The key ingredient of democracy is the freedom of expression and of speech though a degree of restraint is of value to avoid the heavy hand of authority freely expressing itself. Humanity's struggle for freedom has peppered the history of all nations, some had to face violence to achieve their freedom, others with far less sacrifice. Yet Russia in its long history has never known true freedom, and the fall of the Soviet Union did nothing more than provide democracy with a threatening noose around its neck.
Czarist Russia kept the masses uneducated and obedient whilst the chosen few enjoyed immense wealth and power. Russia's Orthodox Church did not object to being a willing partner ensuring that the populace remained obedient and superstitious. In the end anger brought about a demand for equality and the Russian people through uncontrollable violent struggle exchanged Czarist oppression for Soviet suppression. Regardless of who was the supreme leader whether it was Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushehev or Brezhnev the Orthodox Church suffered persecution and was forced to recognize the Soviet regime as the ultimate power over the church.
Russia and its people survived the Revolution, Civil War and the Second World War and little fight was left in them as they became human fodder for the Soviet power machine. The promise of equality never was realized under the iron hand of a new era of government. Under Mikhail Gorbachev and Glasnost the Soviet Union found a softer face and new political and social freedoms. This brought about an eventual end of the Soviet rule with promises of a new Russia, democratic and free. This fantasy did not last long.
Under Vladimir Putin Russia faces no less of an iron fist, only this time the disguise is democracy not communism for a face. Putin has to deal with public protests and open opposition something the old Soviet leaders destroyed. He must find a way to discourage such open opposition and still remain acceptable by world leaders, hence once again the use of the puppet – the Russian Orthodox Church. Pussy Riot played a bluff with the Putin power machine and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was only a stage. Was it always the intention of these political activists to fail and face the corrupt judiciary? A legitimate question that has not been answered, though the statement by Pussy Riot band member Yekaterina Samutsevich appears to point to the affirmative.
Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova only lasted less than a minute in the Cathedral before being led out by security. Their arrest came days after the event and only after a cry of blasphemy had been engineered across the country. The judge at the trial called their act as being offensive to Orthodox believers and the church. Nothing of the anti-government stance by Pussy Riot was publicly recognized by the judge only the fact that they had offended the church. In a fashion the apparent guilt of the Russian people of surrendering their faith during the Soviet years has now been manipulated in this public condemnation of these three young women. Black scarfed old women clamoring at the prison gates demanding severe punishment against these unbelievers is not so much of a satirical vision.
Putin has been successful and the voice of democracy seems to have been intimidated, but has it. Today Russia is in a new era and the modern world has brought with it new weapons to the struggle. Eduction, travel and the internet have provided a broader base for the anti-government movement. At its head Alexey Navalny who has shown no fear of Putin and has seen the wrath of a power hungry individual willing to manipulate everything to stay in position. Navalny has bought attention to corruption in the main Russian political party, United Russia, calling its members “crooks and thieves.” Alexei shared a prison with other activists for 15 days for “defying a government official,” after a protest in December 2011. Then again in May 2012, Navalny was sentenced to another 15 days jail after another anti-Putin rally. Alexei Venediktov has said that “jailing Navalny transforms him from an online leader into an offline one.”
Russian political tactics have been the same for centuries. Fear and intimidation used as weapons against any protests. Today Russia faces world scrutiny which it cannot afford to have swing against it and the anti-Putin protesters are more courageous due to that fact. If Alexei Navalny who organized protesters in the thousands against Putin was jailed twice for 15 days, how is it that the three young women of Pussy Riot found such a harsh sentence?
There is no doubt that the actions of Pussy Riot were offensive. One may question their decision to perform a protest at a place of extreme reverence such as the Cathedral, still the resulting punishment seems outrageous. Like the jailing of Alexei Navalny, the sentencing of Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova will only make them public martyrs to the anti-Putin cause. Public outcry has come from around the world in defence of Pussy Riot members, and the three women now are world-famous for their 'courage'. Still those outside Russia raising their voices against the heavy hand seen in the Russian courts have some serious issues of credibility. In an article titled, 'The west's hypocrisy over Pussy Riot is breathtaking' for the guardian.co.uk, Simon Jenkin states “Anyone in England and Wales with a dog out of control can now be jailed for six months. If the dog causes injury, the maximum term is to be two years.” He spoke of a London court jailing a young man Charlie Gilmour to 18 months “after he swung on a union flag from the Cenotaph and tossed a bin at a police car.” Simon Jenkins does not defend these individuals nor the British courts.
In America human rights activists and Madonna condemned the Pussy Riot jail terms as disproportionate. Simon Jenkins reports “a US military court declared that reporting the Guantanamo Bay trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would be censored. Any mention of his torture in prison was banned as “reasonably expected to damage national security.” This has no apparent connection to proportionate punishment or freedom of speech.” (Simon Jenkins, guardian.co.uk, August 21st 2012)
True the actions of Pussy Riot would hardly seem to justify such a sentence. Reading the closing statement of Yekaterina Samutsevich it becomes clear that the motivation behind their actions had nothing to do with anti-Orthodox sentiment, the women of Pussy Riot were there to make a loud anti-Putin protest. Understanding Russia's history and the attitudes of the Russian people then it is not hard to understand the final outcome. Vladimir Putin has played musical chairs with Dmitry Medvedev to continue his hold on power even after his two-term limit in 2008 ended. No amount of protest outside of Russia will make any difference as long as Putin is able to convince Russians, in particular outside of the large cities, that this had to be done. The women of Pussy Riot are simply pawns in a game that has one prize at the end.
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