Yesterday, some odd news came to light when Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev announced public sympathy for the imprisoned Pussy Riot girls. According to the New York Times, my favorite newspaper ever:
Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev said Wednesday that he believed that three female punk rockers jailed for a profane stunt in Moscow’s main Russian Orthodox cathedral should be released rather than serve out their two-year sentences, weighing in on a case that has drawn widespread condemnation in the West.
Sounds good. Those of us who consider ourselves free speech absolutists have reason to celebrate, right?
Wait! Not so fast.
A common theme in news stories and blog posts is that the Pussy Riot girls are brave iconoclasts, spitting in the face of an oppressive culture and government.
But as Daniel Kalder pointed out last spring, there’s more to consider here.
For one thing, the church — i.e. the place that Pussy Riot infiltrated — occupies a much more important place in the minds of Russia’s downtrodden than we American observers might understand. Wrote DK (emphasis mine):
Pussy Riot managed to offend both the powerful and hundreds of thousands of others who are weak, marginalized and powerless. I was present in Russia during the great die-off of the 90s and early 2000s, when millions were chased to the grave by poverty, despair and squalor. An entire generation was written off as collateral damage by both the Russian elite and the well-fed Western consultants who parachuted in to dispense advice and bang whores in luxury hotels. Having grown up in an open air prison, many old people were essentially expected to hurry up and die. The church was one of their few consolations, and so it remains for those who are not yet dead. And indeed, in Pussy Riot’s Youtube clip you can see several old ladies who look horrified. Nor is sympathy for the church restricted to the old- among young adults in Russia, only 5.9% say they have never believed.
In that light, Pussy Riot’s act seems like little more than juvenile provocation. And cruel provocation at that.
But again, this is a strange story — it’s messy and can’t be neatly characterized. So maybe the words of a Ukrainian loved one can shed some light. From an email conversation yesterday:
pussy … did you see what they did before? they fuck in museum, they was warned a lot of times already, i think they deserved what they got,,, and they got what they wanted- got famos 🙂
So the message is clear — if you engage the crimson fists of Mother Russia, expect to have your face pummeled. Or as Vlad Putin once said when quarreling with some non-compliant protesters:
You must receive permission from local authorities. If you received it, go and demonstrate. If not, you don’t have the right. If you come out without the right, you will be beaten on your skull with a truncheon. And that’s that.
Russians remain my favorite people on Earth.