Why Pussy Riot Matters


St. Maria, Virgin, Drive away Putin
Drive away! Drive away Putin!

It is interesting to watch the growing amount of support for Pussy Riot.  The women have been sentenced to two years in jail for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for using an orthodox cathedral to do a performance piece in protest of the powerful Vladimir Putin. Vlad the Pussy Jailer’s heavy hand was seen in the recently delivered verdict. Outcry over the harsh sentence is coming from all over the world.

Russia on Saturday faced a storm of international criticism after sentencing three members of the Pussy Riot punk band to two years in prison for a political protest in an Orthodox cathedral.

Speculation mounted that the women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, could have their sentences cut on appeal after the damaging global reaction, with the Russian public also questioning the sentence.

Judge Marina Syrova said the three young protesters had shown a “clear disrespect toward society” by staging a “Punk Prayer” calling on the Virgin Mary to drive out Vladimir Putin just weeks ahead of his election in March to a third presidential term.

The United States called the sentences “disproportionate”, while Britain, France and the European Union also said the punishment was excessive and questioned Russia’s rights record.

Prominent supporters of the women spoke out to criticise the sentence.

International pressure “may not have secured the outcome many people wanted to see. But we need to keep up the fight,” wrote British member of parliament Kerry McCarthy, who attended the trial, on blog site LabourList.

Newspaper owner Alexander Lebedev, who co-owns Russia’s Novaya Gazeta daily and owns Britain’s Independent daily, called the women “prisoners of conscience” on Twitter.

Yoko Ono, the avant-garde artist and widow of John Lennon, posted a message of support to Samutsevich on Twitter on Saturday, saying: “You have won for all of us women in the world.”

It’s an important reminder of what happens when freedom of expression is not protected. It also puts Russia and Vlad the Pussy Jailer in very bad light.

But international opinion can often have a negative impact in Russia. How the trial and its outcome have affected Russian public opinion may play a much bigger role in coming months, as the anti-Putin protest

movement returns to the streets after a summer hiatusand the political season begins anew.

Public opinion has remained rather staunchly anti-Pussy Riot since the women were arrested in March. The latest poll, released last week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, shows little change.

According to the survey, 55 percent of Russians did not have their views of the judicial system altered by the trial; 9 percent said it diminished their trust in courts while 5 percent said it increased it, and 12 percent said they have no faith in the courts to begin with. About 36 percent thought the verdict would be based on the facts of the case; 18 percent thought the verdict would be dictated “from the top.” Interestingly, when asked what they thought the punk band’s goal was in staging the protest, about 30 percent of respondents said it was “against the church and its role in politics”; 13 percent thought it was “against Putin” and 36 percent said they could not discern the purpose.

More worrisome, from the Kremlin‘s point of view, is the effect the trial has had on Russia’s more educated and influential social strata. Of course the usual suspects – opposition leaders, artists, liberal intellectuals – have popped up to protest the treatment of the women, who were kept almost six months in pretrial detention and now face more than a year in the harsh conditions of a Russian penal colony.

But unease over a prosecution that carries such obvious political and religious overtones appears to be spreading far beyond Russia’s small liberal and opposition circles.

The fact that we’re seeing this play out in the press suggests some very big changes have been made in the former Soviet Union state since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  However, it is also a reminder that the country has not let go of its totalitarian roots.  This it what will do the real damage. It will impact Foreign Direct Investment because it shows the Russia Courts can be gamed for political purposes.  It will also hurt Russia’s ability to show itself in diplomacy circles as a modern nation.  However, I suggest that the lesson is somewhat deeper than that.  

The 10 witnesses—security guards, a candle-keeper, and a sacristan—said they suffered “moral damage” and are thus considered victims of the prayer, under the Russian Criminal Code.   The lawyers who represent one of the security guards, Vladimir Potan’kin, said that their client was so mentally injured that he now has sleeping problems. Furthermore, in a twist not even worthy of a third-rate paperback, they stated that the Pussy Rioters are connected at the highest level to Satan himself.

The nature of the debate about freedom of speech, religious freedom, and political expression is one that is often misconstrued when that speech is profoundly offensive, crude, vulgar, or even malicious. “Nice” speech seldom requires defense.  It is that which causes offense, whether or not it is intended, which must be protected if a society is to remain free. Deny freedom of expression to one and you effectively deny it to all.  In those rare instances where restrictions on speech are permissible, they must be relevant, necessary, and pursuant to legitimate democratic aims—usually based on time, place, and manner, not on content. Had the Pussy Riot band interrupted a religious ceremony or had they been making loud noises at 4 a.m. in a neighborhood, there would be grounds for restricting their actions. However, the prosecution of Pussy Riot meets none of these conditions. Parody, irony, and humor are some of the most powerful weapons against established authority, especially the despotic kind. It is why Socrates was sentenced to death; it is why Voltaire’s criticism of the French absolutist monarchy was so disruptive that he was exiled from Paris; it is why Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa, who hypocritically just granted asylum to Julian Assange, sued a journalist and newspaper for $42 million for a column that made fun of him as a tyrant; it is why Hugo Chavez in Venezuela extended the contempt laws to make it a crime to disrespect him, leading to investigations of cartoonists; it is why Manal Al- Sharif fears for her life in Saudi Arabia for driving a car and challenging the ban on female drivers; it is why Ai Weiwei is hit with trumped up tax-evasion charges after mocking China’s dictatorship, and why Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest by the Burmese military junta until just recently.  The despotic mind is utterly undone and downright defenseless in the face of creative dissent.

