The Pussy Riot verdict: Who’s next?

By now, the whole world knows that the Russian all-girl punk group, Pussy Riot, has been sentenced to two years in prison. (They’ve been held in a Russian jail for months, like some sort of public menace. Rapists and murderers get released more easily.)

So what’s it all mean? Well, there’s that first part: the whole world knows it. Once again, the regime of President Vladimir Putin has shown zero understanding of social media, how opposition groups organize, or how trivial things — and the dumb stunt by Pussy Riot last winter was purely trivial — can turn into an international political liability.

Sleep well, Moscow, these girls are no longer a menace

But let’s assume Putin and the rest of his entourage don’t care about the world. (I doubt Putin cares what Sir Paul McCartney thinks, and he can always console himself with the support of Bashar Assad and the other assorted rat bastards “friends” he has around the world.)

The two-year smackdown, however, has not ended the debate in Russia. Indeed, as Fred Weir wrote in today’s Christian Science Monitor:

One day after three young members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a penal colony for profaning a Russian Orthodox altar, the controversy over what they did and how the Russian state reacted to it shows every sign of growing.

Yes, it’s that beautiful. And yes, the girls were that stupid.

Still, as Weir writes, Pussy Riot is not loved by the Russian public, and that hasn’t changed much; the girls cannot count on a mass uprising after degrading one of the most beautiful and revered churches in Russia. (I’m Orthodox, I love that church, and what they did pissed me off, too.) Pussy Riot won’t be mobilizing the average Russian any more than the spoiled brats of Occupy Wall Street mobilized the average American.

Putin, however, has never had to worry much about the Russian man in the street, who has been the backbone of a lot of his support since the start of his regime a dozen years ago. Instead, the verdict has raised the hackles of the educated and managerial class — the people who actually keep Russia functioning on a daily level — and that’s bad news:

More worrisome, from the Kremlin‘s point of view, is the effect the trial has had on Russia’s more educated and influential social strata. Of course the usual suspects – opposition leaders, artists, liberal intellectuals – have popped up to protest the treatment of the women, who were kept almost six months in pretrial detention and now face more than a year in the harsh conditions of a Russian penal colony.

But unease over a prosecution that carries such obvious political and religious overtones appears to be spreading far beyond Russia’s small liberal and opposition circles.

Of course it’s spreading. Putin came to power in 1999 with an implied promise that putting Russia’s wild house in order would not mean personalizing power and squashing dissent. (I and a few other optimists were betting on that. We were wrong.) For a few years, he seemed willing to make good on that deal, reining in the regions who had negotiated sweetheart deals for autonomy with Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, and calling for needed changes (like reforming the Russian judicial system, ironically enough).

What a difference a decade makes. The same Vladimir Putin who tried to project an air of cool and calm during a string of crises — including the tough call to fill an entire theater with knockout gas to quell a hostage-taking in 2002 — is now shrugging like a browbeaten husband and disingenuously urging the Moscow court to take it easy on those poor, misguided girls.

Aleksey Navalny, hopefully not saying “do svedania”

Meanwhile, anti-Putin activist Aleksei Navalny is now being charged with embezzlement. What a coincidence. And that’s the real story: the change in the deal that Putin, at least until now, once seemed confident enough to accept. As a report in the New York Times last week noted:

For the 12 years he has served as Russia’s paramount leader, [Putin] has mainly refrained from criminal prosecutions of activist leaders, instead sidelining them with softer methods like short-term detentions and limited access to mass media. But some commentators say they expect to see more criminal cases brought against activists.

“A political decision has been made, though I don’t know for how long,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political consultant. “Maybe the people who made this decision think it is a short period of intimidation, which will be followed by a return to more velvet methods. But now there is a regime in which, given a range of choices, they are selecting the harshest.

“The system is informing us that it is changing the rules,” [Pavlovsky] said.

What Pussy Riot did was offensive, stupid, and juvenile. One would have hoped for better, however, from the Russian court that sentenced them, which could not possibly have been reached its verdict without coordination with the Kremlin. But if this is Putin’s new approach to governing, it won’t be pretty — and it won’t succeed. (Navalny is a blogger, which is no doubt what really pissed Putin off, but when will the Kremlin learn that prosecuting bloggers leads to more blogging?)

