Commentary Magazine


Putin vs. the Punk Rockers

In February, three members of a female Russian performance art/punk rock/feminist activist group took off some of their clothing, ran into a Moscow Russian Orthodox Church, and jumped around while yelling a protest song. They were arrested, and immediately became an international sensation. Today, the three—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich—were sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism” and offending the Orthodox observers. The group’s intent was to be provocative—they call themselves Pussy Riot, no doubt leading to thousands of embarrassing Google searches for those who don’t follow Russian politics but wanted to know why Garry Kasparov was beaten and arrested by the Russian police today.

An offensive prank of this kind may be illegal, but it’s hard to make the case the girls deserve years behind bars. Not surprisingly, the trial was rigged in classic Vladimir Putin style, even though journalists were there to witness the case and write about it. It’s become increasingly unclear exactly what point the Putin regime thinks it’s making by staging this sham trial and imprisoning these popular and precocious young women. Putin certainly felt the need to defend the Church, which has supported him over the past year politically (though not as much as Putin would have liked, having criticized Putin’s handling of the recent political protests) and with regard to Russia’s Syria policy of nonintervention, since the Church rightly worries that the West has no plan to protect Syria’s Christians, just as the Arab Spring in Egypt gave way to the open persecution of that country’s Coptic Christians.

Nonetheless, Putin’s typically heavyhanded reaction has made him look ridiculous. Not to be outdone, the band’s supporters have joined the circus. The band’s self-conscious effort to attempt to take up the mantle of rock music’s long tradition of protest and speaking truth to power has worked. Madonna staged a concert in Moscow dressed like the band members; famous actors have staged dramatic readings in Manhattan of the band’s closing statements to the court; Bjork sent a message of support to the girls at their trial; and Alicia Silverstone penned an open letter to Putin, appealing to his compassionate side, to let the girls eat vegan meals if they so choose—because only a monster would feed his political prisoners meat.

The trendy culture magazine “n+1” published the band’s closing statements on its website. The statements are as insufferable as you might imagine them to be, as the girls explicitly compare themselves to Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky, and Socrates, who also didn’t have vegan meals provided for them, I suppose. But that insufferability is no crime.

This year has been something of a turning point in world opinion about the thug Putin, who seems to have lost many of his traditional defenders in the media. Russian public opinion is notoriously more difficult to gauge, but perhaps it’s no surprise that Vedomosti reported this morning:

According to Russia’s last nation wide poll conducted by the “Levada Center”, ratings of trust and approval of President Putin have fallen drastically since his return to the Kremlin. 48% of Russians have a favorable opinion of Putin, while 25% are hostile to his presidency. Back in May, the ratio was 60% to 21%; while during the first two terms Putin had an average of 65% to 15% (by the end of 2008 he even had 80% to 10%).

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich may not be Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky, and Socrates, but it’s heartening to see that the Russian protest spirit, which played an integral role in saving the world from Communism, is still keeping its repressive autocrats up at night.