Topless woman cuts down Kiev cross for Pussy Riot. That headline ran at the top of a South African website a few days ago, accompanied by a picture of a half-naked member of a radical Ukrainian feminist group, chainsaw in hand, protesting the two-year jail sentence a Russian court had just handed down to three punk rockers.
Al Jazeera had a tamer headline: ‘Russian punk rockers jailed for hooliganism’. The accompanying picture was also tamer, showing the three punk rockers in question preparing for their trial, looking demure. But the harshest political statement was on Madonna’s website: “I call on all those who love freedom to condemn this unjust punishment,” the singer declared. “I call on ALL of Russia to let Pussy Riot go free.” A clip from her recent performance in St Petersburg showed her shouting at the crowd: “We want to fight for the right to be free, to be who we are!”
And of all the publicity that the three women of Pussy Riot have received this month, that was by far the most dangerous. Not because Madonna is a serious political figure but because she isn’t. The Material Girl had never before expressed much interest in Russia and certainly not in the persecution of Russian women. When the human rights activist Natalia Estemirova was murdered three years ago in Chechnya, she was silent.
Nor did her website register the death of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.
The fate of three fellow pop stars, however, is clearly different — and it is precisely that difference that poses an unusual challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although it is often assumed otherwise, Putin’s regime has long permitted political dissent — so long as it appeals only to a small elite. Although most television stations are controlled in one way or another by the Kremlin, a few low-circulation newspapers have long been allowed to keep up some criticism.
Although anyone with real potential to oppose Putin was put under financial or judicial pressure — or, in some cases, arrested or murdered — other critics have been allowed to keep talking, as long as too many people aren’t listening. The internet is controlled in Russia, as it is in China, Iran and other authoritarian states, but with a relatively light hand: Confident that not many Russians read human rights websites anyway, the regime never bothered to block all of them.
At least until now, this formula has worked. Indeed, the genius of Putinism has always been its ability to keep the apolitical masses ignorant of or apathetic about the regime’s opponents, while at the same time eschewing mass arrests. Putin understood this very well: The modern elite Russian doesn’t want to live in a pariah state, and he doesn’t want to be cut off from the outside world. He might not care if his foreign friends think Russia unpleasant, but he isn’t keen to be compared to North Korea either. Putin’s solution was to keep the pressure on serious opponents while studiously ignoring those he deemed unserious. Political speech is controlled, but entertainment media are free.
But in a Russia open to global pop culture, it’s getting harder to recognise who is serious and who isn’t. Three punk rockers, members of a band known more for its desire to cause outrage than to make music, surely didn’t look like much of a challenge to the Kremlin. But when one accounts for the vast potential for copycats — the same radical Ukrainian women’s group has recently protested not only in Kiev but also in Minsk and Davos, while others have protested in Marseille and New York — as well as the inevitable eye-catching photos, not just on news pages but also in the entertainment sections, one can see how this story could run and run. The simple fact is that Madonna and her ilk are more likely to defend stylish fellow musicians than serious journalists or activists — and far more likely to attract widespread attention for doing so.
It’s a conundrum not only for Russia but for any regimes that seek to be open to some outside influences, but not others. It might be possible for the Russian leadership — or the Chinese leadership, or the Iranian leadership — to block the websites of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but will they eventually have to ban TheHollywoodGossip.com and E! Online as well? How about Al Jazeera? Or South African websites that report ‘human interest’ stories involving girl punk rockers? Global pop culture mutates and changes week by week, just as technology does: Modern dictatorships will have to make some fast decisions if they want to keep up.