No irony in this image. None at all.
OK, all of us who covered yesterday’s verdict were writing fast, and maybe also caught up in the moment, but many of the cliches, exaggerations and outright myths about this case are truly irritating me. Let’s just pick up on a few of the more egregious ones surfacing in the media and online comment:
“It’s like Stalinism.” As Mark Adomanis has eloquently pointed out, no it’s not, and to say it’s anything like it is dramatically to underplay just how ghastly Stalinism was.When the Pussy Riot trio, battered, bruised and brutalized, stand in the dock and haltingly read out a ‘confession’ that they were put up to it by Mike McFaul, Boris Berezovsky and an international Jewish conspiracy, if they and millions like them are sent to dig canals with their bare hands for 25 years or get a bullet in the head at the Butovo firing range, then you can call it Stalinism.
“It’s like Nazis performing in the synagogue.” No, it’s not. Pussy Riot were protesting against Putin, not calling for the extermination of Russian Orthodox believers. They may have been politically inflammatory and musically raucous, but their message is actually a distinctly humane one. Whether or not you think it legitimate protest (not least as the Russian Church is slavishly – pun intended – supportive of Putin), a childish stunt or an act of blasphemy, don’t make it more than it is.
“It was just a publicity stunt to sell records.” I doubt it. Sure, they garnered a great deal of attention, but to a large extent that was because not of their act but the trial – had the state and Church dismissed them as irrelevant and childish, or slapped on a fine or some community service, they would have been a 5-minute wonder. They could hardly have predicted what happened. Besides, if they did, if they were willing to spend a couple of years in Russia’s violent, under controlled, TB-ridden prison system just to sell records, then that’s a level of dedication we should surely applaud…
“It was whipped up by the Western media.” No, it wasn’t. Frankly, I am sure the Western media wishes it had this power, but you can ‘blame’ the clumsy handling of the case by the Russian state, the power of social media and the presence of a genuine, vocal minority who don’t like the current regime. For some reason The Guardian often seems to be regarded as the eminence grise here. I love the Grauniad dearly, but I somehow don’t see it as some combination of Bilderberg and SPECTRE. I suppose its power would explain why the UK has a liberal, leftist government, a thriving and bounteously-funded National Health Service, and Rupert Murdoch behind bars. Oh, wait, it doesn’t…
“It’s the end of Putinism.” I doubt it. Maybe we’ll look back and see it as part of the end of Putinism, to be sure, but losing Paul McCartney’s vote is something I suspect Putin can live with. If anything, I would see the trial as a symptom of the Kremlin’s increasing inability to control the national political debate and the rise of a new generation of protesters and radicals, as well as a handy rallying point, but in six months’ time I doubt we’ll be regarding it as some momentous turning point.
“They are philosopher queens/the new voice of a generation/the Vysotskys of the Putin era/etc…” Eh. The trio are clearly intelligent, committed, composed and thoughtful (more so than their music). But we can appreciate their words and poise and deprecate the trial without needing to elevate them to such a mythic status. Again, had the state not decided to make an example of them, would we really be investing them with such sanctity?
“It’s all about the Church.” Not really. Sure, the ROC has an unusual role in Russia, but it has never been truly independent of the state (well, maybe for a little while in 1917 and the very early stages of the Bolshevik era). In the tsarist era, it was firmly behind the tsar of the ‘third Rome’ while under Soviet times, the ecclesiastical hierarchy became a branch of the KGB in flowing robes. Nonetheless, it cannot demand a trial from the state, that’s not how modern Russian politics works – not even Sechin can demand anything (just ask Kudrin). Instead, it has a voice in the upper elite and it can make its case, gather supporters and hope to convince Putin the ‘decider’. In this context, Pussy Riot went on trial because the Kremlin wanted them there. They may have wanted to placate the ROC, but this should be seen as a piece of the government’s wider campaign against the opposition.
“The same would have happened in the West.” No, it wouldn’t. The “whatabouters” who tend to plug this line tend to point to cases of people trying to distribute anti-Semitic tracts or the like, in countries where that it explicitly illegal. (If you want an example of this kind of offensive nonsense, see here.) Let’s take UK law as an example. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that at most they could be charged under section 5, Part I of the Public Order Act 1986, which would be punishable by no more than a fine…
There is much excellent reportage about the case, and it is an important case that does have a real significance for Russia today. But there is also far too much hyperbole, spleen (on both sides of the debate) and wishful thinking. It will be interesting to see how the case is viewed in six or twelve months from now.