The church, public opinion, and Vlad the Pussy Jailor seem to follow the form of that last line written by Thor Halvorssen for Forbes although now the church’s priests have said they’ve ‘forgiven’ the women.  Here’s an article from Truth Out containing the gist of what the church has said about the protest which I find highly disturbing.

But while the case has allowed critics of Mr. Putin to portray his government as squelching free speech and presiding over a rigged judicial system, it has also given the government an opportunity to portray its political opponents as obscene, disrespectful rabble-rousers, liberal urbanites backed by the West in a conspiracy against the Russian state and the Russian church.

The extent of the culture clash was evident this month when Madonna paused during a concert in Moscow to urge the release of the women, who have been jailed since March, and performed in a black bra with “Pussy Riot” stenciled in bold letters on her back. The next day, Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy prime minister, posted a Twitter message calling Madonna a “whore.”

On Friday, the Russian Orthodox Church issued a statement that referred to Nazi aggression and the militant atheism of the Soviet era, and said, “What happened is blasphemy and sacrilege, the conscious and deliberate insult to the sanctuary and a manifestation of hostility to millions of people.”

The fact a church is claiming persecution while using Vlad the Jailor to enforce its own patriarchal agenda is appalling.  Free speech does not stop at the steps of a church or the feelings of its believers.  This issue,however, is bigger than Russia which brings me to the heavy handed treatment of the Occupy Protestors in the US and to the FBI infiltration of left wing activists with causes like providing humanitarian aid to Palestinians. Exactly how many degrees of separation are they–and we–from the feminist punk rockers? I would argue that we are closer than we’d like to think.


24 Comments on “Why Pussy Riot Matters”

  1. Beata says:

    I studied Soviet history in college. The loosely-defined “hooliganism law” was routinely used to round up political dissidents in the USSR. Almost anything could be labeled an act of “hooliganism” by the Soviet government and thus a cause for imprisonment. It’s quite chilling to see that law still being used in Russia to crush freedom of expression in a supposedly democratic society. It bodes ill for Russia’s future and for the rest of the world.

  2. Delphyne says:

    I’m so glad you’ve written about this, Kat – I’ve been following the story for weeks and was horrified when I first heard of it

    You are right – we, in the US – are much closer to this than we’d like to think….

    • dakinikat says:

      I’ve been watching this for awhile too. I was wondering how really independent the courts were and if this craziness about it being an attack on religion would fly.

      • quixote says:

        Erm, dak, Russia is pretty well right back to Soviet mores on all this, with the improvement that the people running the country are not faceless, totalitarian, corrupt bureaucrats. They’re now often-faceless, kleptocratic, corrupt criminals. The idea that the courts might be independent would make any Russian collapse laughing.

      • Beata says:

        Quixote, in your opinion, is the Orthodox Church in Russia today independent from the state?

      • quixote says:

        Beata, I suspect they think they are (just guessing), but I even more strongly suspect that if they really did something Putin or his best buds didn’t like, they’d be nothing but a gold foil-colored grease spot.

        I don’t have any actual information or evidence, though. Just ingrained Russian cynicism. 😛

  3. Delphyne says:

    The Jezebel article is interesting, too – from yesterday.

    In what seemed like an attempt to make the reading of the sentencing torturous, the entire court had to stand in place as Judge Sirovaya monotonously read a recap of the case, starting with the evidence list, then a very long summary of witness testimonies, incredibly detailed descriptions of the convicted women’s looks (height 165 cm, round face, etc.) and even a thorough description of the Christ the Savior Cathedral, its icons and its altars. A filibuster of this type might go beyond typical court procedure.

    The Wall Street Journal noted that “Orthodox believers often stand for long periods at religious services,” implying that the court was adding some sort of passive aggressive punishment for the women’s disrespect of the church.

    http://jezebel.com/5935621/pussy-riot-found-guilty-sentenced-to-two-years-in-prison-worldwide-prostests-scheduled

    • quixote says:

      You stand through the whole (about three-hour) service unless you’re physically unable to by reason of age or disability. The court thing sure sounds like they were using it as a dig at the defendants.

  4. quixote says:

    I haven’t been following this story because it sounds like just more sad proof of the same old thing. Putin is (one of many) totalitarian fungoid growths.

