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
Show Hide image

The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue