Connect to share and comment

Russia's protest punk band Pussy Riot has been sentenced for an anti-Putin protest at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. What does the verdict mean for Russia, Putin and the future of protest in the country? Here's complete GlobalPost coverage from Moscow and around the world.

What we're hearing right now.

Pussy Riot and Russia’s radical artistic tradition

The punk protestors' two-year prison term fits a centuries-old pattern of harsh treatment for those who buck the political culture.
Pussy riot supporter 08 17 12
A Pussy Riot supporter in Spain. Sentencing the band's members may appear illogical abroad, but Putin came to power cracking down on critics. (Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images)

Three young women from Pussy Riot — a collective of punk-inspired artists and protestors — were handed a harsh, two years prison term today, for performing a protest in one of Moscow's main cathedrals. The sentence against the fresh-faced young women, two of whom are mothers to small children, appeared shockingly excessive. 

Harsh punishment for artistic protest has a storied tradition in Russia, where most people have generally supported strong leaders criticized by the educated elite.

Monks in the northern principalities were among the first “dissidents” who objected to Moscow’s imposition of harsh rules as it conquered neighboring principalities in the 16th century. Rather than denouncing the institution of tsarism, however, they criticized leaders’ moral character. The leader's beneficent impulses were seen to be thwarted by a conniving court, a pattern that remained for centuries in a country where extreme living conditions put the interests of the collective above the individual, who has traditionally been seen as weak and unable to survive alone.

Even today, President Vladimir Putin casts himself in the mold of the good tsar surrounded by bad nobles—ministers and others who take the knocks for the country’s myriad problems and catastrophes.

Miserable conditions for the vast majority of Russians who were serfs — essentially slaves — prompted some of Russia’s first intellectuals to action in the 18th century. They suffered constant threat of censorship and punishment. Among the very first, a minor nobleman named Alexander Radishchev condemned serfdom in his travelogue Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow (1790). Arrested and condemned to death, his sentence was lessened after he begged the supposedly enlightened Catherine the Great for forgiveness. He was sent to Siberia in shackles instead.

Pushkin, Tolstoy and other of Russia’s greatest literary figures faced censorship and threat of punishment. Dostoevsky’s death sentence in 1849 was commuted after a mock execution to four years in a Siberian labor colony. The tsar’s harsh treatment of critics soon helped prompt a tradition of radicalism among writers who increasingly called for revolution. Most prominent among them, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, whose novel What Is to be Done? (1862) set the standard, also earned him a mock execution before his banishment to Siberia, where he eventually died at age 61.

Russia’s avant-garde and other modernist movements in art and literature seemed set to prosper after the Bolsheviks took power in 1917. However, Stalin put an end to artistic freedom by 1930, when socialist realism promoting communism became the only accepted form.

Writers and artists were routinely sent to the Gulag along with the tens of millions of others who suffered and died under conditions Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously helped expose in his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archiapelago. Solzhenitsyn’s own camp sentence was for criticizing Stalin in a letter to a friend. Later exiled, he settled in the United States, where he tapped into the old Russian suspicion of the individual, criticizing westerners for their weakness, materialism and weak moral fiber. He supported Putin after his return to Russia in the 1990s.

Post-Soviet freedom of expression had taken the political bite out of art by then. However, Putin’s revival of the traditional political culture recently gave rise to groups such as the street art collective Voina, or war, which has posted videos of members setting a police truck on fire and conceived the self-described feminist punk group Pussy Riot. Like the tsars who used strict punishment to make examples in a vast territory they could barely govern, Putin is sticking to his old script of cracking down on the slightest dissent.

Although risky, that still resonates with many Russians for whom feminism is deeply suspected if not feared. Jailing the band’s members for exercising their constitutional right to free expression may appear utterly illogical to the outside world, which would otherwise have never heard of or cared for Pussy Riot. But it fits a long pattern in Russian history.

Of course whether Friday’s sentence helps ignite more protest outside the urban middle class remains to be seen. That will have to happen for the country to break out of its traditional cycle of protest and punishment.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/chatter/pussy-riot-russia-Putin-sentence