Pussy Riot’s World Cup pitch invasion pierced the fog of unreality around Putin’s Russia

The idea of Russia as a functioning state is – much like the Fifa Land in which the World Cup takes place – a delusion.

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It’s been suggested over the past month that World Cups do not really take place in “host nations”; rather, they take place in Fifa Land, sleekly branded and smoothly run for the cameras.

But even a combination of genuinely compelling football and the global hegemony of Fifa could not stop reality coming crashing back to viewers of the World Cup final; with grim reminders that this was Vladimir Putin’s tournament coming with the president handing out the medals, but also, perhaps more enduring, with the pitch invasion by Pussy Riot, Russia’s best-known protest group.

The image that has spread round social media could not have been staged more perfectly: Kylian Mbappe, the French teen superstar forward appears to high five a young female protester dressed in a police uniform, seconds before she is dragged off by stewards.

Three of the four protesters, Veronica Nikulshina, Olga Kurachyova, and Pyotr Verzilov, have since been sentenced to fifteen days “administrative arrest” with the fourth, Olga Pakhtusova expected to face similar sanction. Heavy fines will follow.

Shortly after the stunt, a video and statement appeared on the WeArePussyRiot YouTube channel: the demands of the protesters were as follows: freedom for Oleg Sentsov, the Crimean filmmaker jailed for 20 years on trumped up terrorism charges, the ending of arrests for “likes” on social media and for real-life protest, the allowing of political opposition, the ending of the jailing of people on false charges, and (because this is Pussy Riot, an art collective as much as well as a protest movement) “Turn the earthly policeman into the heavenly policeman”.

None of these things are likely to happen in the near future, but short-term demands are not the point of actions by Pussy Riot and their predecessor group Voina, who specialise in using absurd actions to highlight the absurdity of Putin’s Russia, where meaningful political action within the mainstream is now impossible.

Before the laughable pretence of a presidential election in March, some foreign media, desperate to keep things interesting, honed in on the figure of Ksenia Sobchak, a well-connected Moscovite who had decided to run for president. Was she for real? Sobchak had done some genuinely provocative things, such as travelling to Chechnya in an attempt to confront the regional leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, over human rights abuses.

A Russian activist I spoke to was clear: Sobchak may be sincere in her beliefs, but she was not what one could call “opposition”; she was tolerated for the optics, someone to point to to prove that in fact, yes, one can criticise the president and get away with it. If she were an actual threat, she would not last very long. Sobchak ultimately polled less than 2 per cent, for all that it mattered.

Meanwhile actual opposition is strangled by petty oppressive legislation. NGOs dependent on foreign funders such as George Soros’s Open Society Foundations (Soros was namechecked by Putin in his press conference with Donald Trump this week) are forced to classify themselves as “foreign agents” a phrase intended to make their work sound like espionage to the ordinary Russian; protest marches are tightly controlled, and extremism laws can be extended to cover practically anything and applied in the most arbitrary manner imaginable.

The state engages in smears and lies against those who it perceives as threatening: even at the height of the World Cup, archivist Yuri Dmitriyev of the Memorial group, which records the crimes of the Stalin era, was arrested on charges of possession of child pornography, a charge he has already been acquitted of once. The Kremlin finds the prospect of an independently sourced historical truth to be a threat.

With all this, there is no anchor, no sense of a state that can be dealt or even bargained with: hence Pussy Riot’s appeal for a “heavenly policeman” or what in the democratic world we would call the rule of law.

The idea of Russia as a functioning state is – much like the Fifa Land in which the World Cup takes place – a delusion. It is a land where there is no benefit in telling the truth or asking questions, where uncertainty is actively encouraged.

Now that we in the rest of the world are no longer caught up in the hi-res drama of World Cup football, we should remember to stand with and support those brave enough to try to penetrate the fog of unreality that envelops Putin’s Russia.