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The Path to Tyranny: Putin's Russia Is Becoming a Flawless Dictatorship

By , Walter Mayr and

Part 3: Punk Rock Protests

Photo Gallery: Pussy Riot on Trial Photos
DPA

The Pussy Riot affair will reach its climax on Friday when the verdict in the trial is delivered. Last winter, Russia still appeared to be on its way to becoming the next stop in the global movement for more democracy, following Tunisia, Egypt and Occupy Wall Street. Some 60,000 demonstrated against Putin in Moscow, and Pussy Riot, a group of naïve, wild young women, became famous when they gave an illegal concert on Red Square in January.

"The mangy dogs behind the red walls are pissing in their pants," they shouted across the Kremlin walls, only months after their establishment as an art collective. The group only agreed to clandestine interviews, at which its members -- five at the time -- wore yellow, red and green masks and the same summer dresses they had worn in frigid temperatures on Red Square. They talked about how furious they were with society and Putin, with his macho demeanor.

At the time, Pussy Riot used the symbols of sexism, which they turned around for their own purposes. They looked like dolls, ones that could speak and sing, more or less well. They portrayed themselves as delicate, cute, toy-like creatures with attractive breasts emphasized by their outfits, bare shoulders and bare legs. Look, you sad Russian women, the outfits seemed to say, do you really want to be as stupid as you look?

They were calm and determined at the time. And yet they were only one piece in a larger puzzle of spontaneous, anarchic change that had emerged in parts of Russian society.

But the artists and people who agitated on the Internet and demonstrated in the streets were not the only ones pursuing open resistance against Putin. There were also doctors, computer scientists and lawyers -- and even the wealthy, who wanted legal certainty for their assets. Even some who could afford to buy €40 bottles of wine and luxury cars drove through the city with a white bow on their side mirrors, a symbol of protest against Putin.

Ecstatic Mood

The Pussy Riot phenomenon would also be hard to explain without the almost ecstatic mood of the time, which extended from September 2011 to the presidential election in March 2012. The three members of the group now on trial, Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova -- known to their friends as Masha, Katya and Nadia -- were young women with ordinary Russian names and backgrounds that had little to do with hooliganism. They came from good families and now, suddenly, their lives had taken a sharp turn in a different direction.

Maria Alyokhina wasn't even 24 when the group staged its performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. She had a five-year-old son and was living with her mother in Moscow. She did volunteer work with Greenpeace to protect Lake Baikal and with Danilovzy, a charitable organization, where she worked with mentally ill children in Moscow. As a student, she acquired the knowledge that would later enable her to counter the judge's derision of Pussy Riot's "so-called contemporary art" with the remark that the future Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky was mocked for his "so-called poetry" during the Soviet era, something that this "so-called court" probably didn't wish to be reminded of.

Yekaterina Samutsevich, the oldest of the three women, was living with her father at the time of their arrest. After obtaining a degree in computer science, she worked as a programmer for a Moscow defense contractor, where she was involved in the development of the "K-152 Nerpa" nuclear submarine. After leaving the company, she worked freelance for a while, before deciding to study photography. She met Tolokonnikova during this period.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a 22-year-old philosophy student with a four-year-old daughter, was the youngest of the Pussy Riot trio, and yet she was the most experienced when it came to performance art. Born in the Siberian mining city of Norilsk, Tolokonnikova was in Moscow with her husband Pyotr Verzilov when the street-art group Voina ("War") was established. The collective has since become internationally famous as a result of their provocative actions.

A Divided Russia

Though nine months pregnant, she and Pyotr took part in a 2008 public sex performance on live camera at the Moscow biology museum which Voina had called for. The performance was supposed to be about producing an heir for Medvedev, who the artists dubbed "little bear" because his name derives from the Russia word for bear.

The Voina performance artists, named co-curators at this year's Berlin Biennale, are now deeply divided. The group's leader, Oleg Vorotnikov, against whom an international arrest warrant was issued in the summer of 2011, levels serious accusations against Verzilov. Vorotnikov claims that Verzilov was expelled from Voina and that he was a police informer. Verzilov denies the accusations.

