Pussy Riot: Latest Victims in a Putinist Return to a Totalitarian Russia?

The grim spectre of the Communist-era show trial was concluded in Moscow recently, when three members of the feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a penal colony for, what the judge labelled as, ‘hooliganism’ following a prayer of protest against, then Presidential candidate, Vladimir Putin inside a Moscow cathedral in February 2012. The hypocrites sitting in Washington and Westminster have already voiced their concern at the ‘disproportionate’ prison terms that have been handed down. However, in my humble opinion, foreign politicians should not undertake in passing judgement on aspects of the judicial processes of other countries – particularly one it does not understand – especially when one of the foreign governments expressing their indignation has no reservations in detaining an individual inside a military prison for two and a half years – and counting – without the remotest semblance of due process, and merely the barest whisper of a trial forthcoming, but I digress. My focus is on the sense of foreboding that the outcome of this extraordinary case engenders, and what it means for the future of the Russian Federation under the aegis President Putin.

The US and UK governments, intent on lampooning Russia – with whom they have had tempestuous, and at best, lukewarm relations – take any opportunity to vociferously denounce Russia for decisions and actions they categorise as draconian or unjust, and Russia’s decision to imprison these women seemingly falls under these categories. The media outlets of those respective countries also have a penchant for bombarding the public with hyperbole; some suggesting echoes of the Stalinist show-trials of the 1930s, evidence of Pravda-esque levels of state sponsored propaganda and censorship and, western suspicions of the cultivation of a cult of personality around President Putin, on a par with the leader-worship in Stalin’s USSR or Mao’s China are wide of the mark. I am not aware of any huge statues erected in honour of President Putin; nor have murals of a smiling Vladimir with a red sun bordering his balding cranium like a halo, festooning the walls of every city and town in Russia, come to my attention. It seems the personality cult suspicions rest, almost solely, on the straw-like foundations of a pop-song, bearing the president’s name in its title, which charted in Russia in 2002. You will have to excuse me if I struggle to digest such a flimsy and egregious non sequitur, and find such distortions by the press unpalatable. The fact is, Putin’s Russia is not quite at that apogee of Communist-era subterfuge, and all-pervasive State control…Yet.

However – before you tar and feather me as a despicable and delusional Putin apologist – I am not so naive that I do not discern a disquieting and ominous aura looming over the Russian Federation. The ‘Pussy Riot’ trial is the most recent example of flagrant State infringements on civil liberties. Coming so soon after the president re-took office in May 2012, it is one of many intimations toward a Putin-led resurrection of the totalitarianism that cataclysmically ravaged European populations, like an unremitting, violent juggernaut, throughout the twentieth-century. A new age of far-reaching state control of the Russian people may be beginning with the example made of the three Pussy Riot band members; the purpose of which is to send a clear, uncompromising message on what the old-new regime expects of its people, and to extinguish the tinder of dissension in Russia before it ignites the kindling. This is how the motor of a totalitarian machine gets running; only now the tactics to achieve this ignition are going to be much more subtle than State-sanctioned teams of ‘brown shirts’ roaming the streets, cracking skulls, disrupting assemblies, and chanting the prevailing propaganda. But other elements of Putin’s Russia are ringing alarm bells.

During his past terms in office -both as Prime Minister and President – it has been evidenced that President Putin had pressed hard for Russia to begin slowly regressing into the police state of the Soviet heyday. The FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) – the successor agency to the notorious KGB – in 2006, was granted the right to monitor the Russian population, investigate legal cases, run its own prisons and interfere in political processes. In 2007, Igor Plugataryov and Viktor Myasnikov estimated that there was an FSB agent for every 700 Russian citizens, a number that has almost certainly increased exponentially while his protégé, Medvedev, held supreme office – and one only need look at the case of the death of Alexander Litvinenko to deduce that the FSB has also inherited the practice of ‘active measures’, of which extra-judicial killings is only one, from the agencies that preceded it. Old habits die hard as the old cliché goes, and, like most clichés, it is true, and nowhere does the platitude resonate more than in Russia.

