Pussy Riot and free speech: How Russian capitalism and religion are attacking dissent

The feminist riot grrrl punk band Pussy Riot, which I’ve been covering here at Death and Taxes since their anti-Putin performance inside Christ the Savior Cathedral, have had their detention extended two months to June 24. This for what essentially amounts to a variation on the flash mob. Is anyone surprised that the three prisoners are being detained by state and church, the twin pillars of mass oppression since time immemorial?

This past Saturday was Global Pussy Riot Action Day, which was an opportunity for supporters to raise awareness about the detention of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, who have refused to say if they are in fact members of Pussy Riot. Since Pussy Riot’s mid-March protest prayer, their situation has gradually infiltrated the mainstream media, whereas before it was mostly the concern of indie media. More press should hopefully raise awareness of the absurdity of the state and religious response.

To get a batter grasp of the situation in which the Pussy Riot members find themselves, it might be useful to examine the state of free speech in Russia.

Free speech is guaranteed by the Russian Federation’s constitution. However, we know from observation and first person accounts that free speech is what Vladimir Putin and his minions say it is. According to a 2011 Freedom House report on free speech “The government owns, wholly or in part, two of the 14 national newspapers, more than 60 percent of the more than 45,000 registered local newspapers and periodicals, all six national television networks, and two national radio networks.” And while there may not be official censorship powers, according to the International Press Institute:

Selective use of bureaucratic regulations were employed to inhibit media outlets, vague laws were passed to restrict independent activities, politically motivated criminal investigations against critics were used, independent journalists were imprisoned on trumped-up charges and their media outlets were closed, controlling interests in independent news outlets were purchased, aggressive harassment of journalists by security services took place and the failure to bring justice in the murders of journalists and in other violent attacks against the press prevailed.

In March 2012, ITI also noted that Galina Sidorova, chair of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism in Russia and vice-chair of the International Press Institute (IPI)’s Executive Board, believes that Putin “will be resorting to old tactics to crush dissent both in the streets and in public discussion.”

And a 2009 special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, provocatively titled “Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia,” stated in its opening summary:

[F]or journalists, Russia is a more dangerous place now than it was during the Cold War. Only Iraq and Algeria outrank Russia on the list of most life-threatening countries for the press. Seventeen journalists have been murdered in Russia since 2000. In only one case have the killers been punished. This is a sorry record for a great and powerful nation that embarked on democratization after more than 70 years of brutal repression

The CPJ included a number of big names in the report, such as Tom Brokaw, Walter Cronkite, Diane Sawyer and Brian Williams, amongst others.

Now, this isn’t to equate Pussy Riot’s situation to the life and death struggle of Russian journalists in the Putin era, but merely to note that Pussy Riot, street artist P183, and Voina (who are far more entertaining) operate in an environment that is not exactly supportive of free speech and expression.

But, why is this the case?

Russia, which is in far better economic shape than in the immediate post-Soviet years, exists now in a state of oligarchical, state-supported capitalism. Situated somewhere between the hyper-capitalism of the US and China, Russia bypassed those countries’ gradual economic growth. The US took over a century to achieve economic dominance; though it was, of course, aided by two world wars which decimated Britain and France’s world economic hegemony. Whereas China began morphing into its current form in the late 1970s, although Nixon’s visit probably helped give rise to the country’s economic revolution.

Russia, on the other hand, took under a decade to plant Soviet party elites and those with connections (or ruthless dispositions) in positions of financial and political power. It was as if America’s heavily unregulated capitalist decades were compressed into a Wild West economic scenario and superimposed upon Russia.

To preserve this order, it is essential that Putin, the state, and willing oligarchs exercise a certain degree of control over free speech. Nothing must upset that order. Not journalists nor pranksters such as the anarchist art collective Voina, nor any other subversive forces. The Russian Orthodox Church, once the Russian outcast, has now become a willing enabler of Putin’s totalitarian capitalism.

Religion, once suppressed by the Soviet state, is again flourishing with anywhere from 70% (100 million people) self-identifying as Russian Orthodox Christian, although the number of observant is somewhere around 5%, according to a 2010 US State Department report. There are also minority populations of Muslims, Protestants, Buddhists, Mormons and Jews. What this means it that a significant number of those 100 million Russian Ortohdox Christians’ political convictions probably aren’t swayed by the Church, but several million faithful supporters are enough to create a sizable swing voting bloc.

Consider the fact that Russian Orthodox Church’s leader, Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow, has alleged KGB links. Then consider a comment made by Kirill in February of this year calling Putin’s 12-year rule a “miracle of God.” To say that he is a friend of Putin is to put it mildly—Kirill is essentially a second propaganda arm. If one is blindly faithful to Kirill and God, then one will take the Patriarch at his word and vote accordingly. Kirill may not be a state infiltrator of the Church, but at the very least he observes the first rule of any person living under the yolk of autocracy: self-preservation.

Kirill’s praise of Putin, which angered many Russians, is the event that precipitated Pussy Riot’s protest prayer in Christ the Savior Cathedral, where they satirically called for the Virgin Mary to make Putin leave Russia. The act at once symbolically struck at Putin’s political control and Kirill’s obedient propaganda service.

Church and state have always, more or less, been friendly bedmates, so Putin and Kirill’s relationship should come as no surprise. However, their collusion in Pussy Riot’s detention is despicable. Putin & Co wasted no time in calling Pussy Riot’s trespass of “holy grounds” an illegal act, while the Church has advocated for strict punishment of Tolokonnikova, Alekhina and Samutsevich. Putin is using it as an opportunity to showcase how the state deals with dissent, while Kirill is again pledging allegiance to Putin and suggesting the Church should be beyond criticism.

One good turn (or perhaps two) deserve another, though. Just as this is an opportunity for Putin and his stooge Kirill, activists and dissidents worldwide should see this as an opportunity to fight against the oppression of church and state.