Back In the USSR
They may have won all the battles, but we had all the good songs.
—Tom Lehrer on the Spanish Civil War.
The judges have spoken: “morally reprehensible trash;” “openly Anti-Christian…nihilistic art;” “obscene and indecent…without artistic value…pornographic and shocking by any standards.” Was this their final verdict on the Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot, before sentencing them to two years in prison yesterday?
Not exactly: it wasn’t Russia, but America; it wasn’t yesterday, but 1987, 25 years ago; and it wasn’t Pussy Riot that elicited this condemnation, but artists Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, the photographer of the notorious Piss Christ. And it wasn’t Putin’s government that was offended, but Reagan’s, who with Senator Jesse Helms and House leader Dick Armey did everything in their power to defund the NEA for providing piddling (pun intended) grants of $15,000 to a number of avant-garde artists who offended mainstream sensibilities, including the Pussy Riot of their time performance artists Karen Finley and Annie Sprinkle.
So before we take to the streets in a fury of moral superiority to Vladimir Putin, let us recall the near utter abandonment of First Amendment principles by a near majority of the US Congress in both chambers on both sides of the aisle, who succeeded in pressuring Cincinnati’s Corcoran Gallery to cancel Mapplethorpe’s (created while he was dying of AIDS) exhibit The Perfect Moment. Not satisfied with piecemeal victories, they then tried to completely dismantle one of the signature achievements of LBJ’s Great Society, his 1965 founding of the National Endowment for the Arts, one of the ideals of the assassinated JFK that Johnson committed himself to seeing fulfilled in his administration. Indeed, thanks to the relatively imperturbable George Bush 41 the NEA was spared total annihilation. But neither has it ever completely recovered—no longer offering individual grants for experimental art that may come back to bite them. What author James Baldwin defined as the proper role of the artist—disturber of the peace—in his landmark essay for the book that was dedicated to JFK—a tribute to the national performing arts center before it was later named for the slain president—is no longer considered an acceptable ambition for those who seek government assistance for the arts.
So we have returned to Plato’s definition of the poet—a public enemy who Plato banned from the Republic.
From Plato to Putin, who has yet to answer for the death of journalist Anna Politkovskaya who had been murdered for standing up for human rights for Chechnyan separatists: he would have had no objection to Socrates being sentenced to drink Hemlock for “corrupting the morals of Athenian youth.” Indeed, the three Russian rockers who were sentenced to two years behind bars may consider themselves lucky that they weren’t tried in Iran or Afghanistan—which are even more impervious than Russia to claims of human rights.
Why should a folk singer care about all this? Well, candidly I’m no fan of punk rock, and have not listened to any of their music, having yet to catch up with the Sex Pistols. But I am a fan of speaking truth to power, and one never knows when or where the next light will shine on behalf of freedom of expression. (One punk band is called Piss Christ.)
Today, it shines brightly in a Moscow courtroom, and carrying the torch are members of the punk band Pussy Riot, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova—who sealed the deal for me.
Emblazoned on her T-shirt is the fiery resistance slogan from the Spanish Civil War—No Pasaran, or they shall not pass. It was the slogan of the volunteers in The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, three thousand Americans who 75 years ago went to defend the Spanish Republic against fascism. Only 1500 came home. I met one of their survivors twenty years ago at Sunset Hall, the “retirement home for ageless radicals” as I described them in my Ballad of Sunset Hall. His name was John Day and he was an ambulance driver in Spain from 1936 to 1939. “The bravest of the brave” Pete Seeger called these first fighters against 20th Century fascism—or, as they became known during the McCarthy era, “premature anti-fascists.” It was an honor to become friends with even one of them.
To see their collective memory sustained so brilliantly in a Moscow courtroom by a young Russian punk musician who knows her history was thrilling to say the least—as meaningful as seeing Abbie Hoffman on trial in a Chicago courtroom during the trial of The Chicago Seven; or Pete Seeger on trial in a New York courtroom after being held in contempt for refusing to name names by the House Committee on Un-American Activities on August 18, 1955—fifty-seven years ago today, as I write this column on behalf of free expression.
