What Madonna Doesn't Get About Russia's Punk Protest

To a Westerner, the imprisonment of three women from the feminist performance group Pussy Riot might seem a clear-cut case of inspired rebellion and mean-spirited repression. For Russians, it's not so simple.

In the days since a Moscow court handed down a two-year sentence for Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, everyone from celebrities to opposition leaders has struggled to make sense of the group's staggering success. Even those fervently opposed to President Vladimir Putin's authoritarian rule are in some cases finding it hard to align themselves with Pussy Riot -- either because they genuinely disagree with the group's approach, or because they realize it could harm their careers.

It's easy for Paul McCartney, Madonna and Bjork to back the three twenty-somethings, who staged an impromptu gig at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, performing a wild dance and screaming a song calling on the Virgin Mary to chase away Putin. The Western pop stars will, at best, play a show or two in Russia and move on. Russian musicians and TV personalities, by contrast, have withheld support for Pussy Riot. They depend heavily on income from performances at private and corporate parties, a source of cash that could easily dry up if they became too vocal against Putin.

“Our popular artists' humiliating, slavish dependence on the corrupt government and criminal business is common knowledge,” music critic Artemy Troitsky wrote in a column on the website

The more far-sighted opposition leaders face a similar problem. They hope someday to win public office in a deeply conservative country. In a poll taken by the Levada Center, 44 percent of respondents said they thought the Pussy Riot trial was “fair and just” -- this despite the judge's unvarnished bias in favor of the prosecution. Some 52 percent of the population still supports Putin's policies, and it was Putin's electorate that demanded harsh punishment for Pussy Riot in the first place.

“Most people get their information from TV, so they either know nothing or buy the official version,” said Levada Center director Lev Gudkov. “This is a very aggressive society that needs clear rules of behavior and dogmatic, authoritarian enforcement of these rules.”

Opposition activist Vladimir Milov, writing on the website, warned that the Pussy Riot trial could serve to deepen the chasm between the liberal opposition and the rest of Russian society. “It is practically impossible to explain the girls' action to the mass of Russian voters in a positive light,” he wrote. “This is extremely beneficial for the authorities."

One could attribute Milov's irritation to jealousy -- after all, Paul McCartney might not know him from Putin. But anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, Russia's most popular opposition leader, has expressed some of the same concerns. In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Navalny, an Orthodox Christian, said he found Pussy Riot's action “despicable” and would be outraged if his daughter did something similar. He explained that he supports Pussy Riot only because he believes they should not have been sent to prison for mere “stupidity.”

For Navalny, the Pussy Riot case is an uncomfortable subject because, like Milov, he believes the Kremlin has used it to divert attention from the opposition's true cause -- to end what it sees as a corrupt and illegitimate regime. The Kremlin "succeeded in taking the conflict between the government and the opposition movement and obscuring it behind the confrontation between the Church and the opposition,” he said.

Some conspiracy theorists have gone so far as to suggest that the Pussy Riot case could be a Kremlin plot meant to split the anti-Putin movement. Alexei Plutser-Sarno, a member of the St. Petersburg-based protest-art group Voina, wrote in his blog that Tolokonnikova left the group after her husband, Pyotr Verzilov, was ejected for acting as a police informant. “I suspect that if Paul McCartney, Madonna and Sting had received a little note describing these circumstances, it is possible that they would have wished to ask some questions of Nadya, Katya and Masha,” wrote Milov in his article.

Even if the Kremlin was somehow behind Pussy Riot, the jury is still out on the most important point: Whether or not the provocation was successful. As journalist Oleg Kashin put it in a column for the website, if the authorities "cooked up and carried out a shrewd and insidious plot to solve their pre- and post-election problems but failed to predict a worldwide scandal with a colossal loss of face for Putin's Kremlin and God knows what else, they are not just idiots – they are dangerous idiots.”

Idiots or not, Pussy Riot has put people like Milov and Navalny in a tough spot. They have to stand up for liberal values and against the new inquisition which has put Pussy Riot in jail, but they cannot be seen as enemies of the Orthodox faith and traditional values. Otherwise they have no hope of turning people who hold these values against Putin, and that is crucial if they are ever to win power.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)


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