punk explosion should be on their side.

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