Russia’s Political Summer Olympics: Putin x Pussy Riot

Posted August 1st, 2012 at 5:48 am (UTC+0)
11 comments

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (L) and Maria Alyokhina, members of female punk band “Pussy Riot”, look out from the defendent’s cell in a courtroom in Moscow on Tuesday. Three young women who staged a 1-minute irreverent punk-rock protest against Vladimir Putin on the altar of Russia’s main cathedral are trial for hooliganism, a charge that could bring jail sentences up to seven years. Photo: Retuers/Maxim Shemetov

In Moscow’s Political Summer Olympics, President Putin is on track this week to win the gold in a demanding event: Making Martyrs for the Opposition.

After Putin’s election in March and his inauguration in May, protest crowds dwindled and a feeling of hopelessness settled over Russia’s democratic movement.

But now, the biggest chants at rallies are: Svobodu Pussy Riot! Free Pussy Riot!

Protesters hold photos of three young women jailed for conducting a protest with this feminist punk group, a band virtually unknown six months ago.

The women, two of them mothers of small children, are putting very human – and very appealing faces – on the anti-Putin movement. Every morning this week, Russia’s new poster girls for dissent appear in court, looking a mite bewildered as they go on trial for hooliganism.

Maria Alyokhina, a member of female punk band “Pussy Riot”, smiles as she is escorted by police to a court in Moscow on July 31. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin


Last Feb. 21, they donned colorful balaclavas and short jumpers and staged a raucous – some say profane — one-minute punk prayer against Putin near the central altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.

Public opinion, as tracked in polls, was overwhelmingly negative.

If the Kremlin had been clever, the women would have been fined and sentenced to 100 days labor – pulling weeds from the Kremlin lawns or scraping up candle wax in Orthodox Churches.

But, five months later, the three women — Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich — are still in jail.

A judge has ordered them confined until next January. This week, they are on trial on charges that could bring sentences up to seven years. A guilty verdict is expected on Friday.

“Let the girls go!” chant their supporters outside a Moscow courthouse.

In their heyday, Pussy Riot performers truly annoyed the Kremlin. Here they staged a lightning punk performance on Red Square on January 20 to protest Vladimir Putin’s candidacy for a third term as president. He won the election March 4 and is to serve until 2018. Photo: Reuters/Denis Sinyakov


But to help President Putin lock down a gold medal for Opposition Martyr Making, Russian prosecutors brought charges Tuesday against Alexei Navalny, the ruggedly handsome 36-year-old opposition leader. If convicted on the embezzlement charges, as expected, Navalny could be sentenced to 10 years in jail.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny talks to reporters July 31 after being charged with embezzlement. He had been cleared of charges in the same case earlier this year. A conviction could carry a sentence of up to 10 years in jail. Photo: Reuters

On one level, Mr. Putin, a longtime KGB officer, is trying to reassert authoritarian controls on Russia. Some say he is exploiting a wedge issue, hoping to divide his liberal and nationalist opponents. But, when a viewer watches this political drama with the sound off, the warfare looks generational. At outdoor concerts in Moscow this summer, thousands of young people have cheered as rock musicians have showed their support for Pussy Riot.

Mr. Putin, who turns 60 in October, seems to be trying to stop the march of time.

Pussy Riot Band members wear hand knitted balaclavas to submerge their identities into the group. They say they draw inspiration from the 1990s punk grrl music movement in the US. Photo: Igor Mukhin


Perhaps aware of this, Russia’s president apparently smoothed his facial lines last year with botox. On Tuesday, fresh from signing a new law allowing tighter internet controls, he spent the day surrounded by young people at Lake Seliger, an annual summer camp for ambitious pro-Kremlin youth. But the televised images were not all that convincing, especially of the president amiably fielding a lunch invitation from a beautiful young woman planted in the crowd.

It reminded me of Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War era U.S. president, showing his affection for college students by attending graduation ceremonies at West Point, the United States Military Academy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Putin’s martyr making machinery clanks forward.

A 22-year old woman spent almost an hour on a cross outside a central St. Petersburg church in mid-July to protest the prosecution of Pussy Riot. The self-crucifier was dressed in the kind of brightly colored ‘superhero’ outfit that Pussy Riot member say they wear to bolster their courage for public protests. This protester placed a collection box below her cross with a note reading: “For restoration of Russian Orthodox Church’s reputation.” The cross bore the warning: “Your democracy could be here.” She was detained and charged with violating city improvement laws, a violation that carries a fine. Photo: Baltinfo.ru


Apparently, he seems to think the only supporters of the imprisoned punk feminists are the usual suspects: Amnesty International, the State Department, the British rocker Sting, The New York Times editorial writers, and demonstrators outside the Russian embassy in Washington.

