Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Putin and the Pussy Rioters


The American media loves its “rising star” narratives. They loved Barack Obama; they love Paul Ryan. And, in the late 1990s, they loved Vladimir Putin. Here, they trumpeted, is a serious-minded politician, not an unsteady, often inebriated buffoon like Boris Yeltsin. I remember talking with my friend and mentor Masha Kipp, who had grown up in what was then called Leningrad. Somehow the conversation turned to contemporary Russian politics in general and to Putin in particular. Her comment was succinct and cogent: “once KGB, always KGB.” She was right, of course. Masha is like that.

I encountered an online petition (you’re more than welcome to sign it, by the way) a day or two ago that linked together three discrete events which nonetheless all link to Putin and his Machiavellian antics: the inane decision to outlaw Pride marches in Moscow for 100 years (upheld by the city court this week), the $10 million lawsuit against Madonna for “moral damage suffered by St. Petersburg residents” (i.e., suggesting that gay people are, indeed, people), and the conviction and two-year penal colony sentence for three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

The linkage is apt: all suggest a manifestation of Putin’s power to influence decisions that are technically but not pragmatically out of his purview. And Putin is certainly both a repressive homophobe and an amoral tactician. But this sentence also hints at fairly profound differences between the two gay rights-related events and the Pussy Riot fiasco. First off, whereas the silliness—or, rather, what would be silliness if not for the profound consequences to civil liberties—of the Pride march ban and the Madonna lawsuit are clearly a threat to free expression, they may at least grounded in an apparently honest if misguided homophobia. Moreover, while Putin’s political clout is considerable, and he undoubtedly created a climate wherein barbarities can occur in the name of law and order, he cannot be linked directly to the autocratic imbecility of the Moscow city government, nor to the mercenary acquisitiveness of a gaggle of Petersburgian shysters and their falsely pious clients.

The Pussy Riot case is different. For one thing, homosexuality is actually legal in Russia: it’s just talking about it that has somehow become criminalized. The kind of protest mounted by Pussy Riot, however, was intended to cause turmoil. Perhaps the three women involved did not go to Moscow Christ the Savior Cathedral with the intention of being arrested, but surely they’re not stupid enough not to have considered the possibility, perhaps even likelihood, of such an eventuality. There is a level at which arrests generate publicity, and that is often precisely what they seek. We see this phenomenon manifested in the band’s own YouTube release, which joins what was actually essentially a mime show at the cathedral with a musical overlay to make the event seem more disruptive than it actually was (and which, of course, required a videographer who knew what was going to happen). What caught the interest of the Western world was not the arrest per se, although that certainly caused ripples, but the frankly ridiculous nature of the specific charge. Had they been charged with simple trespass, or some variation on the theme, it is extremely unlikely that you and I, Gentle Reader, would ever have heard of the case.

Of course, what Pussy Riot (or, rather, some of them—there are a dozen or so members) did is completely in line with what musicians and other artists have been doing for a very long time. John Lennon. Pete Seeger. Joan Baez. Woody Guthrie. Johnny Clegg. Or, in my field, the Living Theatre, Athol Fugard, Václav Havel, and a host of others dating all the way back to Euripides (at least). Using art to make a point, risking or even encouraging arrest: this is in a very real sense what it is to be engaged in the life of a society, which is, after all, a reasonable prerequisite to making art about it.

This would be a good time, too, to rebut the drivel by one Vadim Nikitin, published by the New York Times. Nikitin’s argument seems to be that we shouldn’t support Pussy Riot’s anti-Putin display if we aren’t equally willing to support their “incendiary anarchism, extreme sexual provocations, deliberate obscenity and hard-left politics”: to do otherwise is “pure opportunism” that “is not only hypocritical but also does a great disservice to their cause.” After all, these women are “not liberals looking for self-expression. They are self-confessed [!] descendants of the surrealists and the Russian futurists, determined to radically, even violently, change society.” Doesn’t that sound erudite? Too bad it’s crap. Nikitin would have us believe that a self-consciously feminist organization is the demon spawn of two artistic/cultural movements very much in opposition to each other, both of which were misogynistic, one of them virulently so. See how that works? Neither do I.

Nikitin’s argument is utter nonsense for a variety of reasons, not least of which being that it is entirely reasonable to support the notion of free speech without supporting the content of that speech. Indeed, it is the only reasonable application of the principle. In other words, I don’t support Pussy Riot per se; I support their right to protest without being charged with a crime they clearly didn’t commit. It is not opportunism to say so, even if we dislike Vladimir Putin, nor is it incumbent on me or anyone else to qualify our antagonism for the verdict in their case with diffident mumbles about how Pussy Riot really is, you know, kind of unladylike. It doesn’t matter whether they are or not.

I don’t care if they’re liberals or anarchists or suburban Republicans. They were convicted of “religious hatred” when they clearly hold no grudge against the religious belief system of the Orthodox Church itself or its parishioners. What they object to is the unholy alliance between Putin and the Church hierarchy, as manifested by Putin’s government throwing two billion rubles (about $100 million) at the Church while seeking also to restrict activities by evangelical Christians. In return, not to say as quid pro quo (necessarily), Orthodox Patriarch Kirill described the twelve years of Putin’s reign as “a miracle of God.” There is no question that the Church’s areligious promotion of Putin as both man and politician has been and continues to be central to his political success.

