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Friday, 3 August 2012

Pussy Riot


On February 21 this year, a group of women, wearing brightly coloured dresses, tights, and balaclavas, rushed into the sanctuary area of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow and for around two minutes performed a protest song in front of the altar, parodying the Christian Sanctus prayer, calling the patriarch of Moscow a “bitch,” and praying to the Mother of God to deliver Russia from Vladimir Putin. The women were members of the political punk group, Pussy Riot.

In March, three alleged members of the group were arrested and – having spent the time since then in custody – were brought to trial on July 30, charged with “premeditated hooliganism performed by an organized group of people motivated by religious hatred or hostility,” the Russian criminal code legalese for what would more commonly be called blasphemy, an offence for which the accused, if found guilty, can be punished with up to seven years in a labour camp. While admitting to participation in the action, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samutsevitch have pleaded not guilty, insisting that the action was not meant to be offensive.

In terms of the usual judicial ballet, the womens’ plea and their officially stated motivation is understandable, the standard public position for the legal record. It is, of course, also patently untrue. The whole point of actions like this is to be offensive. In fact, seen from this point of view, the courageous action of these women has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. An action in the course of the election campaign which saw Putin elected as president in Russia in March, protesting against the complex manipulation which is the order of the day in Russian society, to ensure that particular tiny elites retain control of all the major areas of politics and economics, has brought the whole Putinist system into the uncomfortable glare of the global public spotlight.

Faced with structures within which the letter of the law is always scrupulously adhered to, even while its spirit is routinely trampled under foot by those who possess power, this kind of provocation is one of the few avenues of protest open to those who have the civil courage to really challenge established systems which strive to disempower and silence any significant criticism. And the Pussy Riot performance has certainly achieved results. The video of the action which they uploaded to YouTube five months ago has had over 1.5 million clicks, and a quick search of the web reveals many other versions of the same, some of them with hundreds of thousands of views. And the course of events since then has put them firmly at the centre of a worldwide publicity storm, with regular reports and op-eds in practically all the major newspapers and TV channels around the globe, from the New York Times to Al Jazeera.

Agit-art, seen as political provocation, follows the same basic rules as most other acts of public civil disobedience. As much as making your own statement, the whole thing is about getting your opponent to react in a particular way, hopefully overreacting to your initial action in such a fashion as to focus much wider attention on the issue which inspired you to act in the first place. If you do it right, if you’ve gauged your opponent properly, he’s the one who’s going to pick up the ball you placed and run with it. Of course, like any other act of public disobedience, the price you have to pay is measured in your capability to suffer. The Pussy Riot girls have got all this spectacularly right and have managed to manipulate the Russian authorities – on all sorts of levels – to multiply the effect of the initial protest. Moreover, the course of the whole affair and, in particular, almost every action taken by the powers-that-be have served to demonstrate many of serious defects in post-Soviet society about which they are protesting. Like a good judoka, following the principle of seiryoku zen'yō [精力善用, maximum efficiency, minimum effort], they use the strength, speed and momentum of their opponent to bring him to a fall.

The opponent here is clearly Vladimir Putin, but also the whole system which he controls and which supports him and keeps him in power. And there is, indeed, quite a lot to oppose.

Thirteen years ago this month, the increasingly erratic Boris Yeltsin appointed the then almost unknown Putin as Prime Minister and made it known that he regarded him as his successor. Putin became President in 2000 and served two terms until 2008. Constitutionally barred from a third consecutive term, Putin moved sideward for the next four years, serving as his successor’s, Medvedev, Prime Minister, and keeping the reigns of power firmly in his own hands. At the end of last year, Medvedev let it be known that he did not intend to stand for a second term and nominated Putin as a candidate for the presidency[i]. The plan was obvious and it was implemented; Putin would resume the presidency, another two terms would be open to him and thus he could remain the unquestioned strong-man in Russia until at least 2020 (in which year he will still be only 68 years old, still young enough to possibly pull the whole trick off again). And it’s all perfectly legal, perfectly constitutional.

And stinks to high heaven.

Giving him the benefit of some quite serious doubts, I don’t think that Putin is a sociopathic megalomaniac like Kim Jong Il, Stalin or Mao. Oh certainly, he’ll always make sure that his own ass is well covered and he can’t be described as a committed constitutional democrat. He is, above all, a pragmatist and he seems to really believe – with some justification – that he is by far the best at the very difficult job of cat-herding which is governing post-Soviet Russia. Of course, after over a decade of plenitude of power, he is definitely showing major signs of that increasing dissociation from reality which is the endemic sickness of any politician who makes his way to the top, and this is likely to get worse rather than better over the next eight years.

Putin, like all of us, is a product of his experience. He spent his young years as a KGB apparatchik during the last declining Brezhnev years and during the frothy, chaotic reform period of Gorbachev he was stationed in East Germany where he experienced at first hand the implosion of the Soviet imperial system. His rapid climb in the political system took place during the anarchy of the nineties under Yeltsin. And anarchy it was; the Soviet system had collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions and no-one knew what should follow. While others were still debating it, an unprecedented wave of criminality rolled over Russia, at the end of which a few hundred men had succeeded in – basically – stealing everything worth taking from the Russian people, including all the natural resources. And being legitimised by the Yeltsin regime while doing so. These are the so-called oligarchs, men like Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky, Potanin, Malkin and Abramovich. A level further down, criminal Mafia syndicates had filled most of the niches in the post-Soviet vacuum and were operating in ways which make Tony Soprano look like an altar-boy. At the end of the millennium, Russia was characterised by crime, corruption and incompetence on all levels of society, from an unstable, increasingly incompetent, alcoholic president downwards.

When Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned the presidency at the end of 1999, Putin (who had been Prime Minister for less than five months) basically succeeded him as last man standing. He was determined to put Russia back on its feet and was, according to many yardsticks, pretty successful at it too; getting things working, dealing firmly (even brutally, as in Chechnya) with separatists, finally growing the economy. He did a basic deal with the oligarchs, leaving them a generally free hand in business as long as they kept out of politics. Those who weren’t prepared to accept this were also dealt with – today Berezovsky lives in exile in the UK and Khodorkovsky is in jail.

Well, right, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs … and Tsar Vladimir the Competent was making a pretty big omelette. One of those eggshells which was troublesome was the whole area of a free, independent press, particularly in an era where the internet was exploding. During the Yeltsin years, the old Pravda monopoly had become a thing of the past, and in the chaotic anarchy of that time the free press bloomed. More, the Fourth Estate became the one part of society which really worked, and there were lots of people in Russia prepared to watch those in power closely, to dig around and find out what was going on, and to publish or broadcast it.

An uncomfortable group for someone trying to bring a huge chaotic country under control … under his control. All sorts of measures have been taken to bring the media under control, some legal, some semi-legal, some … remember that omelette? Journalists digging around what had been going on in Chechnya were coming up with some serious dirt, and most of them were extremely critical of Putin. Many of them have been killed, most prominently Anna Politkovskaya. While, of course, nobody will ever find any direct connections, there are whispers of Henry II’s comment about being rid of a certain turbulent priest, particularly in a society where there is a strong tradition of absolute obedience to the wishes of political bosses, irrespective of legality, and a still prevailing culture (from the Yeltsin years) of ruthless lawlessness.

And, even while the Pussy riot case is drawing ever more publicity, a new case is developing, with a Putin-critical blogger, Alexei Navalny, being bizarrely charged with stealing timber.

Though there can be no real doubt that Putin enjoys a lot of popularity in Russia, and that his majority in the last election probably reflects the wishes of the majority of Russians. But Tsar Vladimir and his henchmen didn’t get where they are – and don’t remain where they are – by leaving things to chance. So potential opponents are discredited or worse, long before they can pose a real threat, and the free press has been continually pruned back in the past decade.

All of this, but particularly the transparent power-swap deal with Medvedev, forms the background to the Pussy Riot protest in February. The reaction of the Russian authorities has simply served to prove the point the courageous young women were making.

It is absolutely clear that this is a politically motivated prosecution, and the harsh treatment the women have been subjected to since their imprisonment proves it. It is a clear attempt to break them, something confirmed by the fact that they have been offered lenient treatment if they plead guilty. But this they will not do. They are adamant that they had no blasphemous intent, though they were extremely annoyed that the patriarch of Moscow had openly called on believers to vote for Putin this was a political protest. You can read a comment from Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the three, here

And all the publicity, all the pressure both from within Russia and from abroad, looks like it is finally working. The hard hand of the authorities has boomeranged and on Friday Putin himself was reported to have commented that the women should be treated “leniently.” The consensus seems to be growing at the top of the political pyramid that the overreaction of the authorities has been counterproductive and even Patriarch Kyril of Moscow has also become more moderate in his tone. Already the women of Pussy Riot have won a great deal and, if they remain true to themselves – despite the mistreatment, the fear, the uncertainty, all the cruel implements of a state judicial system – they can win even more. What they already have is the respect of hundreds of thousands world-wide. If you want to show them your support and solidarity, you can sign the Amnesty International petition here. In this case, international outrage does seem to be working. And I feel, somehow, that knowing that all these people support them will give the girls strength too.

In the West, we can regard all this with a warm feeling of moral superiority. We have a free press, we have fair and free elections, our presidents retire when their constitutional time is up …

Hmmmm – I wonder whether the difference is really so great. We have our oligarchies too, our 1%, and they seem to be able to manage society so that they remain in control, so that their fortunes can continue to grow, secure and untouched. If you have to blackmail the taxpayers of sovereign countries to guarantee your investment losses, well, that’s just too bad. And if you come from a privileged background but feel you have to make your millions by asset-stripping working companies, putting thousands out of jobs (like a certain US presidential candidate) … that’s more elegant than simply burning their factory down because their bosses have fallen behind with their protection money.

And if some are perceived to pose a real threat to those in power? Ask Julian Assange. Or Bradley Manning.

I wonder whether the only real difference between the West and Russia is that our potentates have had more time to develop real finesse when it comes to protecting their positions. In the relatively young post-Soviet Russia they’re still a little crude about such things. They like to show off their wealth, often with tasteless ostentation. Look at the oligarch, Abramovich, buying Chelsea FC, for chrissakes. It’s so … well … nouveau-rich, darling. Real money, real power has learned to be more careful. Let the masses believe they have control. The reality is different.



[i] Medvedev has, inevitably, become President Putin’s Prime Minister – musical chairs in Moscow.



Pictures retrieved from
  http://freethinker.co.uk/images/uploads/2012/08/o-PUSSY-RIOT-570.jpg
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vladimir_Putin_beefcake-2.jpg
 http://planetwashington.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/vladimir_putin1.jpg
 http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/49629000/jpg/_49629197_49629196.jpg


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