Putin is also displaying his former KGB background in his order of a relentless pursuit for other Pussy Riot members who – reminiscent of the opponents of Soviet-era status quo – have fled the country to evade arrest, interrogation and persecution. The penal colonies – considered to be less severe than the prisons –  are beginning to foster signs of the gulag camp system that came before, as reports over the possibility of violence against the three convicted members  of the band are promulgated. The allusion to the gulag is no spurious exaggeration ; although inmates are now salaried for their hard labour, the colonies are a fierce environment of violence and mistreatment, committed by guards and prisoners alike. Referring solely to the experiences of male inmates: they are normally housed together in barracks of approximately a hundred men; first-time offenders are not separated from the hardened criminals and gang members, and so become obvious targets for abuse. The majority of the penal colonies are in Siberia where temperatures fall to below -40c, making visitations and contact with the outside world extremely rare. Prison guards can be extremely severe, and suspicious of anyone within the vicinity of the correctional facility grounds – for reasons we can infer with confident degree of certainty. For example, in 2005 at the Krasnokamensk penal colony, local reporters were arrested and their equipment confiscated, when they ventured too close to the prison; days afterward, a checkpoint was erected to stop outsiders from seeing inside the prison grounds. There also exists among prisoners in all Russian penal colonies, a hierarchical system in each of the barracks, made up of four categories. Those who are members of the lowest category, or ‘the degraded’ do the most gruesome of the chores and are the targets for sexual abuse. Proposed alterations to the penal system were proposed over two years ago, but in reality very little has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It seems that Putin is determined to reintroduce more elements of the NKVD and KGB-era Russian State to the justice and penal system, with the impending arrival of three political prisoners, and like the police state of Soviet times it too transcends the judiciary branch of Russian government under Putin. Like a plague of locusts, FSB officers are beginning to erode the rights and freedoms of the Russian population. The Orthodox Church now belongs to Putin and is not a sanctuary for those at odds with the government; like Peter the Great, Putin has acknowledged the uses of having the Church under his political sway. The FSB and the Russian military are awakening Cold War ghosts with their proxy war against the United States in Syria. The latest undetected Russian submarine incursion into the Gulf of Mexico is suggestive of a heightened jingoism; Senator John Coryn opined that “The submarine patrol, taken together with the air incursions, seems to represent a more aggressive and destabilizing Russian military stance that could pose risks to our national security,” and, subsequently, elevated tensions with America and the UK – over prestige rather than any serious threat to national security, given that Russia and the USA have enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other in a matter of minutes. The future of the Russian Federation is travelling irrevocably in one direction under Vladimir Putin, and that is to the territory of a totalitarian state. It is important that Russians, like Pussy Riot’s band members, show their opposition to Putin’s disastrous plans for their beloved Mother Russia before they once again become a generation of Russians, subjugated and trampled upon by their own countrymen.

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About johnny3wishbone

University of Bristol alum Follow me on Twitter @DanielAdshead25 A few of my favourite things: International development, human rights, justice, wildlife conservation, primates, politics, literature, music, catharsis, theatre, my fiance, history, environment, current events, writing, reading, running, fundraising, campaigning, activism, travel, Prague, Bristol, Mexican food
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3 Responses to Pussy Riot: Latest Victims in a Putinist Return to a Totalitarian Russia?

  1. It’s the same tone with which foreign academic talk of Russia when they first start their research – excited, working on the somehow assumed historical legacies of the soviet era, ignorant of the most important period of the 90s, from when everything “russian” stems. Perhaps you could have focussed on the significance of the British response more? I feel the article would gain more honesty and validity in that way. You spit “hypocrites” out, almost explain your attitude, but not the root of it, and move on. Which is a shame, because I expected more on that, as the strength of your style is in the strength of your (mostly too radical to be fully correct, just as mine is) opinion.

    • britishpharaoh says:

      I think you expect too much from a short blog entry; generalisations were unavoidable given the narrow scope of the article. My novice status with regard to knowledge of current Russian politics and society, meant that expanding further on my views or on Russian politics would have been detrimental, since, in the latter regard, it would have occasioned me to consult only one or two online sources. Like, with most short blog articles that deal with complex politics and history, the opinion generated is more superficial but also more relevant to the current situation, rather than that of the long-term. If I had the prerequisite knowledge of Russia, maybe this would have been an essay rather than a short, succinct blog entry.

      I knew you would be able to pick apart, with your rapier-like exactness, the misapprehensions in this little piece, given your background and interest in the subject; which is why I shared it with you first 🙂 (or on Twitter first I don’t remember)

      Before I posted I said to Tess that I wasn’t happy with it and that it wasn’t going to be my finest moment on WorldPress, but I still wanted to make my current opinion known.

  2. britishpharaoh says:

    The similarities seem to keep growing http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/08/31/russia-putin-stalin-idINDEE87U0HO20120831

    And I didn’t even mention Chechnya

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