Russia wishes once again to be a great power. It could be. But this is not how great powers act. Dropping the heavy hammer of the judicial system on a bunch of dumb kids, and running up the domestic and international cost of the regime’s pride beyond all possible value, is the behavior of an insecure, third-rate dictatorship rather than a first-rank global leader.

UPDATE: A group of Orthodox priests today announced they had forgiven Pussy Riot. Maybe they’re trying to give the Kremlin, and the Moscow Patriarchate, a way out of the corner they’ve painted themselves into.

This ABC News report is exactly the kind of story that should make Putin wince. But people like the Russian president, as Mick Jagger once said of his fellow rock stars, “don’t embarrass easy.”

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15 comments

  1. The Church can’t help by asking Putin to forgive the women — by Russian law, pardon can be given only if they themselves appeal for it and recognize their guilt. This has been the standard response by Medvedev when asked to pardon Khodorkovsky, who has steadfastly refused to appeal and to recognize his quilt.
    Putin is a good tactician — see the article by Oleg Kashin in Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/17/pussy-riot-putin-message , but he has no strategic vision. Eventually this is a prescription for catastrophic developments, and, unfortunately, not only for him and his cronies, but for Russia as a whole, and maybe others.

    • Misha – I think it’s an insightful comment to note that Putin is all tactics and no strategy. He knows how to win battles, he just has no idea how to turn those wins into overall strategic gains.

  2. So far I’ve noticed that CBS has mentioned the name of the group—once, buried deep inside the story—and ABC hasn’t. Anyone watch NBC News?

    (I know this is a kind of a hijack of the thread, but it’s the only aspect of the story I can comment intelligently on.)

    • Bruce: Dana Perino on FOX couldn’t bring herself to use the name either. (I guess “Pussy Galore” is okay since 1963, but “Pussy Riot” is just too much.)

      • Interesting how we have the complete and total pornification of our popular culture, in a way only a Flynt-level pornographer could have imagined in 1963, yet you can’t say “Pussy Riot” on TV.

        When foreigners say American culture is really weird, I’m beginning to wonder if they’re on to something.

        • So true. ABC has a series with the word “bitch” in it, but you can’t say “Pussy Riot” on the news. Buh?

  3. The main reason why Pussy Riot was held in jail for months was for their own protection. There are extremists in every religion, including the Orthodox Church, and these are exactly the type of people that would hurt, if not kill, these young women for what they did. You said that murderers and rapists are easier released. Well, that maybe so, but the actions of Pussy Riot were publicized all over the world, so many more people know about it and that mean many more people would like to see Pussy Riot hurt.

    • They were virtually of no interest to those actual Russians until Putin put them in the cooler for two years. If they’re a global meme now, he and the Patriarch can congratulate each other on the worst public relations move of 2012 (non-Joe-Biden Division).

  4. I wish they were Sahkarov or Sozhenitsyn, but hey, they didn’t get the extra Polonium in their chai, so it could be worse.