    But now that I’ve heard more about it, I’m puzzled. I gather the Church invited them to sing, no doubt in some sad attempt to appeal to the young or something. No doubt they thought the band would confine itself to the decencies of debate, if you know what I mean.

    Bizarre. Based on the band’s past, you’d think the Church would know that if they wanted to control content, they better have an agreement up front. They didn’t (did they?), so getting bent out of shape after the fact seems stupid.

    Now, if the band had set up in the church uninvited, that would be different, I think. Go practice your free speech somewhere else. Being in your face to a group of believers without political power seems just, well, rude. It’s a lesser category of what the Phelpses do at the funerals of gay soldiers and, no, that kind of free speech serves no good purpose.

    (I know that you could take that idea right down to “free speech” only being allowed in safe zones, all twenty by twenty feet of them, but that’s not the issue here. They had all kinds of public spaces where they could have screamed obscenities against Putin. Their speech wouldn’t be constrained if some verger didn’t have to listen to them.)

    So anyway, it seems to me that the point is the Church invited them and then didn’t like what they got. That’s unfortunate but (should) not (be) illegal. Free speech is definitely more important than that.

    And I also realize that being all ZOMG-you-offended-the-beloved-Mother-Church is a cynical ploy to use state power to silence criticism of the state. (Russian was my first language and my family was, theoretically, Russian Orthodox, so I know more about the background to all this than I would like.)

    But all that aside, I do have a problem with the idea that free speech rights always and everywhere must protect offensiveness because some offensiveness, i.e. against those with power, is a good thing. That leads to Phelpses, and that, I’m convinced, is really the opposite of free speech.

    • HT says:

      But if you define “free speech” in your own terms (which by the way I agree), then you leave the door open . If for example, people like the Phelps gain power and turn the knife on legitimate protest movements because they don’t align with the Phelps world view. That to me is the most frightening, although I abhor a lot of vitriol coming out of people’s mouth, I understand that if one denies their verbal ugliness, then one is potentially a victim of it should they gain a modicum of power.

      • quixote says:

        I’m not sure if I’m defining it in my own terms. (I have a fairly long piece about this at my Re-imagining Democracy site.) If the same limits apply to everyone equally, then I’m not sure that plunks it into an arbitrary definition.

        Obviously, defining free speech as “what I say it is” would be a really really really dumb travesty.

        But as far as I can see, people need to spend more time thinking about obnoxiousness as a silencing strategy. That’s actually anti-free speech.

        I’m not saying that’s what the Pussy Rioters were doing. They’re in the grayest of gray areas — political protest which has to have the highest priority of protection, but unnecessarily obnoxious, but invited to be obnoxious, etc. — and in gray areas I think you have to err on the side of free speech.

        But I bring up the Phelpses because they show how much we really need to wrap our minds around some kind of limits on behavior which, if everyone did it, would make free speech not worth having. (And the point with rights is that everyone can do them. Otherwise it’s just some kind of privilege, which they shouldn’t have to begin with.)

    • The ‘Church’ is feeling the negative press/feelings and is saying they forgive them, but forgiveness to me, would mean dropping the charges. Hypocrites, they are just as oppressive as the KGB! Putin is a RELIGIOUS KGB president.

      • quixote says:

        forgiveness would mean dropping the charges

        Yeah. What a bunch of jerks.

        Putin’s about as religious as any top “internal security” goon. He’s sure good at using it, though.

    • janicen says:

      quixote, your take on this is very interesting. I haven’t been paying much attention to this story until now and your comparison to the Phelpses raises good questions. The sentence is ridiculously harsh which is giving much more attention to the story than I’m sure the Russian government would like, but then again the defendants are women. Women get harsher sentences in mosts courts including in the U.S.

      The courage of these women cannot be stressed enough. The story reminds me of a piece I saw on one of the news shows where someone asked, “Where have all of the protest singers gone?” pointing to the shallow lyrics and even limited musical range of today’s music and the answer came back that the public is not allowed to hear them because corporations own the radio stations and control what is played. We need a few Pussy Riots in this country.

    • Quixote, I want to comment more on your thoughts about this…but can’t right now, will try later…thank you for the link.

  5. RalphB says:

    Fuck theories of speech. Free Pussy Riot!

  6. Dak,
    Thanks for covering the plight of these women.

  7. bostonboomer says:

    Thanks for writing this post, Dak. I haven’t been following the story very closely, so it’s good to get filled in. This is an outrage, but it warms my heart to see young women with the courage to stand up for what they believe. They’ve obviously touched a nerve in people around the world.

    Good point about the U.S., doing much the same thing, e.g., Bradley Manning.

  8. NW Luna says:

    Sounds like it’s OK to pray out loud in church if your prayer agrees with TPTB. But if you dare petition a deity for an outcome against the ruling elite, it’s criminal behavior.