Russian President Vladimir Putin and his backers may believe they won a victory by putting away the three rabble-rousing, rocking girls of Pussy Riot, but they are mistaken. The biggest loser in the high-profile battle between the increasingly authoritarian president and their inventive opposition was the president’s carefully cultivated image.
If you can’t beat him, mock him. That seemed to be the tactical decision by the handful of Pussy Riot members, who might have remained in obscurity or faded away altogether had authorities tackled them with less vigor.
Instead, the authorities grabbed onto their unquestionably crude and profane 40-second performance, when they rushed to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ Our Savior last February and gave a rendition of Mother of God, Cast Putin Out, and turned into a major political event.
With the three charged with a major crime, rather than ticketed for disturbing the peace, their video Punk Prayer became a hit and their legal plight a global cause célèbre.
Putin made a show of saying he hoped the court would show leniency, but the case would not have proceeded without Putin’s full and enthusiastic backing.
In the short-term, Putin may get a domestic boost. Sure, many in Russia were outraged by the punk rockers’ antics. But the case reinvigorated the opposition and further tarnished the already-dismal image of Russian democracy.
In the end, the legal victory does not make Putin look strong. It makes him look like a bully.
By the time Judge Marina Syrova found the three — Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Marina Alekhina, 24 — guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and accused them of sacrilege and blasphemy, the pro-Putin establishment had accomplished a number of questionable feats.
First, lest we ignore the obvious, they managed to make the words “Pussy Riot” trip off the tongue with surprising ease. Clearly, the punk collective made a brilliant move by choosing the iconoclastic name. The name, incidentally, is the same in Russian, hinting that an international audience was always in the plan.
Second, and more important, Putin has made himself look petty and afraid. Putin, you might say, got scared of a bunch of girls. Otherwise, why would he allow or prompt the legal and security establishment to launch a massive case over a silly song, prosecuting the women all the way to a prison sentence?
The man who so carefully worked to build a fearless image, broadcasting pictures of himself hunting tigers in Siberia and riding shirtless on horseback, looks a little smaller today.
Second, the government’s anti-“Riot” campaign turned the balaclava-wearing protesters into international celebrities and brought global media attention to Russia. We don’t know how much talent these musicians have, but already the likes of Paul McCartney, Madonna, and Sting have lined up behind them. Every word of support for them, for free speech, is a spear thrown in Putin’s direction. When world-famous artists turn against you, the questions will lodge in people’s minds. This case will boost anti-Putin forces, particularly among the young.
Third, Putin and the establishment that mobilized to convict the rockers, complete with a 2,800-page indictment and two-week trial, reinforced an international image of Russia as a place where the rule of law is easily manipulated. The grotesque exploitation of the system in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and a number of prosecutions of Putin critics had already started drawing that image. The case of Pussy Riot shined an even brighter spotlight on the troubling weaknesses of the country’s legal system. And the case’s vaguely ironic showbiz allure brought it to a much wider audience.
The Russian president has decided to crack down hard on the opposition despite having easily won a third term as president in the most recent election. Samutsevich, Alekhina and Tolokonnikova now join a number of opposition figures feeling the weight of Putin’s heel on their necks.
Despite electoral irregularities and biased press coverage in the run up to the elections, Putin is the legitimate president of Russia and can still claim a mantle of democratic authenticity. But that mantle is becoming increasingly thin.
A compliant parliament has approved anti-democratic measures, making it expensive and dangerous to participate in public demonstrations. Those who challenge Putin often find themselves the target of prosecutors. Most recently, opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was charged with embezzlement.
After the case of Pussy Riot, more people should and will pay attention to the important Navalny case.
And more people will question why exactly Putin is so afraid of the opposition; why he is so afraid of three young women armed only with microphones.