As I was watching the BBC this morning, it struck me that probably not since Mrs. Slocombe had there been so much use of the word “pussy” on British television. Members of the Russian punk band “Pussy Riot”, which most Americans will be forgiven for never having heard of, were today convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism”. Their story has largely been ignored on this side of the Atlantic, as we head into a tightly contested and very close Presidential election, but the case is fascinating not only for the student of Russian history, but also as we consider the polarization taking place in our own Western society.
The Pussy Riot case stems from the arrest of three of the band’s members back in March of this year, after they performed a blasphemous punk rock tune, critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. This performance did not take place in a concert hall, in a park, or on a street corner. Rather, Pussy Riot performed their tune before the main altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
From a legal perspective, it is interesting to note several aspects of these women’s actions. For one thing, this was not a spontaneous protest: the band informed members of the press, who were there to film and photograph the event. In addition, apparently the band did research to determine what time services would be held and when the building would be open, so that they could have free and open access to the altar area for the filming of their exploits – at least until the police were called, of course.
The band did not seek a license or permission from either the authorities or from the Cathedral to perform their piece, which permission would almost certainly have been refused in any case. They were also repeatedly asked to stop what they were doing and to leave, by custodians who worked at the Cathedral, but these workers were ignored and, in at least one case, physically pushed out of the way. In other words, putting aside for a moment the content of Pussy Riot’s “speech”, the band intentionally planned and carried out what in this country would be considered at the very least a trespass.
Turning to the speech side of the matter, the frustration felt by many Russians with their present government, as expressed by Pussy Riot, is not only understandable, but certainly felt by this country, in its diplomatic relations with Russia. Mr. Putin is, of course, Russia’s once and current strongman, and there have been many of these throughout Russian history. Not unlike the Spanish, of whom it is colloquially said “the Spaniard only understands the cudgel” (more on them later), the Russians have an unfortunate history of falling to pieces and becoming ungovernable, without an autocrat at the head of the table. Putin 2.0 – now with 20% more Botox – still intimidates many people, and squashes dissent within Russia just as well as his predecessors Peter the Great or Josef Stalin did. Yet as anyone who has studied the history of Russia knows, nascent attempts at actual Russian democracy usually flare up only for a period of time, and then are stamped out by these types of men.
So what are we to make of the events surrounding this case? Pussy Riot have been described as artists being persecuted for expressing themselves, and that all they did was perform a “punk rock prayer” to Our Lady, asking for deliverance from Vladimir Putin. I am certainly no fan of Mr. Putin, let alone of his anti-American propaganda machine known as “Russia Today”, which has been at great pains to criticize Pussy Riot over the preceding weeks. The women should simply have been arrested for trespassing or disturbing the peace, fined, and then set free, rather than jailed and prosecuted so publicly. However we are talking about questions of degree, here, on both sides of this case.
For while there is no question that there is a political motivation behind such an extreme and uncalled-for level of prosecution of these women, the women themselves are simply foul. You can make up your own mind on that point, of course, though if you choose to read the lyrics of the song which they performed, which I will not reproduce here, they are not as innocent as more vacant minds – such as those of Paul McCartney or Madonna – are so easily lead to believe. In fact, one of the convicted members was previously a member of an “artistic” cooperative whose “art” is so irredeemably vile and stomach-turning, that I cannot even bring myself to write about it here. In fact, I almost wish I had not done my research on it before writing this piece.
That being said, we cannot know whether the Pussy Riot trial is the tip of the iceberg in a string of deliberate political prosecutions aimed at quashing dissent carried out by the present Russian government, as many understandably suspect that it is. Or perhaps this was simply an overly harsh punishment of some rather childish provocateurs, who went too far. Yet a detail I noticed during the coverage of the verdict this morning has stuck with me, as I think about what happens next both in Russia and in our own society in the West.
In the broadcast from court this morning, one of the members of Pussy Riot was shown wearing a t-shirt with a logo of a raised fist and arm, bearing the words, “¡No pasarán!” (“They shall not pass!”) For those unfamiliar with it, this was one of the leftist mottoes of the Spanish Civil War, a conflict in which quite literally half of the population of Spain died. Horrific atrocities were committed by both the left and the right during the war, and Spain has never fully recovered from it.
It concerns me that a combination of historical ignorance about what our grandparents and great-grandparents witnessed in the first half of the 20th century, and the pop-glamorization of violent words, images, and actions as somehow being “cool”, is leading us down a path such as that Spain took in the 1930’s. In this country for example, the clever put-down of one’s political opponent a la Benjamin Franklin or JFK has been abandoned, in favor of a type of bloodthirsty screaming, going beyond a sense of fun into language so perverse and repulsive, that it leads supporters to make and occasionally carry out threats of actual, physical violence. Oftentimes, these actions are coordinated in advance, through the use of electronic means, which allow people of ill-will to find and encourage one another to physically harm someone else.
Fortunately, we are not Russia, and thus not dragged down by a millstone of totalitarian history around our neck. Yet if we are not careful, we may not be able to escape such consequences ourselves, for very long. We do not have to alter our political views to try and please someone else. However perhaps we can refrain from the type of actions that bring our causes and positions no credit, and in fact bring them into disrepute, in the eyes of our fellow citizens.
Members of Pussy Riot in Moscow Cathedral