UPDATE: Welcome Legal Insurrection readers! many thanks to Professor Jacobson for linking.
In my previous post about Pussy Riot I wondered what was the point of being a Riot Grrrl in Russia. Since then three of the women, Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were sentenced to two-year prison terms for their performance of a “punk prayer” at the church of Christ the Savior during which they asked the Virgin Mary to rid the country of Putin and accused the Patriarch of Moscow of selling out. They were charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility. Hooliganism I can see, but religious hatred? And by the way, similar activities in London earn one an 18 pound fine, which, admittedly, is a bit low, but at least the case wasn’t dismissed.
Russia was never a wholly Christian country. Although it was officially converted by Prince Vladimir of Kiev in the end of the 10th century, the population of its vast stretches retained pagan traditions and believes. The last Russian Tzar employed a shaman to help his sickly son. The Soviet regime with its veneration of leaders, the official party line illustrated on every wall and, of course, the destruction of churches had many signs of idolatry. The post-Soviet revival of Orthodox Christianity is largely superficial. According to nationmaster.com Russia is at the bottom of church attendance with only 2% of population surveyed claiming to attend church at least once a week (the survey puts the world average at 26.2%). I suspect the attendance among the minority non-Orthodox denominations is much higher. Pussy Riot’s performance at the altar was about as much an affront to the spirituality of an average Russian as Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut was an affront to womanly dignity of an average American feminist.
That’s not to say that the Pussy Riot verdict is unpopular. I keep reading that Russians are up in arms about it, and some certainly are, but I get an impression that the authors who file the stories talk to their [classic] liberal friends who, like me, feel that the punishment is disproportionate. On the other hand, a poll conducted a few days before the verdict showed that 44% of Russians found the judicial process “objective and unbiased” and 17% believed the outcome was handed down by the upper echelons of the government. Just 6% said they feel sorry for the women. I don’t know how reliable this kind of polling is in Russia, but if it is correct, then any expectation that the martyred women will stir up pro-freedom sentiment among Russians is bunk.
From what I can tell looking at Russian media, the polling is probably on the mark. Pravda.ru embedded an editorial, for instance, lauding the sentence and assuring its readers that the young women are a part of some sort of a conspiracy, which is totally obvious because an incarcerated Jew expressed his sympathy, and surely somebody is behind the music collective. That a free-thinking citizen might want to protest her government doesn’t occur to Pravda.ru editorialist who, while finding conspiracies right and left, doesn’t seem to think that Putin would interfered with the judicial process. Of course you might say that one does not expect any other reaction from Pravda. But it’s rather typical; and here is another one, accusing “liberals” of trading the country for Pussy Riot. This kind of writing gets the overwhelming support of readers.
Ordinary Russians view the Orthodox church as an extension of state power, which it is — the Patriarch of the church is a Kremlin puppet. The disproportional punishment is a confirmation of state power, and people respect it, including those in the opposition. Not the [classic] liberal opposition, but the more numerous nationalist kind who dream of a dictator more “hardboiled” than Putin supported by the state church. To them Russian Orthodoxy is a component of national identity. (Not that there is something necessarily wrong with it; I suspect to the members of Pussy Riot who profess to belong to the Church, it is also an ethnic identity issue.)
The history of Russian Orthodoxy is rich with Holy Fools such, the Yurodivy, who behaved in a deliberately unconventional and provocative manner to draw attention to hypocrisy and abuses of power. A number of them became saints.
Pussy Riot, as far as I know, didn’t draw a connection between themselves and yurodivy. Instead, they spoke about punk rock which, though not the riot grrrls kind (again, as far as I know), has a long history in Russia. Perhaps there is a reason why it fits Russia so well.
When Russians see the likes of Madonna posturing on behalf of Pussy Riot, they only get inflamed. They know weakness when they see it. They know she doesn’t matter and that she doesn’t care much about the fate of the three women. And we all know that celebrities suck up to Putin when convenient.
The international expression of popular support has been underwhelming. Dozens of people showed up in front of Russian embassies in a handful of Western cities. Mark Judge noted that seminal Punk zine Maximum Rock-n-Roll is disinterested. And curiously the pro-Pussy Riot protesters in Washington were most definitely not punks. Truth is, punks don’t care. You’d think they’d be up in arms if three of their own get so unfairly prosecuted by a tyrant — for doing what punks do, but the show of force simply wasn’t there. Compare the pitiful attendance of the pro-Pussy Riot demonstration to the multi-month #Occupy camp outs. Could it be that the discontents of the Russian women are much more real than the little issues of the Western punks, and that makes the kids here uncomfortable?
And what good are the Western feminists who may pay some sort of lip service to Pussy Riot, rarely, but at the end will turn out to vote for the man who promised Putin to be more flexible in his second term. Because, as we all know, Obama will, like, have free Women’s Studies classes for all.
When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, rock-n-roll was the forbidden fruit. It stood for freedom, and people who listened to it were into liberties of all kinds, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, free markets. But in the West “youth” subcultures proliferated with the growth of welfare state because government dependency allowed the masses to lead bohemian lifestyles. Punks might talk of freedom of expression, but nobody cares much about the brave women in Russia who dared to speak truth to power. When they leave their prison cells a year and a half from now, they should look for better friends in the West.