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Making an Impact in International Human Rights, from an Apartment in the West End

As you probably know, late last week, a Russian kangaroo court handed a two-year Siberian labor camp sentence to three women from Pussy Riot, the punk performance art collective that attracted the ire of the increasingly autocratic Putin regime with videos like their Red Square performance of "Putin Pissed Himself in Fear" and their Punk Prayer in the state-controlled Orthodox Church.

But one of the big reasons that Pussy Riot is in the news at all happens to live right here, in Portland, Maine. For the past six months, artist Rob Lieber (who teaches classes at USM and SMCC, and also works as a carpenter during the summer months) has been in regular contact with Pussy Riot's Russian attorneys, and with volunteer translators from all over the world, while maintaining the English sections of the (now defunct) website freepussyriot.org. As he's worked to draw more attention to their plight, Rob has also found himself near the center of a growing global activist network.

One of the things that Portland has benefited from in the past decade or so is the phenomenon of new communications technologies that allow people to do their work from virtually anyplace they choose. Over the past few months, Rob has been corresponding with activists all over the world, but he's also gotten dozens of Portlanders involved: local bands like Metal Feathers performed at a benefit show, artist and Russian émigré Irina Skornyakova helped with some translations, and local baker Betsy Upham made a tureen of borsch for a fundraiser dinner.

For my part, Rob asked me last weekend to help him edit a collection of rough translations of Pussy Riot essays, lyrics, and court statements for a public reading in New York. On Thursday, after three days of frantic planning and a bruising re-acquaintance with the conversational Russian I learned in college, we got up at 3 a.m. to travel to the city for one last full day of work (done from a borrowed desk in the offices of Lou Reed's promoter) before the big payoff: a powerful performance of Pussy Riot's amazing protests against the corrupt Putin regime, voiced by arts legends like poet Eileen Myles, actor Chloe Sevigny, and performance artist Karen Finley. The room was packed with a line outside that stretched around the block, and dozens of reporters in attendance helped to amplify the words of Pussy Riot in news outlets throughout the western world.

Pussy Riot's imprisonment resonates worldwide because of the power of their art, their performances, and their highly literary writings. It's a credit to Portland and Portlanders that we have people like Rob, who value free expression and justice to the point where they're willing to put in hundreds of hours of exhausting, thankless work on behalf of artists half a world away.

So do Rob a favor and hold Putin's shameful autocracy to account, even if it's just by taking a moment to read the eloquent writings of these three women.

Free Pussy Riot!

Image: Event Poster for the May 1 Pussy Riot Benefit at SPACE Gallery.

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