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Pussy Riot’s Pyrrhic Victory

August 20, 2012 Topic: AutocracyCivil SocietyDemocracyIdeology Region: Russia

Pussy Riot’s Pyrrhic Victory

The Russian protest group's sentence might have been more lenient if there had not been international pressure.

After the prolonged performance called “The Trial of Pussy Riot” finally ended with the verdict that the band’s members are sentenced to two years in prison, we can finally draw some conclusions about what happened. Who won? Who lost?

First, we must say that the band members can consider themselves winners in some sense. The entire series of depraved acts in which they engaged—group sex in a Biological Museum, attempts to desecrate Elokhovskaya Church and the actual desecration of the church Christ the Savior—in the end achieved the desired effect: bringing the band popularity in Russia and abroad. Moreover, an array of celebrities, liberal politicians and public figures in the West expressed support and sympathy for Pussy Riot. So the band became famous and got what it wanted.

Second, the biggest losers in the process were, unfortunately, the law enforcement agencies, which failed to investigate the case quickly and effectively, thus preventing it from acquiring national and international prominence. The sluggishness of the courts and the office of the Public Prosecutor contributed to making these wretched, disgusting beings appear to be innocent victims in the eyes of parts of Russian and Western liberals, “trampled by a Medieval obscurantist alliance of the Russian government and the Orthodox Church,” as the story was portrayed in the media.

Beyond that, the trial exposed the weak mobilization abilities of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church and the civil society organizations aligned with it managed to stage a mass protest in defense of the Church against desecration and blasphemy, and attempted to mobilize society in support of the Church. But their actions had a one-shot character, instead of a systematic one. It became clear that even though liberals in Russia make up only a small part of society, they were better organized within civil society and in the media, and they enjoy powerful connections both in Russia and abroad. In the end, the Pussy Riot trial became a large-scale event skewed to the advantage of the defendants who had overstepped all moral and good-character boundaries. Neither the Church nor the religious-oriented civil organizations had comparable international connections despite the existence of powerful European and especially American conservative and religious activists who wield vast influence over public opinion (consider the role and influence of U.S. evangelicals in political life in the U.S.) that could have been activated to counter-balance the unbridled campaign in the liberal media in the West in support of Pussy Riot.

Fourth, the Church and religious groups did not manage to mobilize the leaders of other religions and their affiliated civil-society organizations for the purpose of publicly denouncing the vandalism and sacrilege committed by Pussy Riot.

However, one of the consequences of this trial and the noisy campaign led by the liberals in the mass media could be the mobilization and consolidation of such forces as were, until now, left undividedly under the influence of the liberal human-rights ilk. The consequences will be progressively disheartening for liberals. The trial can become a catalyst for the formation of a powerful conservative movement with its own institutions and mass media, which can further marginalize the self-proclaimed Russian liberals and sideline them in Russian cultural life.

Fifth, there was a lot of discord among different groups in Russia and the West on the question of what type of punishment should be dispensed. The liberal supporters of the group thought that the punishment should be mild, and the girls should have been allowed to reunite with their children. But in their lust for fame these women hardly gave consideration to their children. One of the band’s members recently engaged in group sex while nine months pregnant in the Biological Museum in what might be called a stunt of attention-whoring. People appealing for leniency toward this group both in Russia and in the West are overlooking the fact that the whole trial already had become politicized in Russia and elsewhere.

It’s important to bear in mind that, contrary to widespread perceptions, Pussy Riot and their close associates from their original group, Voina, were not a group of artists in any reasonable sense of the term. These women had never produced an album. They had never been hired to perform in concert or at weddings (God forfend) or any other venue that would convey to them any claim to the designation as artists. Artistry does not consist of going naked in crowded supermarkets, with children around, and parading around with frozen chickens at their vaginas. It does not consist of throwing small kittens around in diners. No, these two groups were simply shock jocks, bent on spreading their insults and venomous hatred of conventional society as their principal means of expression.

The trial was closely watched at home and internationally not only by liberals, but also by people of other political viewpoints: nationalists, fascists, and extremists of all colors. In this case, the authorities could not show themselves to be weak, and not because they wanted to bestow vengeance on those women or scare off the opposition. The issue here is far more serious, and those pleading for forgiveness for Pussy Riot have no idea what dangers lurk in such an action. If the group could desecrate a Christian temple with impunity, thereby insulting the dignity of tens of millions of believers, and get away with this, then why is it not permissible to do so in a synagogue or a mosque? The government cannot allow such permissiveness to take place, especially in a multi-cultural and a multi-confessional country, where the offending of national or religious feelings can provoke mass disorder and inflame conflicts on nationalist or religious grounds. This is why the primitive argument that the band is facing punishment as retribution for going against Putin or Patriarch Kiril is utterly groundless. The same is true for the argument that failure to punish Pussy Riot would embolden anti-government protesters even more. The problem is much more serious: if Pussy Riot is not punished, that would open the door for others to also commit what in America is called “a hate crime”; in other words, a crime based on intolerance towards Jews, Muslims, people from the Caucasus, and so on. A responsible government and responsible authorities cannot allow themselves to be blackmailed; they need to demonstrate adherence to principles and strongly punish crimes to send a clear unequivocal message to all who might consider infringing on other people’s religious feelings or places of worship.

And finally, I cannot ignore the international campaign in support of Pussy Riot that tried to pressure the court to exculpate them. It is my belief, though it is unprovable, that the sentence might have been more lenient had it not been for the international pressure. No authority and no court can succumb to such pressure, allowing people who had not even expressed regret for their actions to walk out unpunished after having committed sacrilege and desecrated the sacred sensibilities of the overwhelming majority of Russians. Surveys show the vast majority of Russians decry the actions of the punk group and demand harsh punishment. In this case, the opinions of the majority of Russians is infinitely more important to the authorities than the squeals of a few old and aging celebrities. I am confident that this verdict showcases the strength of the judiciary and the government. By bestowing this verdict, they proved that their judgments are determined by their own ideas of right and wrong and not outside pressure. In this sense, even though the girls became famous, international support probably did Pussy Riot a disservice, for without it the punishment could have been more lenient.

Finally, it’s easy to argue that Pussy Riot was merely exercising its right of self-expression. But what really is this freedom of self-expression of people who try to make foul in public places? What society simply accepts not only the assault on public sensibilities through the most horrendous actions designed to shock, but also actions designed to block traffic in busy downtown areas, disrupt citizens in the normal course of their lives and generally cause havoc in society? It’s difficult to see an outcome in any country much different from the one meted out last week in Russia.

Andranik Migranyan is the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York. He is also a professor at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow, a former member of the Public Chamber and a former member of the Russian Presidential Council.