Russia’s new moment

Russia’s new moment

Some 35 years ago, a couple of friends and I were denied entry to a fairly ordinary restaurant in Moscow on sartorial grounds. All three of us happened to be wearing jeans. Denim, we were politely informed by the elderly doorman, was the preferred attire of ‘khooligani’.


Published: Wed 22 Aug 2012, 8:41 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 11:51 AM

One of my friends inquired equally politely: “Are you suggesting we are hooligans?” No, no, the doorman insisted, but rules are rules…

I was reminded of this incident when reading about the charge on the basis of which three members of the punk collective Pussy Riot have been sentenced to two years in prison: “anti-religious hooliganism”.

Religion wasn’t much of an issue 35 years in the past: Moscow, after all, was still the capital of the formally atheist Soviet Union. In that respect, much has changed — not necessarily for the better — in the intervening decades. But “hooliganism” remains a concern, as well as a euphemism for youthful acts of dissent.

Back in the USSR, it wasn’t uncommon for dissidents to be perceived as deranged: who in their right mind, the logic went, would wish to take up cudgels against a perfect order? More than 20 years after the Soviet Union’s demise, substantial elements of that mentality can still be found in the Kremlin and its environs. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Pussy Rioters were described by their judge as “suffering from a mixed personality disorder displayed by their active position in life”.

Perhaps such a description could more fruitfully be attached to Vladimir Putin, who keeps morphing from prime minister to president to prime minister to president, and often betrays the inclinations of an old-fashioned tsar while aspiring at the same time to be seen as the head of a forward-looking European state.

The Pussy Riot case has been compared with Josef Stalin’s obscene show trials and even the Spanish Inquisition. Such comparisons are over the top, but perhaps not entirely without merit. Sure, most of those found guilty of political crimes in Stalin’s courts ended up with a bullet in the head — and the victims included some of the finest minds behind the Russian revolution. The innocents condemned by the Inquisition met some of the most painful deaths imaginable.

Such a fate, thankfully, does not await Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina. But who can seriously doubt that their trial was utterly kafkaesque, with the supposed culprits trapped inside a glass cage and Judge Marina Syrova evidently under no obligation to feign impartiality.

The latter found the trio “demonstratively and cynically” defying “the Orthodox world … devaluing centuries of revered and protected dogmas”. Really? Centuries? Sure, there were dogmas officially “revered and protected” for much of the 20th century, but they had little to do with the Orthodox Church.

Syrova also declared that Pussy Riot’s “religious hatred” came from “them being feminists who consider men and women to be equal”. Can feminism seriously be considered a crime in the 21st century?

To be fair, Syrova stated that “belonging to feminism in the Russian federation is not a legal violation or a crime”. But she allowed one of the prosecuting lawyers to get away with the claiming: “All the defendants talked about being feminists and said that is allowed in the Russian Orthodox Church. This does not correspond with reality. Feminism is a mortal sin.”

A mortal sin? Really?

Feminism was unofficially anathema during the latter decades of the Soviet Union, too: Stalin and his successors had little time for it, at least until the ascendancy of Mikhail Gorbachev — who last week offered the sensible opinion that the Pussy Riot case ought never to have gone to court.

Women enjoyed equality under the law in the USSR and certainly constituted a substantial proportion of its workforce. They were poorly represented, though, in the upper echelons of the power structure.

Although Pussy Riot’s “incriminating” performance in a nearly empty Cathedral of Christ the Saviour has been condemned as blasphemous on account the young women’s attire, the words they used and their choice of premises, it is hard not to believe they have been punished for disrespecting Putin rather than the church.

Although opinion polls point to precious little sympathy among most Russians for Pussy Riot’s stunt, many are nonetheless disinclined to view it as a crime worthy of extended incarceration in a penal colony. The disenchantment with what is a relatively novel concept in Russia — performance art as a form of public protest — is hardly surprising in a broadly conservative milieu, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into support for state brutality. Even some Orthodox clerics have declared that the church has forgiven Pussy riot.

There is the prospect of a legal appeal, but it is generally understood that greater leniency is likely only if Putin relents — and there is cause to suspect the president sees a two-year sentence as lenient enough, given that the prosecutors asked for three and that the charge could have led to seven years of imprisonment. Criticism from Western governments — possibly related in part to irritation over Moscow’s stance on Syria — is unlikely to move him but perhaps Paul McCartney could prompt a rethink. It’s also worth recalling that when leading members of The Rolling Stones received prison terms for drug violations 45 years go, the editor of The Times, a pillar of the British establishment, took the authorities to task in an editorial headlined “Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?”

A revision of the injudiciously punitive Russian sentence would be most welcome. Meanwhile, let’s not ignore the fact that “We are all Pussy Riot”-themed activism received an unexpected setback at the weekend when demonstrators in Marseille sympathetically clad in colourful balaclavas were briefly taken into custody because they fell foul of the French law against facial coverings. Even an absurdist scriptwriter would have been hard put to come up with such an apposite reminder of the fact that European illiberalism is by no means an exclusively Russian phenomenon.

Mahir Ali is a Sydney-based journalist

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