But, more concerning to the Kremlin, the tide of Russian public opinion has shifted. People tell pollsters that the punishment does not fit the crime. Russia’s blogosphere talks about show trials.

In the latest Levada poll of Russians, 43 percent consider jail terms of two to seven years as disproportionate. Only 17 percent sympathize with the demands of top church leaders for harsh punishment against the Pussy Riot protesters.Mr. Putin’s KGB training may cloud his understanding of this next point. Jail time is often a stop along the way to an ultimately successful political career. Look around the world and you will see that today’s leaders were often yesterday’s rebels.

Before Mr. Putin pushes Russia into an ideological winter, he might want to ponder the political histories of some of the world leaders he rubs shoulders with.

To the south, Recep Erdogan, now prime minister of Turkey, spent six months in prison in 1999 for reciting an Islamist poem. Nearby, Mohamed Morsi, now prime minister of Egypt, spent eight months in jail in 2008 for supporting independent judges.

In Mr. Putin’s peer group – the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – two of the five leaders have done jail time.

A supporter of female punk band “Pussy Riot” shouts slogans outside the Moscow court where three members of the band are on trial. Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, spent 10 years in prison for anti-apartheid activity in the early 1960s.

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, was briefly, in today’s language, a terrorist. From 1968 to 1969, she led a cell of the Revolutionary Armed Vanguard Palmares, a Marxist urban guerrilla group. Rousseff was arrested while carrying a pistol. She was tortured and then jailed for three years. Carlos Minc, one of her comrades in arms from Revolutionary Armed Vanguard days, was, until recently, Brazil’s Minister of Environment.

So, to take the long view, it’s not inconceivable that 20 years from now, in 2032, one of my successors will be sitting in Moscow banging out a story about President Navalny, aged 56, naming Duma Deputy Tolokonnikova, aged 43, to be his Minister of Health.

With an eye to the future, Russia’s prosecutors and prison guards might read a little modern world history – and treat their new political prisoners with respect.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

11 Responses to “Russia’s Political Summer Olympics: Putin x Pussy Riot”

  1. Supporter says:

    Go Pussy Riot!!

  2. Joe says:

    Navalny ‘ruggedly handsome’! Methinks the author has a mancrush. And those women have terrible fashion sense. No wonder their only support comes from foreign government sponsored news outlets. I was sorta expecting a crowd of supporters in those pictures. Nope, just the voa cameraman.

    • James Brooke jbrooke says:

      “Joe”
      instead of name calling, I suggest you look at the major points of the story — for example, that the current leaders of Turkey, Egypt, South Africa and Brazil have all served jail time.
      If you read the photo credits, none of the photos are by VOA — largely by Reuters.

      Regula’s world sounds like a pretty scary place. With that world view, best to stay safe in the comfortable and familiar confines of Pyongyang…

      Jim

  3. [...] on Tuesday. Three young women who staged a 1-minute irreverent punk-rock protest against … Moscow – Bing News ← Fortuna Düsseldorf Sign Andriy Voronin On Season Long Loan Cancel [...]

  4. Regula says:

    Strangely, you were pretty mute when the Occupy movement was hit down, taken down with non-sensical rationals that their tents were a fire danger, and other not so valid reasons. Apparently you think it is just fine if the USG doesn’t listen to protesters and instead suppresses protest whenever it can. It was the same with antiwar-protesters who were just simply ridiculed and ignored, their concerns and requests not met. So apparently the US is very afraid of protest, especially anti-war movements and the Occupy movement, people who protest against so many abuses of all kinds. And you find that just fine.

    I agree that these young women shouldn’t be imprisoned. A bit of blasphemy just isn’t a crime.

    That Putin will crack down on opposition protesters harder is understandable, just look at Libya, Yemen, Syria, all of which were pushed into turmoil by subversion of the US and Israel. The US subversion to destabilize the world is the real culprit, which deprives opposition and protest of its sincerity. If Syria falls, it will be the first government toppled by the US purely based on subversion inside the country and psy-ops applied to mislead the diaspora. The opposition believes that the US will help them realize their dream of freedom and democracy. But the US is not interested in that, but only to install puppet governments and keep “revolted” countries destabilized – see Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and as it stands, Syria will soon be added to the list.

    Putin is discouraging the opposition to deny the CIA a stranglehold over people with false promises of support. That is not wrong. As said, I don’t think the women should get jail sentences, but rather be given some insight into what their protest furthers and that it furthers US interests, not Russian ones. So the women stay independent of foreign subversion.

