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
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories