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Pussy Riot and the Two Russias August 4, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Civil Liberties, Russia.
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Published on Saturday, August 4, 2012 by The Nation

 

(Credit: Igor Mukhin)

Pussy Riot is here to stay. International attention has mounted over the months since three members of the punk rock/protest group were imprisoned for a fifty-one-second stunt. All the more so this week, as their trial—on “hooliganism” charges—finally began.

As I’ve described before, members of the group seized the stage of 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. The cadre of Russian artists and activists descended from the performance artists Voina (“War”), who were influenced by the US punk movement Riot grrrl. Its story might have ended there, if not for a truly authoritarian response from the Russian government. Three alleged participants were arrested, threatened with seven years of imprisonment, and placed in a pre-trial detention that’s been extended for months. Now, Pussy Riot is world famous—as is its stunt. The longer they’re in prison, the more attention they get.

It’s been gratifying to see the outpouring of support for these women. It’s come from insiders and outsiders alike, in Russia and abroad. Key Putin backers have broken with him on Pussy Riot. More than 400,000 Russians have signed an online petition protesting their arrest and detention. The Washington Post editorialized in defense of the activists. Punk artists around the world have voiced their solidarity. British writer Stephen Fry has called on his more than 4.6 million Twitter followers “to do everything to help Pussy Riot” and “pressure Putin” in connection with the trial. Amnesty International named Pussy Riot prisoners of conscience; its US activists have planned a guerilla art exhibit and a solidarity concert at the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC.

The crackdown on Pussy Riot is part of a broader attack on dissent in Russia. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the introduction and rapid passage of a quartet of laws that undermine Russia’s democratic ambitions: (Re-)criminalization of “defamation”; a blacklist of “harmful” websites; punitive fines on participants in “unsanctioned” protests; and a mandate that nonprofits declare foreign funding and brand themselves “foreign agents.” Russia, alas, is not the only country cracking down on political freedom. But these broadly worded, swiftly passed laws represent another wave in Russia’s de-democratization, a process started under Boris Yeltsin and continued under Putin.

The righteousness of the Pussy Riot cause is clear-cut: courageous activists up against punitive suppression. As someone who’s worked with the women’s movement in Moscow, and as a longtime student of Russia, it’s horrific to watch the mistreatment of these women, and heartening to see them draw the support they deserve, both outside the country and within it.

But lost in much of the coverage is a sobering reality: there are two Russias. The country’s deep divisions are reflected in the polling on Pussy Riot, with only a 43 percent plurality telling pollsters that a potential two-to-seven-year sentence is disproportionate. Why? There’s more in place here than simple offense at their act.

To many Russians, Russia feels like two different countries: one is urban, hyper-Westernized, aggressively modern, and seems condescending in its attitude to ordinary people; the other is the Russian heartland in the regions and provinces, where people are suffering economically and believe they’re guarding the country’s traditional values and religious convictions. This is the lens through which some Russians view Pussy Riot’s imprisonment: not individual freedom of conscience versus the state but national pride and religious faith versus a well-off, urban elite. Putin has masterfully stoked such resentments, framing the resistance to his authority as an affront to the values of the nation (a segment on state TV last month called protests in defense of Pussy Riot a “vanity fair”). Too many Western journalists ignore or underestimate the effectiveness of that appeal.

Putin’s key partner in this has been the Russian Orthodox Church. In recent years, the church has grown in clout while growing ever closer to the Kremlin. The church’s spokesperson announced that God had personally shared with him, “just like he revealed the gospels to the church,” that He “condemns” what Pussy Riot did. Cynically or in earnest, church leaders are nurturing a patriarchal, paternalistic form of patriotism, and its power and popularity are growing as a result (US readers: this may sound familiar). The prosecution’s indictment against the artists cites “blasphemous acts” and “weighty suffering” of believers—despite Russia’s supposed separation of church the state. That’s a sign of how flimsy the legal case against Pussy Riot is, but also of the church’s role in modern Russia.

In a case replete with ironies, here’s the final one: even as Putin reaps political benefit from the resentments of this other Russia, his economic and social policies are poised to hit its citizens hardest—and his most prominent critics in the opposition are on board as well. Last month ushered in a fairly dramatic increase in utility and transit costs. And austerity, Russia-style, is coming to other sectors as well: neoliberal “reforms” are on the way in education, housing and pensions. These changes will mean socio-economic disaster for already-suffering Russians, many in regions far-flung from Moscow. What is little reported in the West is that Putin’s own critics, those who’ve led many of the street protests in Moscow, also back these measures. These include elite critics like former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Boris Nemtsov and Ksenia Sobchak, once the Paris Hilton of Russia until she became its Pasionaria. Perhaps that should be no surprise: they’re not the ones about to get hurt.

It is heartening to see the broad attention being paid to the three women of the Pussy Riot group. But perhaps it’s time for some reporting on the millions of working or unemployed Russians who will bear the brunt of economic policies hatched by the Putin government and supported by many of its opposition critics. Putin’s repression has sparked vibrant pro–Pussy Riot activism. The efforts on behalf of Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion and Freedom from Fear have been important. But if the opposition really wants to mobilize a mass movement for political, social and economic change, it will have to bring the Two Russias back together. That will mean developing a program that calls for fair elections and combating corruption, while also resisting neoliberal measures that will privatize public education and gut pensions. Simply put, the activism we’ve witnessed in these last months will need to expand to encompass Freedom from Want. The fate of the next Pussy Riot could depend on it.

© 2012 The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.

 

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