    As to Navalny, unfortunately it can’t always be known from outside of Russia what of the accusations is true and what isn’t. Corruption is rampant everywhere in the world. In Russia and in the US, except that the US covers up its own corruption rather atrociously.

    But all the convictions of so-called terrorists who were mostly seduced into acts by the CIA/FBI that they wouldn’t have committed otherwise, it isn’t different from any other nations political trials. Those prisoners are political prisoners in the US, incarcerated on unreal prison terms for essentially no actual wrongdoing, just presumedly and intention to do wrong. How much prodding did it take before a person agreed to detonate a “bomb” produced to be a dud by the CIA?

  5. vadim says:

    USA president must convict this shamefull process . 2 girls has small children and they still in jail for 5 month only for pray , it was not exstremist or racist ,just “Virgin Mary kick away mr Putin”..

  6. John says:

    Russia’s pro-Putinist blogosphere is really trying to slam Pussy Riot by bringing up the old 2008 Voina radical-art group’s artistic sex-coupling (featuring some Pussy Riot women and their partners) in a museum.

    Well, the Putinist blogosphere says, this is total proof of the absolute degradation of these women and their supporters. Shame, shame, shame they say, trying to tie the knot of guilt by roping in not just Pussy Riot, but a whole host of “liberasts” (term used by one prolific pro-Putinist blogger) who must be isolated and punished.

    However, the smear job is nothing more than Soviet “whataboutism” modernized for by the new Putinist Russians who are exploiting the Orthodox Church and who also think its a blasphemy that media try to embarrass Patriarch Kirill by revealing his $30K watch, limo and other wealth.

    Any time that foreigners might think Russia can be part of Europe or American type modern culture – with liberty of thought, freedom, advancement – along comes some shining examples of just how backward, autarkic and plain cruel much of Russia really is. And the legal system figures big in this new-old Russia, prosecuting Magnitsky’s corpse, Pussy Riot, Navalny, etc, etc, etc…

  7. Thomas says:

    I am no Putin supporter – but this article was perhaps one of the most pathetically biased pieces I have ever read.

    “Ruggedly handsome”? “Relentless Martyr Making Machine”? Why doesn’t the author just go an propose to Navalnay? Or Nemtsov?

  8. Gennady says:

    To “JOE” at August 1.2012 at 6:23am

    Every line of your comment shows that you don’t understand a thing in Russia under Mr. Putin (after graduating from a certain FSB institution, ah?).
    Or you’re PAID FOR the pretence of not understanding.

    1a) You ridicule the word “mancrush”. Whole world has a mancrush at biblical David who opposed Goliath. Not that dirty crush that you have implied but the appreciation of the stoicism and heroism of such a man.
    The same is with Navalny as the man single-handedly opposed the pernicious system that highjacked, plunders and holds hostage the largest country in the world. Everybody in Russia who hasn’t drunk their conscience got crushed in the man.

    1b) You mock “those women” who after six-month inhumane treatment behind the bars aren’t broken, they try their best to demonstrate fashion taste when looking out from the beast cage they are kept in http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19082875.
    The women after one minute sincere prayer are depicted as the most dangerous criminals of all in Russia. The Putin’s regime made them to undertake such desperate action.
    This farcical “trial” looks particular hypocritical after cold-blooded Magnitsky’s murder (and none is convicted) and numerous apartment houses blasts when in Ryazan the perpetrators were exposed (and no one is convicted).

    1c) You’re deliberately untrue about “the only support from…” All polls crystal clear show where the nation’s mood is, that the majority of the population don’t support the farce. Although the verdict of the “trial” is already predetermined , Putin-Gundyayev (aka Patriarch Kirill) have hopelessly lost in the public and world opinion by creating new Martyrs of the regime.
    You presume that after Stalin’s bloodbath Russians are unable to understand basic human rights and the rule of true law as everywhere in the world, aren’t you? That Russians are a sort of masochists that take pleasure in being humiliated, in watching how billions $ of national wealth disappear, in being in the abyss of malignant corruption and lawlessness the last 12 years Russia is in?
    You’re wrong that all things Russians have wished for is to keep Russia in undeclared state of emergency with Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen stipulated in articles 17.1, 22.1, 27, 29.1, 29.5, 31, 56.1 of Russian Constitution, basic human rights in Russia suspended.

  9. Pussy Riot says:

    Online broadcasting from a court hearing the case of #PussyRiot in Moscow. English version – https://twitter.com/Eng_Pussy_Riot

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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