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Pussy Riot and the Two Russias | The Nation

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Pussy Riot and the Two Russias

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Update, August 17, 2012: A Russian judge today found three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" and sentenced the women to two years.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor and Publisher of The Nation. She is a frequent commentator on American and...

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Nadezhda Tolokinnikova, 22, one of the three women charged, said in an impassioned statement on the eve of sentencing," If this political system throws itself against three girls...it shows this political system is afraid of truth." The young women--who are also serious political activists--have captivated the imagination and attention of Russian supporters and performers, artists, human rights activists around the world. Amnesty International named them prisoners of conscience--and plans a series of actions in the coming weeks to show support and solidarity for Pussy Riot. In a statement released minutes after the sentencing, Amnesty’s Michelle Ringuette said “We will not allow these women to be silenced. They will not be forgotten.” Protests by a range of human rights and free expression groups are also planned in more than sixty cities as part of Global Pussy Riot Day.

Yet, as I wrote in the days leading up to the sentencing, Russia remains a country divided by Pussy Riot's pre-election performance in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral. That division could be seen in what Agence France Presse described as the "battle of slogans" outside the courthouse Friday morning. Supporters yelled "Freedom for Pussy Riot" while rival religious protesters screamed "Christ is Risen." A group of Orthodox believers chanted, "I want Pussy Riot and all who support them to burn in fire." Yet the trial has also driven a wedge between members of the Russian Orthodox Church--some of whose members and even leaders opposed a jail term.

These divisions will fester in the weeks ahead, and the influence of religious and nationalist forces in Putin's Russia is likely to grow. Putin has masterfully stoked class and nationalist resentments, framing resistance to his authority as an affront to the values of the nation. (Note: American politicians also use such tactics.) But what is also clear from these last weeks--and the outpouring of support for Pussy Riot-- is that Russian and global support for free speech and expression is a force to be reckoned with.

The father of glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev, understood the power of free expression. It is sad and ironic, therefore, that twenty-one years ago this month, Gorbachev's pro-democracy reforms were dealt a body blow in the August 19th coup.  In the decade that followed, Boris Yeltsin privatized the wealth of his nation in the fire sale of the century, created the predatory-oligarchical class and shut down an elected Parliament with tanks. Those years, while heralded in the Western media, set in motion the "de-democratization" we are witnessing today in Putin's Russia. Opposition to "de-democratization" has led to the largest outpouring of protest inside Russia in two decades.

Yet today, Russia's opposition movement remains divided. Many of its leaders support neoliberal policies that would privatize education and gut pensions--policies that alienate Russians struggling to live and work in dying factory towns and impoverished rural towns. The citizens of this "second Russia" do not see their needs addressed in Moscow's street demonstrations. But perhaps, as women have done throughout Russian history--in February 1917 they left the factories to call for bread, stop war and end autocracy--women today, wielding the power of free expression exemplified by Pussy Riot, could use  (at least symbolic) power to unify demands for free expression and fair elections with demands for a more fair, egalitarian and less corrupt economic system. After all, to paraphrase the Russian saying, it's not the first time women have been asked to hold up half the sky.

 

In the months since the punk rock/protest group Pussy Riot seized the stage at Russia’s iconic Christ the Savior Cathedral just before the country’s March elections—performing (and recording) a musical plea to the Virgin Mary to oust Vladimir Putin—they have become an international sensation, thanks almost entirely to the Russian government’s authoritarian response. Three band members were arrested, threatened with seven years’ imprisonment and placed in pretrial detention that’s been extended for months. Now, as their trial on charges of “hooliganism” approaches a verdict—which may come as soon as mid-August—Pussy Riot is world famous.

Support has come from inside Russia and abroad. More than 40,000 Russians have signed an online petition protesting the band members’ arrest and detention. A hundred Russian civic and cultural figures have petitioned the country’s Supreme Court. Russia’s human rights ombudsperson has urged their release. The Washington Post and New York Times editorialized in their defense. Artists and performers around the world have voiced their solidarity. Amnesty International named Pussy Riot prisoners of conscience. These actions may have led Putin to suggest, while visiting the London Olympics on August 2, that the women should not be “judged severely.”

The crackdown on Pussy Riot is part of a broader attack on dissent in Russia. Recent weeks have seen the introduction and rapid passage of a quartet of laws that undermine the country’s democratic ambitions: a dramatic increase in financial and criminal penalties for “defamation”; a blacklist, as yet unpublished, of “harmful” websites; punitive fines on participants in, and organizers of, “unsanctioned” protests; and legislation mandating that NGOs declare any foreign funding and, if they accept it, label themselves as “foreign agents.” (Amid the uproar this bill has sparked, it’s worth noting that in many respects it mirrors the US Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938.) Russia, alas, is not the only country cracking down on political freedom. But it’s clear that these laws represent another wave in de-democratization, a process begun under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and carried on under Putin since 2000.

The mistreatment of these young women is particularly disheartening. Yet lost in much of the US coverage is a sobering reality: there are at least two Russias. One is largely urban, Westernized, secular and modern; the other includes struggling, industrialized regional cities and towns as well as the country’s rural heartland, where most people are suffering economically. This other Russia believes it’s guarding the country’s traditional values and religious convictions. That is the lens through which it views Pussy Riot’s imprisonment: not as freedom of conscience versus the state, but as national pride and religious faith versus a well-off urban elite. In this context, it’s understandable that only 43 percent of Russians tell pollsters a two-to-seven-year sentence for the young musicians would be disproportionate. Putin has masterfully stoked such resentments (something US politicians are also adept at), frequently framing resistance to his authority as an affront to the values of the nation.

One of Putin’s key partners in this campaign has been the Russian Orthodox Church, whose spokesperson announced that God had personally shared with him—“just like He revealed the Gospels to the church”—that He “condemns” the Pussy Riot protest. Cynically or in earnest, church leaders are nurturing a patriarchal, paternalistic form of patriotism. The prosecution’s indictment against the band members cites “blasphemous acts” and the “weighty suffering” of believers—despite Russia’s supposed separation of church and state.

The irony is that even as Putin reaps political benefits from the resentments of this other Russia, these people will suffer the most under his economic and social policies. Last month the government ushered in a dramatic increase in utility and transportation costs. And neoliberal “reforms” under way in Russia since the 1990s—in education, transportation and healthcare—are being accelerated. Despite the lowest unemployment rate in thirteen years, these changes could mean socioeconomic disaster for the worker from the Urals, the teacher in Novosibirsk, the farmer from Krasnodar. What’s been little reported in the West is that even many of Putin’s most outspoken critics—including those who have led major street protests in Moscow—have long supported these neoliberal measures. Among them are elite voices like former government ministers Aleksei Kudrin and Boris Nemtsov and former Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov. Perhaps that should be no surprise; they’re not the ones about to get hurt.

If the opposition really wants to mobilize a mass movement for political, social and economic change, it will have to bring these two Russias together. That will mean not only calling for fair elections and combating corruption but also resisting the privatization of public education, utilities and healthcare. In other words, the powerful protests on behalf of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom from fear must be expanded to encompass freedom from want. The fate of many more people than a courageous punk protest group could depend on it.

This Friday, the American band War on Women will play a Solidarity Concert for Pussy Riot in Washington, DC. "As an American band, War On Women has the freedom to sing about injustices and perform at rallies without fearing for their safety or facing jail time," says frontperson Shawna Potter. "War On Women feels it is our duty, as a band with US-based privilege, to not only call attention to the stark difference between how we and Pussy Riot are able to make our art, but to draw attention to the similarities in how women are treated as 2nd class citizens all around the world."

The Nation is delighted to host the world premiere of War on Women's video for their song "Effemimania."

 

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