Pussy Riot debacle echoes old school communism

The trial of three members of the punk feminist band sentenced to two years in labour camp on August 17, is reminiscent of the treatment of the rock band Plastic People of the Universe of Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. It demonstrates the same intolerance towards "sowers of disorder" and other critics of the regime.

Published on 21 August 2012 at 10:16
The three members of the punk band Pussy Riot during their trial. Moscow, August 8.

This past Friday, Czech observers could take a trip back in time to September 1976.

Four long-haired youths in Prague and three in Pilsen were standing trial, accused of behaviour that in the judicial jargon of the time was called hooliganism. In truth, the “hooligans" had done quite banal things, but things that the communists considered "disobedience". These included wearing their hair long, playing their own music, going out with friends for their own amusement and avoiding the rituals required to demonstrate loyalty to the totalitarian regime.

The case concerned the group "Plastic People of the Universe", though only two of the seven convicted were members of this group. Because they wanted to meet up at their private gigs in pubs or at friends’ places, the “hooligans" went to prison.

It’s as if the Prague autumn of 1976, which as we know gave a decisive impetus to the creation of Charter 77, a petition signed by leading human rights activists calling for liberal reforms in Czechoslovakia, is in many ways being played out again in Moscow.

History repeating itself

There, on Friday, the all-female punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison for alleged hooliganism and disturbance after they sang and jumped around Moscow’s main cathedral, and called on the Virgin Mary to “rid Russia of Putin".

Of course, there are substantial differences in the two cases. The Plastic People of the Universe and their friends did not put on a spectacular political provocation, and did not intend to remove anyone from power. Their concerts were held in secret, and if there was anything spectacular about them, it was their lack of interest in what was going on in the Czechoslovak state. They just wanted to live their own lives.

But that’s not the point here. The judge the Pussy Riottrial, which was broadcast live by Czech TV, used the same wording and arguments as the courts that tried the “hooligans” in totalitarian Czechoslovakia. This time it was not long hair but shamelessly short skirts.

New alliance

Putin’s regime – and according to some experts on the Russian scene, Putin himself – were behind the political trial, which, as our own experience shows us, is a scene that echoes the worst traits of the soviet era.

Sceptics have been given pause by the question of why if Russia is such a out-and-out despotism, Pussy Riot have such tepid support for the protests among ordinary Russians and in opinion polls. Who knows? … The drama in the courtroom where the regime showed its true colours, as captured live on television, showed no evidence of public support for Putin’s firmness.

Apparently it was a deliberate show of force directed not outwards at a global audience, but at ordinary Russians. Indeed, since his election Putin has faced unprecedented protests, and he must intimidate his opponents.

The huge interest of the media, politicians and prominent artists will certainly soon shift elsewhere. Political pressure, however – as we already know from communist Czechoslovakia – can protect women prisoners from violence or even death in prison, if nothing else.

Moreover, the wave of interest would have to be converted into a wave of outrage and political pressure over the Pussy Riot trial, similar to the experience that the Czechs went through in the 1980s. Further, Putin and his regime would have to be treated as confirmed enemies of the values that we – 22 years later – still hold holy.

Reaction

Russians finally warm to Rioters

While much of the international community – not to mention musicians Sir Paul McCartney and Madonna – have condemned the two year jail terms handed down last week in Moscow to Pussy Riot, Russians themselves have been slow to warm to the plight of the feminist punk band, writes The Independent. However, the daily adds, this is slowly beginning to change –

The February performance by Pussy Riot in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral drew little sympathy from most Russians, but after the aggressive pursuit of the women by authorities, the trio were gradually adopted by the leaders of opposition protests against President Vladimir Putin as one of their causes. Nevertheless … most official voices in Russia remained quiet during the trial.

Former finance minister and friend of Putin Alexei Kudrin says that “huge damage has been done to the country’s image” while Pro-Kremlin journalist Tina Kandelaki describes the handling of the matter from a public relations perspective as “information suicide”.

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