It was Pete who stood not on the 5th Amendment offering protection against self-incrimination, but on the 1st Amendment protecting freedom of speech and association, for as Seeger said so memorably, “The 5th Amendment says that HUAC has no right to ask me this question; the 1st Amendment says they have no right to ask any American this question.”
Pete Seeger’s case went all the way to the US Supreme Court and in 1961 they overturned the lower court’s conviction, sparing him a prison sentence after having blacklisted him in 1950 when he and The Weavers had the number one song in the nation—Leadbelly’s theme song, Goodnight Irene.
Is there a Supreme Court in Russia with the power to right this current wrong and let these three young musicians continue to speak their minds? One can only hope so. But until they are free it is every folk singer’s solemn responsibility to speak up on their behalf, as German Pastor Martin Niemoller reminded us during World War II, who was himself imprisoned by the Nazis for speaking out on behalf of Jews: “First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist; then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist; then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew; then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
When African-American radical Professor Angela Davis was fired from UCLA in 1969 James Baldwin echoed Nieboller’s immortal words on her behalf: “If they come for you at night they’ll come for me in the morning.”
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph,” wrote 18th Century English conservative Edmund Burke, “is for good men to be silent.” My heroes have never been silent.
So until they are free it is every folk singer’s solemn responsibility to sing truth to power, even if that power is half a world away. In the name of Pete Seeger, in the name of Woody Guthrie, in the name of Joe Hill, in the name of Phil Ochs, in the name of 1960’s East German dissident songwriter Wolf Biermann, and most especially in the name of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, who was brutally murdered by dictator Augusto Pinochet’s henchmen—with the backing of our own CIA and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—in the Estadio Chile on September 16, 1973, after they smashed his hands with their rifle butts, and then shouted at him, ”Play now, you son of a bitch!”
With his bloody stumps he picked up his guitar—and led three thousand students and workers in song, before Pinochet’s soldiers shot and killed him; even then Victor could not be silent.
In the third verse from which this column adapted its title, Quaker Doris Penn wrote,
When tyrants tremble sick with fear
To hear their death knell ringing
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?
In prison dark and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?
Convicted of “premeditated hooliganism” for their “punk prayer” appealing for the downfall of Vladimir Putin at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, these three young women are not alone.
Amnesty International is on their side; Human Rights Watch is on their side; and Paul McCartney is on their side.
Author Philip Roth once observed that “In America everything is permitted and nothing matters; in Russia nothing is permitted and everything matters.” Perhaps that is why today’s torchbearers for freedom are sitting in a Russian courtroom, just as they once sat in ours.
In 1970, the year four young American antiwar protestors were shot down at Kent State in Ohio, and we had a president who, like Putin, would do anything to stay in power, in addition to Neil Young’s song Ohio (“Four dead in Ohio…four dead in Ohio”) Bob Dylan’s 1967 song offered us a vision of hope, as well as defiance:
Yonder stands a man in a lonely crowd
A man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him crying so loud
Just crying out that he’s been framed
—I see my light come shining
From the West down to the East
Any day now
Any day now
I shall be released.
In Russia, today, first they came for Pussy Riot. Let us hope that they shall be released. Indeed, thinking of all these links on freedom’s chain, how can we keep from singing?
Viva La Quince Brigada! (Long Live the 15th Brigade!) No Pasaran!
Ross Altman’s upcoming performances:
Sunday morning, September 2 at 10:30am - 32nd annual “Labor Day Sunday” program at The Church in Ocean Park at 2nd and Hill Street in Ocean Park, 235 Hill St, Santa Monica, CA 90405; for further information call 310-399-1631.
Saturday, September 15 at 2:00pm – (With Professor Peter Dreier of Occidental College ) Tribute to Woody Guthrie during the centennial of Woody’s birth at the Allendale Branch of the Pasadena Public Library, 1130 South Marengo Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91106.; for more information call (626) 744-7260 or visit
Both events are free and open to the public.
Friday, September 28 at 7:00pm - (with San Diego folk musician Paul Svenson) Benefit for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. House concert in Garden Grove. For information visit www.AU.org