Pussy Riot and the two Russias

2012-08-18 13:31

In the months since the punkband Pussy Riot seized the stage at the iconic Christ the Saviour Cathedral just before Russia’s March elections – performing (and recording) a musical plea to the Virgin Mary to oust Vladimir Putin – they have become an international sensation, thanks to the Russian government’s authoritarian response.

The three band members were arrested, threatened with seven years’ imprisonment and placed in pre-trial detention. Now, as their trial on charges of “hooliganism” approaches a verdict – expected this month – ­Pussy Riot is world famous.

Support has come from inside and abroad. More than 40 000 Russians have signed an ­online petition protesting the trio’s arrest and detention.

At least 100 Russian civic and cultural figures have petitioned the supreme court. The nation’s human rights ombudsman has urged their release.

The New York Times and Washington Post ran editorials in their defence. Artists and performers have voiced their solidarity, and Amnesty International named them “prisoners of conscience”.

These actions may have led Putin to suggest, while visiting the ­London Olympics, that the women should not be “judged severely”.

The crackdown on Pussy Riot is part of a broader attack on dissent in Russia. Recent weeks have seen the introduction and rapid passage of laws that undermine the nation’s democratic ambitions.

The mistreatment of these young women is particularly disheartening. Yet lost in much of the US coverage is a sobering reality: there are at least two Russias. One is largely urban, Westernised, secular and modern.

The other includes struggling, industrialised regional cities and towns as well as the rural heartland.

If the opposition really wants to mobilise a mass movement for political, social and economic change, it will have to bring these two Russias together.

In other words, the powerful protests on behalf of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom from fear must be expanded to encompass freedom from want. The fate of many Russians than a punk protest band could depend on it.

» Vanden Heuvel is the editor and publisher of The Nation 

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