Pussy Riot: Declining freedom

How to make any sense of the Pussy Riot phenomenon, and what it tells us about Russia or indeed ourselves?

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Pussy Riot: Putin's dream opponent?
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Charles Crawford
On 28 August 2012 09:34

How to make any sense of the Pussy Riot phenomenon, and what it tells us about Russia or indeed ourselves?

On the one hand you have Simon Jenkins moving into new splenetic overdrive at Western hypocrisy:

Artists round the globe may plead free speech, but to treat the Pussy Riot gesture as a glorious stand for artistic liberty is like praising Johnny Rotten, who did similar things, as the Voltaire of our day. There can be disproportionate apologias as well as disproportionate sentences…

On the other hand, here is Edward Lucas looking in a measured way at how Russia today under Vladimir Putin’s leadership is managing (or not) to deal with its communist legacy:

It’s worse in the sense that I think the country is really run by what amounts to a gangster syndicate which is ruthless in its pursuit of wealth and power, and distorts the machinery of the state in order to achieve that and to perpetrate crimes against the Russian people…

But I think things are also better, because you have a new generation of Russians who don’t remember the Soviet Union, except possibly for childhood memories, are living lives largely unclouded by fear and official propaganda, and are integrated into the world in a way in which Russians haven’t been for 100 years … There’s cause for hope there, and the Putin propaganda bubble seems to have popped pretty substantially. Although he’s still in power he no longer enjoys the hypnotic popularity that he’s had over the last 10 years.

Check out the various witty comments from angry rent-a-crowd Sovietophiliacs.

Once upon a time when I was growing up it was next to impossible to deny that the level of freedom in ‘Western’ countries was orders of magnitude greater than in the communist or wider autocratic world. Hard though it is to imagine now, back during the Cold War you could drive across Europe until there loomed into view the dense barbed wire fences and watchtowers imprisoning hundreds of millions of fellow Europeans.

Even then hard-core Leftists invented all sorts of blithering concepts of ‘false consciousness’ and ‘repressive tolerance’ to explain how we ‘really’ weren’t free even when we knew we were.

Yet in the past couple of decades it’s all got a lot more … slippery. There is no longer a confident instinct of freedom in the West. Inch-by-inch our freedoms get nibbled away by greedy state powers, in part throwing the full weight of the state behind a creepy relativistic sense that protecting people from perceived ‘insult’ or ‘offence’ is an uber-value. See for example the judge pronouncing that he had “no alternative” but to give hapless student Liam Stacey 56 days in prison for a stupid racist Tweet about a seriously ill footballer, thereby to reflect “public outrage”. Really?

Meanwhile the Internet, and the general inexorable public empowerment it delivers through myriad mobile phones and cheap cameras, is taking lumps out of the capability of even the most oppressive powers to be quite as crude as previously. So are we now seeing an implicit slow, dirty collectivist global convergence on some sort of ‘average’ freedom, based on states around the planet tolerating only as much freedom as they can’t avoid conceding?

If Liam Stacey deserved 56 days in prison for an unpleasant comment aimed at his puny army of 292 Twitter Followers, what did Pussy Riot deserve for going out of their way to insult tens of millions of Russians by performing an obscene political performance in a church then pumping out the video of it on the Web?

They not only intended their demonstration to be offensive to most if not many Russians – the offensiveness was the whole point of the exercise. By the marvelous new UK/Stacey sentencing standards yardstick that takes supposed public outrage at a few mere Twitterish words as the key factor in removing someone’s liberty, they were let off pretty lightly.

I therefore find myself staring glumly at the state of freedom in Russia at this stage of its development. Why did all that genuinely democratic energy seen back in the early 1990s get so quickly hijacked by KGB-style people and structures?

Yet I find myself even more depressed by the Pussy Rioters as a form of protest.

Once upon a time we had people like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela who had their personal faults and political limitations, but who made themselves credible on a planetary scale by virtue of a certain self-restraint and respect for process as an end in itself.

Can you imagine either of them invading a church or mosque and ranting trashy slogans to advance their cause? No, you can’t. Partly because that was not their style anyway – they were adults.

But more importantly it was because as adults they understood that to be effective in taking on powerful opponents you need to be persuasive. You need to give a ruling regime in all its clumsy contradictions and uncertainties food for thought. To help the people who run those systems and the wider masses think that there is a better way of doing things, and that they too can have a role in that better future.

In short, you need to extend the promise of engagement and even reconciliation. Not the trite, sneering, self-indulgent contempt shown by an odious Femen activist in Ukraine as she hacked down a cross to show her support for the Russian Pussy Riot activists.

In short, as always, it’s not enough to have masses of energy and determination or even a willingness to make sacrifices for a cause. And it’s not enough to froth up a noisy crowd of supporters.

You need to be effective. That requires discipline - and respect for the great mass of people who disagree with you for multitudinous reasons, but who potentially are open to persuasion if you show minimal respect.

The ideal opponents for Vladimir Putin at this stage in his steadily less glorious career? People who win naïve Western support by screaming abuse at him, while alienating tens of millions of Russians by being unambiguously trashy.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer: www.charlescrawford.biz. He tweets@charlescrawford

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