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Putin's Prisoners

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Kieran Dodds writes on the Pussy Riot verdict:

In passing, Vladimir Putin - bear wrestler, amateur judoka, sometime crooner - cuts an almost comedic figure. There's always something, it seems, that prevents us from taking the ex-KGB man too seriously, just as when we think of Kim Jong-il, that ridiculous Team America puppet takes undeserving, almost unforgivable precedence over the monstrous, megalomaniacal, famine-inducing ex-dictator.

However, whilst Putin is certainly no Kim Jong-il and it would be disingenuous to portray him as such, make no mistake: his regime is ruthless in its own right. That it can consider itself, and indeed be considered by others to be, a democracy, is a mystery; the presidential gerrymandering, the alleged electoral fraud and the repression of all political opponents obviously not enough to dissuade the Putin sympathisers. Hopefully the guilty verdict delivered unto punk protest band Pussy Riot will change their mind, for there is no doubt that all such suppositions, all wishful claims to democracy, must end. Under Vladimir Putin and his sinister army of Kremlin bureaucrats, no man - and especially no woman - is ever truly free to speak his or her mind.

First, though, some background. It was six months ago, in the February of this year, that Pussy Riot became arguably the most important band in the world. Seething at what they perceived to be the ruin of Russia as brought about by Putin (and who are we to argue?), they performed the raucous and now infamous 'Punk Prayer' on the altar of Moscow's largest cathedral, Christ the Saviour. They prayed to the Virgin Mary, demanding that she 'chase Putin out!' and 'become a feminist'; their lyrics, charged with biting political commentary and brash anti-authoritarian vitriol, outshone only by their controversial actions.

To shocked onlookers, predominantly conservative members of Russia's Orthodox faith, this wasn't a 'performance' but an act of the most extreme blasphemy - or, as the official charge would have it, 'hooliganism motivated by religious hatred'. Three women - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina - were arrested, imprisoned and 'tried' in the most objectionable way one could imagine, spending up to ten hours each day in a glass cage and, according to their lawyers, denied food and sleep in a Soviet-style show trial (sure enough, refusing almost every defense witness and granting only two days to respond to a 2,800 page indictment hardly seem the actions of an independent judiciary). On Friday, the women were sentenced to two years' imprisonment. To the rest of the world, this was no act of blasphemy. This was a wake-up call, and a much needed one at that.

It is obvious that the charge successfully levelled at these three young women was bogus; so obvious, in fact, that it hardly merits any discussion. Three young women sang about the Virgin Mary in a church. 'Hooligans' they are not, nor was 'religious hatred' their motivation. Far more interesting, then, is why they have been treated so shamefully and why they now find themselves in jail. Hint: it is not, I repeat not, because they have committed any sort of heinous crime.

Clearly, the Orthodox church have played their part. In Russia, the church wields significantly more political power than in western democracies, often cosying up to their country's leaders in an attempt to maintain Orthodox hegemony. Patriarchs and presidents walk hand in hand, to the extent that the church was forced to deny reports earlier in the year that the Russian state and the Russian church were to merge into one. Even in the years under communist rule, during which Orthodox believers and priests were continually harassed and even executed, the church remained, in the words of Soviet dissident Gleb Yakunin, "practically a subsidiary, a sister company of the KGB". Today they too collude with their superiors in restricting the freedom of speech - Patriarch Kirill, the church's figurehead and the man who accuses Pussy Riot of "doing the work of Satan", has previously called Putin's presidency a "miracle of God". In criticising the church, Pussy Riot are doing what every other concerned Russian is - unsurprisingly, given the way they might be dealt with - afraid to do.

Blaming the church entirely, however, somewhat misses the point. The trial, arrest and imprisonment of Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alyokhina are quite clearly politically motivated. It is because they are anti-Putin. It is also, worryingly, because they are feminists.

Moments before sentencing the three brave women, the presiding judge accused them each of falling victim to 'psychological disorders' such as 'individualism' and 'stubbornness' in expressing their opinions. The women were also told that they had 'violated the social order' (a badge of honour if you ask me). Similarly dubious pronouncements could be heard throughout the trial; at one point, a seemingly shocked prosecution asked a witness to the performance: "was the women's clothing tight?" (women wearing tight clothing, we must surely glean, are either so deeply offensive that they merit imprisonment, or are gearing up to commit shocking and heinous hate crimes). And any women that dare defend Pussy Riot? Well, in the case of Madonna at least, they must be 'moralising sluts' who need to 'put on some underpants...' (the words of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, no less). The message Russian women must take from the trial of Pussy Riot is clear: know your place; don't rock the boat; and, whatever you do, don't wear short skirts.

Above all, though, these women are Putin's prisoners. Just as their act was political, so too was their trial, with the Kremlin egging on the judiciary in an attempt to imprison the women and crush dissent more widely. It is a not-so-shocking reminder that Putin presides over cronyism, not freedom; kleptocracy, not democracy. Even during the reading of the verdict, with the world watching, the unabashed censorship continued; opposition leaders beaten and imprisoned, no doubt at the behest of another behind-the-scenes bureaucrat. Pussy Riot and their supporters are only the state's most recent victims - they will not be the last. To paraphrase Marxist revolutionary and critic of Soviet-era Bolshevism Rosa Luxemburg, for the dissenter Russia is still far from free.

Pussy Riot, then, are a lot of things. They are impassioned, rightly. Indignant, even more so. Above all, though, they are innocent. That they have been treated otherwise, and for nothing more than an act of nonviolent political protest, is a sad indictment of a country that still yet dares call itself a democracy.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova put it best: "Our jailing is a clear and distinct sign that freedom is being taken from everyone in the country. And the threat of destroying free, emancipated power in Russia - that makes me angry." Amen to that.

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