  5. This is a little speculative, although something has bothered me about this as to … just a gratuitous calling of attention to something, a Pussy Riot sure to tweak hypocritically prudish Western sensibilities, garrish always an Ivan move, so garrish, if unlike Litvenenko, not garrish and ghoulish. Proposed meaning of Litvenenko as to garrish and ghoulish: “The FSB had a cancer, so it gave him radition treatment.”
    It seems to me that the name Pussy Riot is so taunting, almost a signature move, that double entendres of Ivan’s class of humor can’t just be dismissed, as to this alleged “Pussy Riot.”
    It’s a little more subtle than saying, “Did you get the point that Litvenenko was playing around with the element Ivan uses for certain devices for neutron sources, and so we gave it to him in his chai, to get people to drop that subject, or else?”
    Ivan likes to play games where you have to play the game a little hard, and when he’s in the mood, really, really hard, sometimes just to play, because he loves to test mental strength, because Ivan is just sitting around all winter, a bottle of vodka by his right side, a loaded revolver on the other, while he plays chess, or reads Pushkin or Dostoevsky, listens to some classical piece, and definitely not watching the NFL. Grim places produce grim senses of humor, if also a very interesting mentality that has its charms for sure too.
    Think about that a little bit though, a Pussy Riot, or PR riot?, People and Radical feminism as one motive?, or PR as People’s Revolution, sort of a back to the future kind of notion that was being pushed by a Chekist (who must have been a good officer really in order to be taken seriously in the service as its chief, my bet is someone who went to Berlin a lot and then snuck around to where Volodya was in the supposed backwater of Dresden, now on the board of Gazprom), and think about the history of The People’s Will, which had a large component of really …. unusually aggressive feminism, for things in Russia to manipulate in a general sense, and also Ivan’s counter then and always of provocation, agent provacatuers, which is emphasized in Adam Ulam’s The Bolsheviks. That is what he is, a human intelligence officer, a manipulator.
    And then, there is an almost signature move in arresting (or creating to arrest?) a Pussy Riot, arrest the Usual Suspects?, in order to call a truce for two years some might wonder, a Pussy Riot on ice? A People’s Revolution with heavy feminist flavor on ice?
    Is it the case then, one could wonder, after all the weird manipulations are done, almost Byzantine, big surprise, in character, so Ivan, (like “The MI6 codes are in the red North Face bag, with the MI6 officer locked in the bag naked, with the keys inside, with all the lingerie as a taunt over the mode of compromise) that did not Ivan veto with this move nyet a “Pussy Riot” for two years, possibly as an offer to global conservative oligarchs so to speak as a truce, if and only if of course, there is some “inner meaning” to a “pussy riot.’ PR as People’s Revolution, called off for two years, or at least that’s the hint?
    Or of course, a Pussy Riot could just be a Pussy Riot.

  6. “Once again, the regime of President Vladimir Putin has shown zero understanding of social media, how opposition groups organize, or how trivial things — and the dumb stunt by Pussy Riot last winter was purely trivial — can turn into an international political liability.”

    Yes, I can see why the AFPE&P needs to have a global hissy fit over PR to divert attention from the fact that Russia’s recovery from the demographic catastrophe of FreeMarketDemocraticReform is proceeding rapidly.

    http://ftalphaville.ft.com/blog/2012/04/27/978171/from-more-russians-with-longer-life-expectancy/

    You will reply “Putin had nothing to do with it. It’s just the oil price.”

    Wasn’t It just this past December when Nick Eberstadt had another one of his “Russia is demographically doomed and Putin does nothing about it” articles in Foreign Affairs?

    Yup.

    http://m.foreignaffairs.com/articles/136511/nicholas-eberstadt/the-dying-bear

    What was the oil price then?

    Obviously, the demographic turnaround that Putin initiated has to be buried in the Anglosphere media by a pile of blather about PR.

    • A hidden demographic turnaround? Like the one that Russian journalist Angelina Davydova discussed in the the Moscow Times under the title: “Brain Drain Is Reducing Russia to a Blank Space,” where she said:

      With its immense richness in natural and human capital, Russia should be doing far better. Any ­forward-­looking government should be concerned with developing a strategy for bottom-up initiatives rather than prohibiting them.

      Instead, in the Kremlin’s campaign to suppress individual initiative, it throws out the innovative baby with the bath water. When there is no demand for talented and innovative Russians in their own country, it is inevitable that they will seek better and more productive lives in other countries. As a result, Russia is turning into a blank space on the world map.

      I’ve submitted my dues payment to the AFPE&P, but they haven’t sent me my card or special decoder ring yet.

      • Tom,

        I note not a single fact in the MT article you link, just a lot of attitude.

        Consider the hypothetical case that the MT the twitter-verse, and the AFPE&P adored the Russian government, and Khodorkovsky was free and still evading billion$ in taxe$, while deaths in Russia still exceeded births by a million a year.

        Which would be better for Russians?