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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.

A Pussy Riot supporter protests in Barcelona
A Pussy Riot supporter protests near the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Photograph: Getty Images

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