After midnight, in a featureless attic in Moscow, Daniel Sandford, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent looked a bit like Dad walking in on a weird teenage sleepover party. Indeed, some of the faces hidden behind their trademark brightly coloured balaclavas belonged to teenagers, but this was no light hearted meeting. They had to meet ‘after midnight’ to ‘avoid the police’. And the conversation was serious.
The girls belong to Pussy Riot, a punk group catapulted to global stardom or infamy, depending on how you look at it, when three members were arrested after they recorded themselves performing a vulgar, blasphemous and anti-Putin song in Moscow’s main cathedral, one of the holiest places for Orthodox believers. I’ve been trying to think up some equivalents… think Amy Winehouse on the altar at Westminster Abbey, or maybe The Sex Pistols in St Paul’s Cathedral. Or for that matter, Lady Gaga at Mecca.
When you think about it that way, the charge of ‘hooliganism’ doesn’t sound so far fetched. But the girls are adamant they did nothing wrong. The interview opens with a group member claiming that the girls are in court “not because they did something wrong, just because somebody decided to show us his power”. That somebody is Putin - the allegation, that the girls are on trial not because they performed a blasphemous song in a cathedral without permission, but because they sang it about the President.
This claim fits very nicely into the Western caricature of Putin’s Russia as a place where, to quote Sandford, there is “a growing risk to those who oppose Putin’s rule”. Sandford accepts the girls’ claim without a hint of reservation, citing their case as “symbolic of the new clampdown (on freedom of speech) in Russia”.
Of course, in the imaginary Russia inhabited by Western correspondents like Sandford, the girls are absolutely right. In this make believe world it doesn’t matter where or how you oppose Putin - he’ll either murder you (Anna Politkovskaja/Alexander Litvinenko), exile you or put you in prison (Khodorkovsky/Pussy Riot). Indeed, the location of the protest is an unimportant detail, which the BBC’s Newsbeat felt they could leave out. Their report claimed that Pussy Riot “face prison for performing a concert in which they called for the removal of Putin from power”, and suggested that David Cameron raise the issue with Putin as yet another example of Human Rights violations in Russia.
This subjective analysis of an imaginary Russia is thus conveyed to millions of homes across the UK, and, via the website, the world. And people tut in their living rooms and thank providence that though their politicians have their faults, at least they aren’t as bad as Putin. And thus our ‘holier than thou’ attitude to the world’s ‘undemocratic countries’ looks more and more like the attitude the colonialists once held towards the ‘barbarians’ they ruled. Misunderstanding and distrust become more and more entrenched, and the dream of international cooperation disappears further into the future...
So, if the BBC is wrong, then what is really going on with Pussy Riot? To answer that, we need to consider some other questions.
1: Would the girls be in court if they had performed the concert somewhere else?
No. This point was made by the girls’ defence lawyer in their trial. Anti-Putin songs, videos, blogs and flyers are produced every day by Russians, throughout Russia, and their creators aren’t in trouble with the authorities. The girls themselves had already performed in other high profile places, such as Red Square, without being arrested. So they aren’t on trial just because they called for Putin’s removal from power.
2: Would the girls be in court if they sang a blasphemous song which didn’t mention Putin?
This is a more difficult question. There’s no doubt that the location and nature of the protest is more important than the content. Even non-religious Russians, who make up the vast majority of the population, understand that you shouldn’t do something like that in any church, let alone one of the holiest Orthodox churches in the world. So even a stunt like that with no political agenda might well have been led to a run in with the law.
However, the fact that the girls sought to send a political message probably makes their crime more serious in the eyes of the authorities. Putin’s strategy for staying in power is built around limiting where political discussion can and can’t happen. In Putin’s Russia, political debate can be played out in Parliament, which his party controls, in the media, much of which is connected to his party, in officially sanctioned meetings, like the much publicized ones in Moscow last winter and online. The law is designed to keep political discussion in these places, three of which are largely controlled by the Kremlin, the internet being the exception. Introducing politics into other spheres, like education, sports or, in this case, religion, is considered inappropriate. Therefore, while a blasphemous but non-political song might still be considered a crime, the political element made it more serious.
3: What does the Pussy Riot case tell us about freedom of speech in Russia.
At the end of his report, Sandford claims that the trial is “symbolic of the clampdown on the opposition”. This is another example of the subjectivity which colours the reports of so many foreign correspondents, casting the opposition as ‘goodies’ - oppressed victims fighting against the ‘baddy’ state, which “clamps down” on their human rights. Viewers like such ‘black and white’ reporting. It is easier for us to get our heads round a straight fight between good evil than to try to comprehend complex reality. In this case, the complex reality is that in Russia, like in other democracies there is a battle for public opinion going on. In America that battle is clear for all to see at the moment, as Romney and Obama’s campaign teams bombard the population with TV ads, billboards and via their respective broadcasters (Fox for the Republicans, NBC for the Democrats). As long as they both manage to raise similar amounts of money, the battleground will be quite level, as it should be. In Russia, the battleground for public opinion remains heavily tilted towards the Government, which, quite understandably, seeks to keep it that way. This doesn’t mean that Russians lack freedom of speech, nor that their human rights are being violated. But it does mean that some voices, most importantly Putin’s, are heard louder than others. Pussy Riot’s shocking protest is symbolic of this system, in which the opposition feels powerless to make its voice heard through officially sanctioned channels.
In this blog I’ve tried to defend Putin and his government from the charge of clamping down on freedom of speech, especially with regard to Pussy Riot’s protest. However, my opinions are just as grey as the world, and I would hate those who prefer to think in black and white to therefore cast me as some sort of Putin-lover who supports everything the Russian government does. There are many problems with Russia’s political system and politicians, some of which I outlined in my answer to the third question. But denying punks the right to flash mob cathedrals is not one of them.
And as for the sentencing on Friday, I hope that the girls don’t go to jail, but I also hope they don’t do it again.
By the way - a huge area I didn’t touch on at all is whether or not it is right to punish Pussy Riot because they performed in a church, but let them go when they performed in Red Square. There’s a very interesting short video on the Russia Today website which deals with this question, as does this blog. And while your there, check out some other stuff on the site. It’s surprisingly good, especially the section about Russian women… (don't miss the six sub headings at the bottom).