Pussy Riot is just the start of the fight for free speech in Russia

There are indications that people are ready to kick back against Putin.

Today’s guilty verdict in the Pussy Riot case has confirmed Vladimir Putin not as the sucessor to Stalin, but sucessor to the tsars. Putin is anointed little father, and the church-state monster against which Tolokonnikov, Alekhina and Semutsevich protested at Christ The Saviour Cathedral in March has bitten back.

When the three members of the art collective entered the cathedral in March, they cannot have imagined where it would end - Pussy Riot members told Index on Censorship that the arrests had been a surprise. Some of the group had previously staged anti-government actions in Moscow, and even been arrested, but nothing could have prepared them for this ordeal.

That is not to say that these are naive people. Pussy Riot is loosely affiliated to the avant-garde art group Voina (“War”), which has staged increasingly daring activities over the past few years. In 2010, the group audaciously managed to paint an enormous penis on St Petersburg’s Liteinyi Bridge. The action took exhaustive planning, but the result was brilliant, and hilarious: as the bridge was raised at night, the huge phallus pointed directly at the city’s FSB headquarters. That work, “Cock Held Captive By The FSB”, won an award for innovation in art. Two years later, Voina's feminist counterpart has been condemned.

The female nature of the protest is at least part of the problem. Though their name itself is meaningless to most Russians, the dresses and tights and appeals to the Virgin Mary to become a feminist in their “punk prayer” are a very clear signal that this is about women. In a country whose leader takes every opportunity to exhibit his manly attributes - horseriding with no shirt on, judo, magically discovering ancient artefacts while out for a swim, subduing unruly polar bears - feminism in itself is a provocation - even un-Russian, as the prosecution in the trial claimed.

Russian-ness, now the property of Putin and the church, brooks no criticism. Alexey Navalny, a popular opposition blogger and figurehead, faces charges of embezzlement. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, immensely wealthy and openly critical of the Kremlin, proved too much of a threat and is now imprisoned. Sergei Magnitsky, sent to investigate fraud by officials, ended up dead in a cell. Journalists from critical publications are routinely harassed and sometimes killed, without the hint of a proper investigation into the assaults. One newspaper alone, Novaya Gazeta (owned by Alexander Lebedev and Mikhail Gorbachev) has lost three contributors in the past six years - all, incidentally, women.

Through all of this, little father Putin has enjoyed the support of Patriarch Kirill, head of the Orthodox church. When Pussy Riot staged their protest, Kirill - a man so saintly he sought to censor evidence of his $30,000 wristwatch, lest the faithful be driven to covetous thoughts upon seeing it - called not for compassion and mercy, but for action against the blasphemers.

In February, just weeks before the Pussy Riot protest, Kirill described the Putin reign as a “miracle of God”, and denounced the "ear-piercing shrieks" of the democratic opposition as a danger to Russia, influenced by western consumer culture.

He may be right. Part of the reason why the Pussy Riot story is so big in the West is that we think we understand the references: punk rock, Riot Grrrl - these are the cool girls from school. The first martyrs of what has already been dismissed in Russia as a hipster revolution.

The generation that grew up in the brief, chaotic, democratic gap between the fall of the Wall and the rise of the new tsar know about free speech. And there are increasing signs they will fight for it.

Padraig Reidy is News Editor of Index on Censorship

A Pussy Riot supporter protests near the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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