It’s not easy being a dictator in the media age. That is a discovery made most spectacularly by the likes of Moammar Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and Bashar Assad, all of whom found, in differing ways, that repression is hard to carry out in the glare of media publicity. So, in a lesser way, is Vladimir Putin discovering that throwing dissidents in prison isn’t as easy in today’s Russia as it was in the bad old days of the czars and Communist Party bosses that he apparently so admires.
As Seth wrote earlier, today a Russian court sentenced three young women to two years in prison for protesting Putin inside an Orthodox cathedral. The result is to make their band, Pussy Riot, easily one of the most famous musical combos on the planet in spite of their not having released a single album. The Rioters have been championed by everyone from Amnesty International to Madonna. They have, in fact, provided the most attractive face possible for the anti-Putin opposition, giving rise to gibes that the supposedly manly president is afraid of a few girls, whereas if the authorities had simply ignored their performance art nobody would know their names.
Putin has already lost this round. Let us hope that he cuts his loss and pardons the Rioters before they have to serve their odious sentence.
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.