Warwick McFadyen August 18, 2012
Members of female punk band Pussy Riot in court. Photo: Reuters
Who breaks three butterflies upon a wheel?
Vladimir Putin does.
More than 40 years ago, The Times of London in an editorial asked a variation of this in the case of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and the punishment meted out to them by the courts for minor drug charges.
The butterflies today are Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich — three members of the punk collective known as Pussy Riot.
They were found guilty by a court in Moscow of hooliganism inciting religious hatred and sentenced to two years in jail.
Their crime? They had the audacity to perform an anti-Putin ‘‘punk prayer’’ in the Church of Christ the Saviour in February. Like all respectable punk songs, it lasted barely two minutes.
The performance was filmed and uploaded onto the internet. The trio were arrested and since then have spent the past several months in custody. This week from jail, Tolokonnikova wrote a letter to her lawyer that reads in part: ‘‘I hold no spite. I have no private spite. But I have political spite.
‘‘Our being in jail is a clear and distinct sign that freedom is being taken away from the whole country. And this threat of destruction of the liberating, emancipatory forces of
Russia is what makes me angry.’’
How does a state such as Russia deal with people saying freedom is being eroded. They throw them in jail. It’s not as if the regime is creating a precedent.
The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, a supporter of Putin, believes that basically the three women are demons and, therefore, should be punished accordingly. One can understand his stance from a purely religious position. The church is holy; in his and those of similar mind, Pussy Riot rent the fabric of that holiness with their trespass.
If Melbourne punks (speaking metaphorically these days) invaded St Patrick’s to deliver their message, there’d be an outcry. But it would pass. Would they have faced jail time?
No, just God’s fury and little nods of sadness at their pogo schtick.
But this is more than that. This is the crushing underfoot of dissent. What you fear, you destroy. Stalin was a master of the strategy. During his reign of terror the levers of control were much more centralised. Now, the internet has democratised dissent. Pussy Riot’s action, as harmless as it appears on the surface to Western eyes, even a few decades ago would not have escaped the Russian border.
Now, Western musicians have declared support — more for the protest than the music I’d suspect. The latest is Paul McCartney who wrote: ‘‘I would like you to know that I very much hope the Russian authorities would support the principle of free speech for all their citizens and not feel that they have to punish you for your protest.
‘‘I hope you can stay strong and believe that I and many others like me who believe in free speech will do everything in our power to support you and the idea of artistic freedom.’’
It might not, in the short term, count for much of anything in the wider context. Since Putin’s return to the presidency, civil liberties including those involving public protests and internet access have taken a battering.
Freedom, however, does not usually break through on the one grand gesture. It grows from many small steps into the long march. The three members of Pussy Riot are part of the march though they languish in jail. It’s this invisible power that men like Putin simply don’t get. Even in jail, freedom can move forward.
The price, sadly, is the erosion of time in people’s lives.