This conflation of Church and state under the leadership of a man who once sought to enforce the very atheism that now so repels him may be hypocritical in ethical terms, but it absolutely understandable pragmatically: Putin is nothing if not pragmatic. Pussy Riot’s antagonism to this linkage is, in short, completely comprehensible. They claim that they meant no disrespect to practitioners, only to the elites of Church and State. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity in this regard. Neither did the judge at their trial, who nonetheless sentenced them to a couple of years in Siberia, basically because Putin said to.

Or at least that’s the charge being leveled by a lot of people who know more about the Russian judicial system than you or I do, Gentle Reader. Here are four such statements:

Here’s Alexey Kudrin, a former finance minister who, according to Miriam Elder of The Guardian remains a close ally of Putin:
The verdict in the case against the Pussy Riot punk band isn't only a fact in the lives of three young women; it is also yet another blow to the justice system and, above all, Russian citizens' belief in it.
Here’s Nikolay Petrov, a former Soviet government analyst in the 1990s who is now chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Society and Regions Program:
It looks like [Putin] feels personally humiliated and personally involved and the rumour is that it was his personal order to put them in jail…. There's only one and the same branch of power in Russia; it's executive power led by Putin.
Here’s Boris Akunin, a popular Russian author:
Putin has doomed himself to another year and a half of international shame and humiliation. The whole thing is bad because it's yet another step toward the escalation of tensions within society. And the government is absolutely to blame.
.And finally, here’s Michelle Ringuette, chief of campaigns and programs for Amnesty International USA:
The decision to find guilty Maria [Alekhina], Ekaterina [Samutsevich] and Nadezhda [Tolokonnikova] amid global outrage shows that the Russian authorities will stop at no end to suppress dissent and stifle civil society…. From the initial unjustified arrest, to the questionable trial, to this outrageous verdict and sentencing, each step in the case has been an affront to human rights…. It's a bitter blow to freedom in Russia. Amnesty International will not allow these women to be silenced. They will not be forgotten…. President Putin took office in May as hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens demanded an open and participatory society. Rather than heed their call, Putin has further entrenched his already tight fist on freedom of expression.
What is interesting here is the unanimity of opinion that seems to point in a single direction: that righteous indignation about attacks on the Orthodox Church masks the real source of the outrage, namely criticism of Putin.

Musicians and other artists around the world have also rallied to the cause. Some, like Vratislav Brabenec of The Plastic People of the Universe, Mark Knopfler, Yoko Ono, and Patti Smith might be considered predictable. But I personally wouldn’t have expected Paul McCartney, Sting, or Pete Townshend. Maybe that’s my blind spot.

It’s important to remember two things, however. First, the events that precipitated this contretemps were planned by the people who now are cast in the role of victims. Their actions would have resulted in arrest anywhere in the world. It’s the over-reaction of the authorities, not their legitimate desire to maintain law and order, that is in question here. Secondly, PR (Pussy Riot) has good PR (public relations). These women are important not because they’re special, but because they’re not.

They’re not fighting solitary and lonely battles for the sake of a higher mission. They’re exploiting their notoriety. The result is that we, especially those of us in the West, who don’t necessarily understand the cultural differences between our perceived universe and theirs, risk missing the forest for the trees. That is, as Joshua Foust of The Atlantic argues, what happened to the Pussy Riot trio is not what happens to female punk bands. It’s what happens to those who make Vladimir Putin look bad. We need to remember that there are many other dissidents whose plights are no less harrowing and whose deeds are no less heroic for the fact that we haven’t heard about them.

While the Democracy Index now describes Russia as an “authoritarian regime,” ranking it below the likes of Nicaragua, Mozambique, and Haiti, all of which are classified as “hybrid regimes” (the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Mongolia are all a step higher still, “flawed democracies”), Vladimir Putin nonetheless retains considerable popularity in his homeland, based in large part on nothing but personal charisma. He cynically embraces the largest religious denomination in his country although he feels no real affinity for it. He sees oil wealth and nuclear energy as the path forward. He brutally suppresses dissent. He cultivates an image as a macho badass. The WikiLeaks documents reveal, in the words of Luke Harding of The Guardian, that “Russia is a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy centred on the leadership of Vladimir Putin, in which officials, oligarchs and organised crime are bound together to create a “virtual mafia state.”

That’s what this is all about. If Pussy Riot are the good guys in this case, it’s primarily because they’re presented in contradistinction to Vladimir Putin. Their right to protest would remain whether they were “right” or not, but it does really matter that absurd and probably flagitious sentence imposed on them has as much to do with the object of their attention as much as with the manner and location of their demonstration. They were convicted of showing too little respect for one half of the perverse symbiosis between the Orthodox Church and the Putin administration. The truth is, though, it was the other half of the equation that really mattered.

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