THE BLOG
09/16/2014 05:17 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

Pussy Riot Comes to Harvard and Gets an Incomplete

Two members of the Russian protest/music group Pussy Riot came to the Harvard campus Monday night to describe their thinking behind the movement that captured the world's attention.

The panel discussion at the JFK Jr. Forum at the Harvard School of Government drew a packed house of more than 150 Harvard students and faculty to see the women who had taken on the government of Vladimir Putin and spent almost two years in prison as a result.

Why did they call the group Pussy Riot? And why did they name it in English? So that their protest movement would become international in scope, they explained. And they used the word "pussy" so that a lot a self-important, non-cat lovers would have to use it as well.

The women were poised, thoughtful and light-hearted, which is no small thing considering what they've been through. If you haven't followed their story, they have put on various anti-Putin protests in Moscow, their most notorious a brief performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior on February 21, 2012.

Taking the altar at the cathedral led to arrest, imprisonment without bail, a show trial in which the defendants were held in what resembled a waterless aquarium, and a two-year prison sentence, commuted only with the advent of the Sochi Olympics.

If Putin is ever forced out, a highly unlikely possibility, Pussy Riot may well be viewed as the Rosa Parks of the movement that took him down. But how likely is that to happen? And will they remain Rosa Parks, or will they ever become Martin Luther King, Jr.?

It was a hard to fathom exactly what the Pussy Riot members sought from their Harvard platform. When asked for the main reason for their opposition to Putin, they mentioned the brain drain from Russia that the current government was triggering.

Huh? What about the two Chechen wars, the invasion of the Ukraine, and the imprisonment or murder of political, business and journalist opponents? What about the massive economic corruption, rigged elections, and lack of free speech?

They did mention as a secondary issue the political trials of Putin's business opponents. Yet there remained a great disconnect between the moral character they displayed in the cathedral and the moral clarity they lacked about why they did what they did and what they really wanted.

The women expressed their desire that Pussy Riot become an international protest movement, taking on challenges as diverse as prisoners' rights in Russia and immigration issues in the United States.

They were also deeply offended by VIPs who were able to cut a long line of ordinary Russians who had waited in the cold for hours to see newly installed religious relics at the same cathedral where they performed their protest. At the Harvard forum, the women described their action at the Moscow cathedral as "our most conservative act -- to take Christianity back from the church and give it back to Jesus."

They also may be the most intelligent and philosophical protesters ever, advising the audience to look to the great philosopher Wittgenstein to understand their motives. Maybe at Harvard the reference means something.

Yet the question remains: What does Pussy Riot want? The removal of Putin? A worldwide protest movement? A reformation of Christianity? Are they Pete Seeger, protesting injustice, or the Occupy movement, protesting everything?

The most likely answer is simply that the women are young and perhaps have been thrust on the world stage before they had a chance to think through their message and transform it into sound bites. It must have been unreal to them, to gaze out upon a sea of Harvard students and faculty who risked nothing to see them in person, compared with the beatings, arrests, school expulsions and losses of jobs their Russian supporters endure.

And yet, when asked if they would ever emigrate, their answer was a firm no -- they could never leave behind Russian culture and language. Their love of Russia, and their despising of the current regime, are both bred in the bone.

If you're going to stand for something in today's world, you have to declare a major. It doesn't work to hoist the banner for every cause, no matter how noble, because you end up dissipating the energy that brought you -- and your followers -- to the spotlight to begin with. The last time a protest movement sought to be all-encompassing, it was Occupy, and we all know how that turned out.

So here's hoping Pussy Riot makes up its mind and refocuses its energies on the Putin regime. Otherwise, their two years behind bars will translate into the proverbial 15 minutes of fame, and their courage and sacrifice will be written not in history books but in the wind.