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The Pussy Riot Case Was A Victory for Putin

On Friday, August 17, three members of a Russian feminist punk rock band were sentenced to two years in prison for singing an anti-Putin song at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. They were found guilty of hooliganism and religious hatred against the Russian Orthodox Church, though the verdict was transparently a message for other opposition protesters. Since the band’s arrest, the Western media along with entertainers such as Madonna and Paul McCartney and rights groups like Amnesty International have rallied to the band’s cause, and critics of the regime both inside and outside of Russia have been calling the harsh and arbitrary sentence a public relations disaster for the Kremlin. While it’s true that striking down Pussy Riot makes Russian president Vladimir Putin look like an autocrat, the misguided and impotent Western response  coupled with pleasing Russian conservatives looking for a strongman and the Church make the Pussy Riot affair a victory for Putin and a blow to opposition groups.

First, much of the celebrity and media attention misses the point and significance of the protest. Statements and solidarity movements often focus on artistic freedom and the rights of women. While these are certainly important issues, they are not central to this case, and obscure the real problems that Pussy Riot and protesters have been trying to address. Pussy Riot wasn’t arrested for being an edgy punk band or for being feminists, they were arrested for openly and publicly defying Putin and, perhaps more dangerously, his connection with the Orthodox Church. The focus on Pussy Riot the musicians lessened the focus on Putin squashing the protest movement around them, and their concerns. The alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin, with the head of the Church going so far as to call Vladimir Putin “God’s miracle,” is particularly troubling for the opposition in Russia as it strengthens the Kremlin’s institutional control and takes away a major source of dissent present during the Soviet Union.

Second, the protests and outrage are centered on the three women arrested from the band. Even if their performance was highly disruptive and sacrilegious, there’s no question that the harsh sentencing is illiberal, immoral, and stifles dissent. It is not, however, outside the norm in Putin’s Russia. The high-profile arrest of former oligarch and Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ruled by the European Court of Human Rights to be unlawful, has largely faded from the international memory, and the arrest and death in police custody, allegedly due to torture, of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky hardly ever entered it aside from a sanctions bill currently in Congress that most expect will be toothless. Even in the current string of protests that led to the arrest of members of Pussy Riot, over a dozen other protesters are in custody and could be sentenced to 10 years in prison. Gary Kasparov, legendary chess master and prominent opposition leader, was also arrested, beaten, and could get 5 years in prison. None of these people got celebrity appeals, poetry readings, or a petition from Amnesty International. The message to Putin is clear – imprisoning dissidents is fine if they aren’t cool and photogenic.

Last and perhaps most important, the entire incident has shown how little the international community can do to weaken Putin’s control or change his behavior. The Church and many of its followers approved of the arrest and verdict, and a full 44% of Russians polled thought that the trial was just, with others approving of the decision regardless and many apathetic about the abuses of power. When Madonna campaigned for Pussy Riot’s release, hardcore Putin and Church supporters responded with backlash and rallies against her. When Amnesty International presented Russian embassy officials in the United States with a petition in support of the arrested women with 72,000 signatures, the senior counselor literally threw the petition on the ground. Critics and even some allies of the regime considered the verdict bad for the Kremlin’s image abroad, with one prominent pro-Putin media personality calling the band a “new ‘Khodorkovsky,” but all that would mean is that the flurry of outrage will soon die down until the government jails another popular opponent. Despite scattered protests in Russia and notable opposition around the world, the Russian government shows no signs on reversing its decision and instead is committing further by attempting to find and arrest other band members.

Despite being hailed as a disaster for the Putin regime, the Pussy Riot arrests and trial seem to only show good signs for Putin’s control over Russia. International focus is on Pussy Riot, music and, to a lesser extent, feminism in Russia, not the truly sensitive issues of dissent and the incestuous relationship between Church and state. Further, the majority and most brutal elements of the Kremlin’s crackdown have gone virtually unnoticed.  Lastly, even international outrage over the fate of the three women has done nothing to weaken Putin’s resolve, force him to compromise, or weaken his support, instead mobilizing those abroad and the liberal minority in Russia who already opposed Putin. The lessons Putin will draw from Pussy Riot aren’t, as some critics have speculated, that he’s crossed the line, but rather than his friends will support his autocratic methods and his enemies will be powerless to stop it.

Image – Pussy Riot at Lobnoye Mesto on Red Square in Moscow – Denis Bochkarev

Alex Olesker

Alex Olesker

Alex Olesker is a Technology Research Analyst at Crucial Point LLC that specializes in science, technology, and security. He has experience working with law enforcement, private intelligence, multi-national corporations, and academia, and has written and lectured on terrorism, international security, infrastructure protection, investigations, intelligence, policing, cybersecurity, and analytics. Alex graduated from Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.