Archive for August 10th, 2012
Their names are Nadezhda “Nadya”Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina “Katya” Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina. They are on trial for disturbing the peace (or ‘hooliganism’!) in Moscow. “I am not afraid of your poorly concealed fraud of a verdict in this so-called court because it can deprive me of my freedom,” Maria Alyokhina said. “No one will take my inner freedom away.”
The women symbolize the divisions in Russian culture and politics, and as such their trial has come under intense focus. They are part of a punk a group called Pussy Riot, which formed in 2011 as a collective of about ten members who perform provocative songs in provocative locals, usually masked with colorful balaclavas, and using pseudonyms when giving interviews. As they put it: “What we have in common is impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse and a non-standard female image.”
On February 21, 2012 members of the group went to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow with short dresses, colorful balaclavas and sang a “punk prayer” to the Virgin Mary to make Putin go away. The Orthodox Russian Patriarch Kirill, who had already urged believers to vote for Putin, called the President when he saw the video to make sure the women be arrested. They have been held in extended detention since March, and will be sentenced August 17. Two of the women have small children, and they have gained support from international human rights groups, including Amnesty International.
Pussy Riot was formed as part of the anti-Putin protests that emerged last winter, and represent a Russian youth angered by the return to authoritarianism that Putin represents. They want an open and free Russia, and Pussy Riot reflects an audacious in your face attack on politics as usual. In a country where traditional taboos are still strong — sexism remains rampant and anti-LBGT feelings are intense, for example — they’re the new generation demanding change.
The response of the Russian Orthodox church has been one of anger, with demands that the women be punished for blasphemy and an assault on the Russian soul. That sounds silly — and, to be blunt, it is silly — but there is a segment of traditional Russian society appalled by what the women did. The Orthodox Church is still a powerful institution and Putin needs to make sure it stays on his side.
The women have pleaded not guilty, claiming they were not trying to be offensive. They were responding to Kirill’s instructions to vote for Putin. The Courtroom prosecutor Nikiforov told the Judge that by swearing in church the girls had “abused God.” But the girls claim that not only is Russia a secular state, but that they want dialogue. “I’m Orthodox,” said Maria, “why does that mean I should vote for Putin?” Kirill who has called Putin’s rule in Russia “a miracle from God,” yearns to rekindle the old Czarist era connection of Church and State.
In the Capital of Moscow there is general support for the group. The trial has gathered large crowds who often cheer the defendants or laugh at the prosecutor. At times the Judge had to plead for quiet, telling those gathered that “this is not a threater.” When they laughed at some of the claims the prosecutor made, courtroom observers were told this was “no laughing matter.”
Ultimately Putin will decide the fate of these women — it’s his country, and his court. That’s part of what they are protesting! In London to watch some of the Olympics he said he thought they should be “treated leniently.” But no one doubts that the sentence depends on what he wants, not the judge in the case.
The case is important. Russia stands at a cross roads. Putin, having weathered the winter protests against his re-election, would like to see Russia return to business as usual: Power in his hands and a partnership with the Orthodox church to keep the public in line. Profits from oil and gas going to give the people enough largesse to keep their support, and some market openness to make it worth the while of the middle class to support the regime.
And the youth? They’ll get older. They’ll realize that it’s not worth rocking the boat. But women like Nadia, Katya, and Maria reflect a youth that sees the wider world, and understands what a free Russia could become. They don’t want post-Soviet Russia to continue the slide into Czarist like leadership and control. Putin apparently had enough, and decided to use a show trial of the three women to strike terror into would be protesters to force the youth into submission.
A successful show trial requires the authorities to control the show – to script it and make certain the public learns about it in a way that achieves the desired result. That’s not happening. Public interest in the trial has made it a sensation. The world watches, while Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and host of musicians and human rights activists world wide speak out. The Russian youth follow on Facebook and Youtube, and the trial has become a symbol of the stark division between the traditional world of the Orthodox church and the globalized modern ambitions of Russia’s young people . Quite possibly Putin won’t be able to keep all these things under control.
The trial originally was video streamed to make sure other would be protesters could see what might happen to them if they anger the authorities. But that backfired; the women refused to be docile, they and their attorneys asked tough questions and helped make the witnesses for the church look ridiculous. Video streaming was stopped, but it was too late – the trial had become a farce. The judge moved to a smaller court room, and to wrap the case up more quickly the proceedings were dragged on for over 12 hours a day with the women getting little water or food while in their glass “cage.” The result was to amplify the inhumane treatment of three young women.
So the world watches, Russia watches and Putin squirms. This case shows the regime’s vulnerability. The fact they so misjudged the impact of this show trial makes it clear they don’t understand the forces they’re dealing with. They have a late Soviet mentality in a world that is much different than that of the 20th Century.
The bizarre almost comical testimony of the church witnesses show a miscalculation of immense proportions. They were meant to create a sense of anger at the women for defying honored Russian religious traditions; instead they made the church comes off as petty, the state as authoritarian. The show trial actually demonstrated the bankruptcy of the Putin regime.
No one knows for sure what direction Russia will take moving forward. Putin controls the media, the courts, the military and the police. Russian history suggests the state will prevail at the cost of human liberty. But this is a new era. Globalization and the social media led information revolution are changing the rules of the game, as long time dictators like Mubarak, Gadaffi and Assad have learned. Right now three heroic young women refuse to back down and have come to symbolize the desire for an open, tolerant, free Russia. Perhaps their actions can inspire others to join.