Analysis of the third kind
17 April 2014 00:42 (South Africa)
World

Punk vs. Putin: Pussy Riot face off against Vladimir the First

  • Richard Poplak
  • World
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Three members of Pussy Riot, a Russian female punk band who staged an act of defiance against the Putin regime, are currently on trial in a case that has taken the country by storm. Pussy Riot are more than a punk band — they’re a bellwether. What happens to them will be a sign to all Russians of what lies ahead before Putin steps down in, um, 2024. Maybe. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Here’s what happened. The four members of the punk band gently named Pussy Riot, in February of this year, entered Moscow’s the famed Christ the Saviour Cathedral, appended to the Moscow Orthodox Church. They donned masks – these sort of knitted tea-cosy things, which are actually Mexican wrestler-inspired balaclavas – stood on the Altar in their punk regalia (a definite no-no), and screamed into microphones a plea to the Virgin Mary to “Throw Putin Out!” What was the song’s name, you ask? “Holy Shit”, what else? 

A controversial sentiment, to be sure, one that anywhere else in the civilised world would have earned the young ladies a rap on the knuckles in the form of a trespassing citation or two, and maybe a disturbing-the-peace knock just for good measure. A fine, some community service, a dressing down from a religious judge. Maybe a night in a drunk tank. (They were, unlike most of Russia, sober at the time.)

Instead, Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, find themselves front and centre at another institution: Moscow’s Khamovniki court. Not a place for nice girls or punk rockers alike, and their trial is unfolding as the most prominent since former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted for a second time in 2010 on trumped-up embezzlement charges – in the very same courtroom where Pussy Riot are fighting for their freedom. They are accused of “hooliganism”, and face seven years in prison for the crime. 

So what’s a punk grrl to do? In Pussy Riot’s case, they have no choice – and let’s be fair, they set themselves up for the opportunity – but to become icons of a critical moment in Russia’s history: the moment when even the faintest notions of democracy, rule of law and fair trial are thrown out for good, and Putin-ismo takes its place as a presiding value. Which is to say that the erasure of values has become the status quo.

The astonishing thing about postmodern Russia is how easy it has been to accomplish all of this. Despite the courageous marches and anti-Putin rallies leading up to his once again accepting the presidency, the Russian regime barely had to struggle to wipe the smile off democracy’s face. Here’s a not-so-old joke: It took 75 years for the Russians to prove that communism didn’t work. It took them 10 years to prove that democracy didn’t work either. We can make all the pat statements we’d like about the “Russian character” and their “need for a strong leader”, but the demise of reasonable society in that country is a lesson to us all. Not least of which are those of us here in South Africa.

"Putin and his team are for stability, but stability kills development and results in stagnation," the Nobel Laureate Mikhail Gorbachev recently told the BBC. "The electoral system we had was nothing remarkable, but they have literally castrated it." The man who steered Perestroika into being now gets to pronounce on the death of Russian democracy. There wasn’t much lag time. It’s almost too depressing to behold. 

Here’s how Kathy Lally and Will Englund described Russia’s “second experiment” in a recent analysis in The Washington Post. It’s worth quoting an extended excerpt, because the lessons are eerily universal:  

“Twenty years ago… communist hard-liners staged a coup here, sending tanks rumbling to the Russian White House in an effort to preserve the Soviet Union. Instead they touched off a powerful expression of democracy.  

“Boris Yeltsin, the first democratically elected president in Russia’s thousand years, galvanized the resistance when he climbed atop one of the tanks and called on citizens to defend the freedoms he had promised to deliver. They mounted the barricades, unarmed, willing to risk their lives for democracy. The coup leaders lost their nerve. A few months later, the Soviet Union was dead.

“All these years later, so is democracy.

“Today, Vladimir Putin presides over an authoritarian government… Occasional demonstrations in favor of democracy are small and largely ignored, except by the police… 

“[T]oday, elections are not fair, courts are not independent, political opposition is not tolerated and the reformers are widely blamed for what has gone wrong…  

“Today, Russia works on bribes, and Putin’s opponents call his United Russia party the party of crooks and thieves. People can say whatever they want to one another, unlike in Soviet times when they feared the secret police knocking in the middle of the night, but television is controlled and any opposition is publicly invisible… 

“Many Russians despair about their country, its prospects and their own, but they say little and do less… 

“Only a tiny percentage of the population takes part in civil society, about 1.5 or two percent, at the level of statistical error…”

Sound familiar? Not quite a corollary, but there’s enough to give a Daily Maverick reader with a South African passport pause.

Which brings us back to Pussy Riot, and their unfolding drama at a Moscow kangaroo court. Amnesty International has, of course, called for the release of the young women, two of whom have children. They are being held in a glassed-in cage in the courtroom, like rapists or mass killers. Hundreds of thousands of Russians, mostly young and middle class, took to the streets earlier this year, and the Pussy Riot-eers are being used by the regime as an example. The fact that they engineered their protest in a church, a conservative bastion of Russian society, and one that has been remarkably supportive of Putin’s antics, was surely not incidental. And it carries potentially massive consequences. 

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev pooh-poohed criticism of the case, saying the trial was a “serious ordeal” for the defendants and their families, but that “one should be calm about it” and await the outcome. “It seems to me that there will always be different perceptions about what is acceptable and not acceptable from a moral point of view, and where moral misbehaviour becomes a criminal action,” he told the Times of London in an interview. “Whether that is the case here is up to the court to decide.”

Yeah, right. There are about 1.4 people in Russia who believe the courts are independent. And the church’s patriarch spoke for broader conservative society when he said, “We have no future if we allow mocking in front of great shrines, and if some see such mocking as some sort of valour, as an expression of political protest, as an acceptable action or a harmless joke.” 

He then said, “The devil is laughing at us.” 

He has no idea how right he is. The devil will be laughing even harder if Russia debases herself further by jailing a few punk rockers for speaking truth to power. 

Holy Shit indeed. DM

Read more:

  • “Pussy Riot reply to Patriarch” in Question More 
  • “Pussy Riot go on trial for cathedral protest against Putin” in the Toronto Star 

Photo: Members of the female punk group Pussy Riot perform during a concert by US rock group Faith No More in Moscow July 2, 2012. According to local media more than a hundred Russian artists and musicians have signed a letter addressed to state authorities to free and stop court procedures against three jailed members of Pussy Riot feminist punk-rock group, accused of hooliganism after storming Moscow's central cathedral with a song against Vladimir Putin in February. The women, who face up to 7 years in prison, will appear in court on Wednesday. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhi.

  • Richard Poplak
  • World


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