THE STRATEGIC LAWYER

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Remember remember the fifth of November: Pussy Riot and civil disobedience

I followed the Pussy Riot controversy with the same level of interest I have for most news items that intrigue me but do not capture my curiosity enough to dig deeper: namely, I was content to just keep abreast of developments as depicted by regular news sources in the usual, summary fashion.

When the sentence was handed down, I tsked and shook my head, and thought, how terrible! Some women pull a prank of youthful hijinks and mild subversion and are given two years. The world is indignant and rightly so.

Still, it isn’t as if anyone who knows about the situation in Russia these days really believes there’s anything like the Rule of Law over there–not since Gazprom and Yukos, and Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment in the wake of his confrontation with Putin… But still, wow–two years for what amounts to a musical prank. The administration is really cracking down and devolving into paranoia over there (echoes of Stalin, though hopefully the scrutiny of the world will remain strong and this will help prevent the kinds of horrors that were perpetrated during the Great Purges–indeed, the fact that Khodorkovsky still has a voice, and has not been fully silenced might lead to the inference that they haven’t devolved quite so far… at least not yet.).

If anything, I was more disturbed by the treatment of Garry Kasparov during the sentencing of the women last week. His arrest as a result of relatively innocuous comments, was an angering and horrifying sight to behold.

But then I came across this: the closing statements of the three members of Pussy Riot. And I realized that I’d completely misread the situation. Their closing speeches are articulate, insightful, incisive, and demonstrate a complex, nuanced understanding of what is going on in their country. People might not agree with their reading of the government’s actions in appropriating the Orthodox Church to suit their ends, but the comments demonstrate intelligence and a strong sense of intention and purpose behind their performance. They knew–and one infers, hoped–there’d be repercussions, because if they were, it meant they were being heard, and that the government saw them as a threat.

This is civil disobedience in service of protesting a corrupt government and rampant injustice and tyranny. This is calling that government to account, and sending out a rallying cry for change–peaceful civil disobedience in the tradition of people like Gandhi. This is the kind of thing that inspires and incites–and, with the right momentum, it’s the kind of thing that can topple governments.

Anyone who thinks–like I did, before reading their statements–that their acts were mildly subversive hijinks or just a musical prank, and that the government is being absurd in imprisoning these women for making music, is missing the point.

Putin’s government is not punishing a musical performance. It’s not even punishing so-called “hooliganism”. It’s punishing what it sees as a genuine, potentially potent, threat, while denying they’re doing any such thing (because to admit it would also admit that they see the threat). Pussy Riot sang a song that they hoped would change Russia. Putin’s government is punishing the subversion–and, more importantly, is sending out a clear signal to anyone who responds to Pussy Riot’s rallying cry. It is telling the malcontents: this is what you get  when you mess with us.

Now, I’m obviously not saying that the government is right to do this–only that you can see why, as self-interested actors, they are responding so harshly. Obviously, a reasonably healthy government, in a rights based system, would have witnessed such a stunt without repercussion (or at most a slap on the wrist in the form of a small fine for an unauthorized performance, for instance). But the very implications of such an act–performing a piece with lyrics that speak truth to power, in an institution that has been appropriated by that power–would have been different in a country where they could have gotten away with such an act and faced no repercussions. That’s the point.

We can only hope that, so long as the world keeps watching, the repercussions will not be even more serious–that these women won’t get disappeared while in prison. The fact that their statements were able to be published, that people were able to gather and protest what has happened, that Khodorkovsky, in prison, is still able to speak out, implies that for now at least, things haven’t reached that pass.

We can only hope that it never does.

UPDATE: Before this piece, which had been queued to be published, went live, the news broke that two of the three band members have fled the country.

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This entry was posted on August 26, 2012 by in Human Rights, Op/ed, Rights and tagged , , , , , , , .
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