The Pussy Riot controversy follows the classical mould of the struggle for freedom of expression, and unveils a typical authoritarian machine, where political autocracy and religious powers unite.
Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online
Freedom of expression has always been a hot topic. History always repeats itself. Hooliganism, racism, lack of respect for moral or religious values, along with numerous other reasons regardless of validity are deemed a good enough excuse to attack artistic production through censorship, threats, jail sentences or even murder. Many regimes use those sorts of accusations against their opponents, while religious extremists always declare that they are protecting religious and moral values, linking such values to their own interpretations. This is not to forget that in time, power-seeking rulers and oppressive regimes develop their own, often personalised understanding of concepts like hooliganism and morality.
The most recent incident, which has attracted international attention, angering many human rights activists, musicians and artist, concerns the Russian punk band Pussy Riot performing at the altar of the Moscow Cathedral. The Pussy Riot controversy stands as an example of a recurrent scenario in which the people in power (Vladimir Putin, now in his third presidential term after serving for years as a particularly influential prime minister), supported by religious institutions (the Russian Orthodox Church), and backed by their two strongest tools – the media and social approval – attack representatives of opposition, charging them with crimes that sound appalling while ignoring the core of the problem.
Set in this classical mould, the story of Pussy Riot becomes very simple: On 21 February, five masked members of Pussy Riot performed a Punk Prayer at the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Orthodox Cathedral, calling on the Virgin Mary to free the country from its current president, Vladimir Putin. “St. Maria, Virgin, drive him away Putin. Drive him away! Drive away Putin! … The Church praises the rotten dictators. The cross-bearing procession of black limousines. In school you are going to meet a teacher-preacher. … Patriarch Gundyaev [Vladimir M.Gundyaev, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia] believes in Putin. You better believe in God. The belt of the Virgin is no substitute for mass-meetings.” The lyrics include a few curses inserted in between the three protagonists of the song: Putin, Patriarch Kirill and the Virgin Mary – who is asked to save Russia from the previous two.
In March, three Pussy Riot members were arrested and in August, Moscow’s Khamovnicheskii District Court had charged them with “hooliganism on grounds of religious hatred,” sentencing Maria Alekhina, 24, Ekaterina Samutsevich, 29, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, to two years’ imprisonment in a penal colony.
End of the story.
The fallen lambs are punished for outrageous and immoral behaviour. The throats of the lambs are cut on the altar.
In the days-long trial the court failed to mention any political references in the song. Though one of the biggest of the century so far, the international outcry the has fallen on deaf ears. The Russian regime remains safe and sound. Mission accomplished.
Amnesty International was among many commentators describing the verdict as an attack on freedom of expression. In its official statement, issued on 17 August, immediately after the ruling, Amnesty International says “the trial of the Pussy Riot defendants was politically motivated… they [three of the Pussy Riot’s members] were wrongfully prosecuted for what was a legitimate – if potentially offensive – protest action.” The statement did not even have to point to the political undertones of the whole story; according to many commentators, recourse to criminal law was completely unnecessary.
“Pussy Riot members did not violate any law to hold their action. The cathedral was open to the public, and in particular, to public prayer and therefore expression. Neither did the Pussy Riot members act violently or aggressively during their action; after 40 seconds of performance, they did not struggle when being removed from the cathedral,” writes ARTICLE 19, an organisation established in the late 1980s with offices and partners around the globe, aiming to defend freedom of expression and human rights.
“The Pussy Riot members aimed at raising a public debate on the issues concerning the present political situation of Russia and the relations between the state and the church. The court failed to recognise that churches, like public institutions, should be tolerant to criticism. ARTICLE 19 reiterates that the purpose of the Pussy Riot action was to criticise the political situation in Russia and to call for the removal of Putin from the presidency. There are no indications that they were motivated by religious hatred,” ARTICLE 19 continues, providing a list of examples of similar actions that took place around the world, prompting fining in some cases but never implementing criminal law.
The Pussy Riot case cannot be separated from the historical continuum of Russia, in which Russian courts gained a reputation for jailing and fining all Kremlin critics and other opposition leaders. The 2006 assassination of Anna Politkovskaya – journalist, writer, human rights activist and a fierce critic of the Russian authorities – fell in the middle of Putin’s second presidential term (2004-2008), at a time when his achievements began to be overshadowed by accusations from the Russian opposition and Western commentators calling Putin an authoritarian ruler and pointing to growing corruption and the development of a police state based on the mafia system. Months before Politkovskaya was found shot dead, she was given advice to leave Russia as her life was in danger. In one of her last essays titled “Am I Afraid?”, Politkovskaya wrote, “People often tell me I’m a pessimist; that I do not believe in the strength of the Russian people; that I am obsessive in my opposition to Putin and see nothing beyond that. I see everything and that is the whole problem.”
Apparently, Politkovskaya saw and understood the whole problem. She saw the beginnings of the new regime taking over Russia. She anticipated the future of the country, the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. She also saw the need for people to revolt, speak out, raise awareness, and warn against silence. “Society has shown limitless apathy,” writesPolitkovskaya in Putin’s Russia, a book she published in 2004, in which she shows how the KGB (the national security agency under the Soviet Union) respects only the strong, turning the majority of the population into “submissive cattle”. Once again, Russia gave us an example of how the authoritarian machine functions and how it is combining political autocracy and religious power, directing millions of devoted lambs of God. Russia freed itself from the Communist regime over two decades ago and while searching for a new, shiny democracy, it might be falling into yet another kind of dictatorship. While Politkovskaya’s prophesy is being realised, apathy and silence, whether forced or voluntary, remain the principal guarantee for the new regime in-the-making to remain strong.
As the wheel of so-called democratic process keeps turning, freedom of expression remains one of the core ingredients proving their success. Not only Russia but many countries keep struggling to define their understanding of freedom while defining limitations, acceptable in legal and moral terms. Flashy headlines indicating the demands of freedom of expression and violations committed against it will keep attracting the attention of readers worldwide and provoke many to action. As long as writers and artists in Russia, China, Thailand, Mali, Iran, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and many other corners of the world take clear stances against any suppression of their creation, there is always hope for progress in this regard. Egypt with its own share of worries is still discovering a new system in the making, while monitoring all attempts of oppression targetting artists and intellectuals.
As long as people do not turn into what Politkovskaya calls “submissive cattle”, depriving themselves of analytical and historical thinking, the balance between the new system and its opponents will be found.