“The members of Pussy Riot are political prisoners and, in my genuine estimation, revolutionaries, in a country that, despite its minor improvements, still falls short of achieving the status of a true democracy. In order for democracy to thrive, it must be allowed to riot from time to time.”
Editorial by C.A. Stephens for Paradigm Magazine & Original Artwork by Nikki Miles
Introduction by Adria Leeper-Sullivan
Corey Stephens is an art critic and talented writer who is eager to offer his opinions on the economy, creativity, and global relations. He contributes insightful, and entertaining editorials to Paradigm’s website regularly.un
Most Americans find it difficult to imagine that such an unalienable right as free speech is a rare commodity in many parts of the world. It is a simple fact that our notion of free expression is not always in-sync with our global counterparts. It is, perhaps, the most well-known of all the amendments. Unfortunately, some take it for granted, abuse, and at times altogether, forget it.
Rarely, does it cross our minds that others may not be breathing the same privileged air as us. As a result, we turn an apathetic eye when it is infringed upon and used as a weapon of oppression and propaganda. We neglect to acknowledge the mishandling of one of humanity’s most lofty principles. To our own detriment, we are limited in our understanding of the true implications of free speech. From our narrowed perspective, it is viewed as an inherited privilege of the American race, and not as a basic human right necessary for the evolution of ideas and social progress.
On February 21, 2012, when five Russian women from the all-female punk band Pussy Riot gathered at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow to stage a punk rock video in protest of the re-election of Vladimir Putin, few could have imagined that the poorly-shot music video entitled “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away” would become the shot heard round the world in the Russian people’s ongoing fight for equality.
Soon after the video’s release the women were arrested and charged with “hooliganism,” prosecutors accused them of attempting to “incite religious hatred” against the Orthodox Church. Despite allegations by the women’s lawyers of mistreatment by prison officials and abuse of due process of law, three of the women were handed two-year prison sentences.
The severity of the punishment drew criticism from social activists groups around the world. Pro-Pussy Riot protests erupted in Toronto, Edinburgh, and Serbia. A 62-year-old St. Petersburg native doused a church relic in ink in protest against Pussy Riot’s imprisonment. Likewise, religious segments, both in Russia and abroad, have come out in support of the church labeling the women as threats to “religious liberty”. The women remained behind bars, in what many view as a blatant disregard for their basic human rights.
Since the 2012 re-election of Vladimir Putin, there has been an increased presence of the Orthodox Church. Its patriarch, Krill, has extolled Putin as a “miracle from God” sent to rectify history’s “crooked path.” This kind of open support by the Church ignited a wave of reaction from socially conscious artists and reactionaries like Pussy Riot.
What Pussy Riot lacked in organization and production value, the group made up for in their message, mainly in opposition to restrictions against women, and the apparent and latent corruption of a Putin-powered political machine that now had the backing of the Church.
In an interview, a band member described the group as, “a kind of civic activity amidst the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties.” This “civic activity” has lead to the unjust imprisonment of these political dissidents, subjecting them to a judicial process not known for its sensitivity towards social agitators.
Despite reaction from the more liberal segments of the globe, among them the U.S., the response in Moscow has been torpid—conservative, to say the least—in a country still unaccustomed to the libertarianism and ideas of an emerging underground of free-thinkers. Disturbingly, some Russians support the punishment enacted against these feminist revolutionaries. This may be, in large part, why the punishment has been so harsh, which is unsurprising in a part of the world where citizens are reluctant to raise any kind of opposition against state and Church authorities.
Beyond the Russian’s tepid response, what are the wider implications of this punk prayer, and the clearly unjust imprisonment of these socially dissatisfied punkers?
Notwithstanding any response by liberal figures around the world, it has certainly shone a harsh light on the Russian legal system. It has also allowed for ramped up scrutiny of Putin’s Russia, forcing a reexamination of the Russian brand of democracy, including free speech, due process of law, separation of church and state, and women’s rights (just to name a few).
However, these look suspiciously like American ideas of democracy. Although we have been more or less successful in the promotion of democracy upon a large segment of the global community, are we wrong in expecting the same from a country that, for much of the last century, has run counter to our very existence?
Russia is notoriously resistant to outside intervention, especially by the U.S. In a country still struggling through its detachment with superpower status, it jumps at any chance to flex its muscles, making examples out of groups like Pussy Riot. In this case, the message is that the government is superior to the will of the individual.
In this regard, Pussy Riot is little more than a prop in an ongoing political play. Approached from this perspective, free expression and civil rights become secondary plot devices, bearing no real consequence in Putin’s political narrative.
No doubt, were the same scenario to play out on the steps of the National Cathedral in D.C., the women would have certainly stirred up a commotion, even garnering some YouTube play, but nothing of the magnitude seen in Russia. Stateside, in the worst case scenario, they would receive a citation for shooting a video without a permit, but in Russia, they are treated as dangerous insurgents bent on the destruction of the Russian state. The fact that the women are being treated this way attest to the inability of Russian officials to pull the country out of a socio-political quagmire.
The members of Pussy Riot are political prisoners and, in my genuine estimation, revolutionaries, in a country that, despite its minor improvements, still falls short of achieving the status of a true democracy. In order for democracy to thrive, it must be allowed to riot from time to time.