Pussy power lets rip in the aisles

Independent on Sunday, 19 August 2012

It is a common error of repressive regimes to mistake power for omnipotence. No one doubts they can arrest their opponents, isolate them from friends and families, deny them fair trials and put them in prison. What’s much harder to do, in the modern world, is bury critical ideas under a suffocating blanket of censorship. Even if the regime gets the result it wants, its leaders risk appearing petty and vindictive, if not actually stupid. So I don’t think the Russian government has much to celebrate in the wake of the trial of three members of the punk band, Pussy Riot.

On Friday, a judge in Moscow sentenced Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich to two years each in prison. They were arrested five months ago after performing a ‘punk prayer’ in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, where they pleaded with the Virgin Mary to drive out Vladimir Putin. At the time, few people had heard of Pussy Riot, but they’ve become an international symbol of the rigidity and intolerance of the Russian state. Half a million people have viewed a shaky video of the women’s protest in the cathedral, spreading their message to an audience way beyond the Russian Federation. Their slender figures in colourful balaclavas represent a kind of modernity that the regime simply does not know how to counter.

Maria, Nadezhda and Yekaterina are smart, outspoken and feminist. What could be more scary for President Putin, a politician whose masculinity is so fragile that it evidently needs to be re-staged in a comical series of public performances? Listening to actors read the women’s closing speeches at the Royal Court Theatre in London on Friday, I was impressed by their cool appraisal of the prosecution’s attempts to distort their arguments. I don’t think it’s an accident that some of Putin’s most significant critics have turned out to be feminists, and I couldn’t help thinking about another woman who challenged him: the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated on Putin’s birthday in 2006.

The charge on which the Pussy Riot band members were convicted, hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, sounds like a clumsy modern version of an offence dreamed up by a Soviet-era bureaucrat. It’s a delicious irony that the head of the Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill, is a Putin supporter who recently presented the President with an icon of Our Lady of Tenderness. In her summing-up, the judge accused the women of showing disrespect to the clergy, people in the church, people
who share Orthodox traditions, Uncle Tom Cobley and all – sorry, I made the last bit up. But Yekaterina had already turned the accusation back on Putin, asking why he felt it necessary to ‘exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetic’.

The answer, I suspect, is that the regime doesn’t feel as solid as it tries to pretend. ‘Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost’, Yekaterina observed in her closing speech. So why did the regime go to such lengths – ineffective
lengths, as it turns out – to silence them? Because they’ve won a bigger battle, as Yekaterina also pointed out. She’s right: now everyone knows the regime is terrified of pussy power.

 

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