Congratulations Vladimir Putin. Just four months back in the Kremlin and you have inflicted the worst blow to Russia’s international image in more than a decade.
Few can doubt that the Kremlin had a hand in the decision to sentence Pussy Riot to two years in prison. The punishment is grossly disproportionate to the band’s “crime” — singing a raucous anti-Putin ditty in a Moscow cathedral.
Still, professional Russia watchers know that there have been far worse human rights violations in the Putin years. The difference is that Sergei Magnitsky, a murdered lawyer, Anna Politkovskaya, a murdered journalist, and even Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a jailed oligarch, have never really become household names in the outside world. Pussy Riot members, by contrast, are all set to become global celebrities.
Writers and musicians can be far more dangerous opponents for authoritarians than mere politicians or controversial businessmen such as Khodorkovsky. They often have a wit, panache and integrity that makes rulers look ridiculous. Václav Havel, a playwright, became the rallying figure for the opposition in Czechoslovakia. Around the world, Ai Weiwei, an artist, has become the flamboyant face of opposition to the identical apparatchiks of the Chinese Communist party.
Pussy Riot has only just released its first single. But it has courage and a gift for performance art. And, as outspoken women, its members embody the idea of “girl power” — as lauded by the Spice Girls. The band’s trademark balaclavas also provide an easily imitated “look” that has already been emulated in demonstrations from Berlin to New York.
Yet those tempted to dismiss the three imprisoned members of Pussy Riot as simply clever marketeers should read their statements from the dock, which are intelligent, articulate and moving.
Condemnation from Human Rights Watch and pursed lips at the Swedish foreign ministry are one thing. But when Madonna and Yoko Ono are on the case, the Kremlin is entering a different league of international odium. Madonna, in particular, has played an admirable role. In a recent concert in Moscow, she donned a balaclava, wrote the band’s name on her back and spoke out in their support. The crowd at the concert cheered wildly while Dmitry Rogozin, Russian deputy prime minister, betrayed the Kremlin’s anger by labelling the singer a moralising “slut”.
It cannot be long before concerts in support of Pussy Riot are held outside Russia. The obvious model would be the “Free Nelson Mandela” concerts of the 1980s, which so acutely embarrassed South Africa’s apartheid government.
The Putin government may try to pretend that it does not care about the outrage of musicians and intellectuals in the west. But it has spent many millions hiring western public relations firms to burnish Russia’s image. Any one of these hired guns could have warned Putin that the Pussy Riot sentence is an unqualified PR disaster.
The danger for Putin is that bashing the Russian government may now become cool. Until recently, critics of Russia were often cast as outdated cold war warriors. When Mitt Romney recently declared that Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe”, his statement was widely taken as evidence he was living in the past.
The conviction of Pussy Riot will do much to boost Putin’s reputation as a thug. In the process, it may draw much wider attention to many other unattractive features of Putin’s Russia — from widespread corruption to its protection of brutal regimes such as Syria and the frequent unpunished murders of government critics such as Magnitsky or Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian agent, who was poisoned in London.
The Russian government will insist that Putin is far more representative of the Russian people than some avant-garde musicians from Moscow. There may be some truth in that. Russia is a socially conservative place and there are certainly many religious people in Russia who were genuinely offended by Pussy Riot’s performance.
Nonetheless, independent opinion polls suggest that the government’s heavy-handed treatment of the band has not convinced a majority of Russians. Less than half (44 per cent) said that they regarded the case against Pussy Riot as just.
One of the important questions, when Putin returned to the Kremlin in May, was whether he would be able to put behind him the popular protests that had greeted the rigging of legislative and presidential elections a few months earlier. The initial signs were encouraging for the Kremlin. The demonstrations in Moscow — and the popular movement that had formed around them — appeared to have largely fizzled out.
Now, however, the conviction of Pussy Riot has re-energised the Russian opposition and inflicted a grave blow to Putin’s international image. Even some former Putin loyalists are concluding that the president is now an international embarrassment and a hindrance to Russia’s modernisation. There are signs that the Kremlin realises it has made a mistake with Pussy Riot — and may seek to get the band released early. However, the damage to the president’s standing is done. Pussy Riot is going to prison. But the band still has it in its power to rock the Kremlin.