In any case, it is hard to deny that Russians are divided over whether the performance of the masked punk rockers in the cathedral should be punished as an act of civil disobedience or a criminal offence. The old, orthodox Russia and the young, fearless Russia are irreconcilably at odds. Sometimes the fault lines run straight through families. For instance, the father of Pussy Riot activist Yekaterina Samutsevich has told the authorities that he does not share his daughter's views.

While almost half of Russians initially supported convicting the punks, only a third feel that way today. At the same time, Russians do not like being lectured by the West on the question of where to draw the line between free speech and blasphemy.

The venomous tweet Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin sent to Madonna after she had expressed her solidarity with Pussy Riot reflected this displeasure. "With age, every former s. tries to lecture everyone on morality," he wrote in Russian, using the first letter of the Russian word for "slut."

Making Revolution Sexy

But isn't it the case that the masked punk rockers, with their performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, actually put their finger on a sore point in the hypocritical restoration of pre-Soviet values under Putin? Are they getting attention because, or in spite of, the fact that they are women?

Women make up only 13 percent of all members of the lower house of Russian parliament, the Duma. They hold only one out of 83 governorships and 6 of 165 seats in the Federation Council, the upper house of the parliament. On the other hand, they are at the forefront in demonstrations, non-governmental organizations and at all levels of civil disobedience.

Perhaps the fact that the Pussy Riot affair has become such a big problem for Putin has more to do with the gender of the defendants than the significance of the case. If the women had been released early, the world would probably never have heard about them. Instead, the media was unintentionally invited to witness a perfect dramatic performance: three weak women versus one strong man. The seemingly uneven battle makes the trial all the more alluring and mysterious.

Revolution can be sexy, and doe-eyed female wannabe revolutionaries, especially when they quote Solzhenitsyn and Simone de Beauvoir from inside a glass cage, make for more appealing headlines than the tirades of a grey-bearded dissident, no matter how great the suffering he experienced. And it is undeniable that their story is also more accessible than the tragic fate of murdered female champions of human rights, like the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and activist Natalya Estemirova.

The three women of Pussy Riot have understood the rules of the game, and they have used them brilliantly. They will be, probably for the last time, a focus of global attention once again on Friday. But only after that, when the verdict has been pronounced and the pathos of their final words has died down, will the lasting effects of their protest become clear.

It remains to be seen to what extent the reputation of the despot in the Kremlin has also been harmed.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. Putin's farm.
yiannaki 08/13/2012
Putin's farm: All democraties are democratic, but some are getting more democratic than others.
2. Concerning “…performance in the Cathedral of Christ"
AliceSofia 08/14/2012
Concerning “…performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior”… and further concerning words used as “lyrics”: Whatever the cause is, the protesters have no right on blasphemies against God, “performance” in His temple, and personal insults to His servant – the patriarch. Another profanity is this “punk” woman’s identification of herself with St. Stephan the first Christian martyr. Her tactic is dirty propaganda in classical Marxist style, although she apparently for freedom of “democracy.” I hope, she will have the punishment from the judgment of Russian people for blasphemy and insults in God’s temple, but the worst punishment is that what she is herself and what she has done to avert the people from the cause she apparently tried to make. I do not think that any person with sound judgment would see such form of protest as anything but hooliganism and attempt to gain cheep popularity by any means. Alice-Sofia
3. No Sweat
jws1 08/14/2012
It is not worth to comment this article in details. It is propaganda at its best. But the content is just bullshit. No wonder, that you lose more and more readers. But people recognize now. Russia Today is one of the most seen news channels in the world.
4.
baoluo 08/23/2012
Zitat von jws1It is not worth to comment this article in details. It is propaganda at its best. But the content is just bullshit. No wonder, that you lose more and more readers. But people recognize now. Russia Today is one of the most seen news channels in the world.
Oh, you're just being a nationalist fool in your reply. If you were intelligent and reflective, you would see the stench coming from your Russian presidency. Putin is a dictator. Admit it and you will be free in yourself.
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