THE CASE OF THE 'PU--Y RIOT' AND 'PUTINISM'
"Two of the three women in the Moscow courtroom are young mothers. Their alleged crime: bursting into Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral in February in balaclavas and thrashing out a “punk prayer”, “Mother Mary, Drive Putin Out!” In many countries, they might have been fined or cautioned. In Russia, if found guilty on hooliganism charges, the women could be jailed for seven years. The trial of feminist punk band Pussy Riot, under way in Moscow, is highlighting the darker turn Russia’s political system has taken since Vladimir Putin returned for a third presidential term in May. It is only one element in a broader clampdown on civil society in recent weeks, apparently aimed at snuffing out opposition protests that flared in the winter.... Today’s system looks much more repressive than the one put in force a decade ago. Back then – though the Kremlin never admitted openly what it was doing – advisers and officials, on background, would lay out a pragmatic justification for “Putinism”. The Kremlin needed to re-establish centralised power, they said, to end the chaos resulting from Russia’s deeply flawed 1990s attempts at democracy-building, and allow its economy to develop. Russia had to nurture a responsible, property-owning middle class that would not vote for communists or fascists.... This system carried inherent dangers. In a country where the rule of law had not taken root, rules had to be bent to guarantee control. Rather than being based on fear, moreover, the system used tolerance of corruption to ensure at least minimal loyalty – making Russia’s age-old problem of graft ever more institutionalised. The assumption was that once society was ready, the screws would gradually be loosened, and democratic choice returned to the people.... Many Russians believe that the time has come, and that the Pussy Riot trial shows Russia’s leadership is flunking it. The benign interpretation of Putinism is becoming unsustainable, they say.... Instead, Mr Putin’s return further hollowed out Russia’s institutional framework, restoring overtly personalised rule. The unexpected anger that this provoked found expression in the demonstrations that erupted after December’s manipulated parliamentary elections. But Russians’ very willingness to demonstrate on the streets shows that Putinism, helped by soaring oil prices, has worked. The middle class is here. Russia’s nominal gross domestic product per capita was $14,000 last year, well above the level at which many countries have embraced democracy. The middle class is small, and almost entirely urban. But it is growing. Rather than engaging with it, however, as the harbinger of a widening phenomenon capable of transforming Russia, Mr Putin’s Kremlin is fighting it. That makes Russia’s leadership look ever less like an agent of modernising change and more like what critics have long accused it of being: a group too comfortable with power and wealth, striving to cling on at all costs. Yet unless it is prepared to become much more repressive, the Kremlin’s efforts to stifle protest appear to be futile. Opponents are finding inventive ways of getting round the laws. If that opposition continues to spring up, Hydra-like, Mr Putin may eventually face a challenge from within the leading group. If oil prices tumble and the economy stalls, some commentators believe he could yet face a Tahrir Square-like uprising".Neil Buckley, "Punk Band Trial reveals Putin's Dark Side." The Financial Times. 31 July 2012, in www.ft.com.
"'What could a handful of young students do? They destroyed themselves for nothing!' All that is very sensible, and people who argue in that way ought to be gratfied at the good sense of the younger generation of Russians that followed us. After our affair, which followed that of Sungurov, fifteen years passed in tranquillity before the Petrashevsky affair, and it was those fifteen years from which Russia is only just beginning to recover and by which two generations were broken, the elder smothered in violence, and the younger generation poisoned from childhood, whose sickly representatives we are seeing to-day....The savage punishments inflicted on boys of sixteen or seventeen served as a stern lesson and a kind of hardening process; the paw of the beast hung over every one of us, proceeding from a breast without a heart, and dispelled for good all rosy hopes of indulgence for youth. It was dangerous to play at Liberalism, and no one dreamed at playing at conspiracy. For one badly concealed tear over Poland, for one boldly uttered word, there were years of exile, of the white strap and sometimes even the fortress."Alexander Ivanovich Herzen. My Past and Thoughts. Volume One. Translated by Constance Garnett. Revised Edition. (1968), p. 133. The 'Pu--y Riot' case provides to a small extent an open window on the evolution of 'Putinism' as a system of government in Russia. On the face of it, the original actions of this group of mauvais ton, ill-bred, ill-educated, devushkii is quite farcical. In the 'old days', say circa London 1939, they would have been arrested, flogged by the public hangman and be 'bound over' for twelve months. Unfortunately, here in the decadent West, we live in needless permissive times, so that idiotic 'performances' of the type that was seen in Moskva's Christ the Saviour Cathedral, are almost par for the course in this day and age. Au fond, in terms of strict morality, my own surmise is that the Russian authorities would have been quite content to issue a stern warning to the young ladies and let them go, if the original demonstration was a purely non-political event. However, the event in the aftermath of the first mass demonstrations in Moskva against Putin and Putinism for another Presidential term, was seen, and in a fashion correctly, as quite political in nature by the authorities and they reacted accordingly. Hence the current trial. Which provides a convenience backdrop, along with the charging of the oppositionist Navalny, that the regime, has decided at least for the present, to endeavor to snuff out, all traces of overt opposition, whether peaceful (which so far is all they have been) or not. Of course, Matushka Rossiya has in the past, as the memoirs of the first, Russian dissident, Alexander Gertsen show, seen a political regime, for reasons real or imagined, go all out and criminalize, acts and statements, whether they are in fact 'political' or not, simply because in a particular atmosphere, everything was viewed and seen by the authorities as 'political'. Just as in Prague, under Husak, the private performances of some poshlost, 'Rock and Roll' band, was deemed by the authorities to be a political act 1. The upshot of this type of politicization is inevitably that almost anything and everything is regarded by both the ruling regime and its opponents and indeed the population at large, as being 'political'. With the result of course that normal and rational politics, as we usually understand it in the West, goes out the window and the subterfuge 'politics' of full-fledged authoritarian regimes comes into play 2. Russia is not of course quite at that stage of the game. And it is not clear to me, if the regime as a whole wishes to go down this route. I can well imagine that in the conflicted and multi-dimensional political regime that is Putin's Russia, that there are a good number of people of the Alexei Kudrin sort, who wish to go down another road, than what Kudrin's former chief appears to wish to travel. No doubt, Kudrin, et. al., would prefer to engineer a 'soft-landing' and to stage a liberalization and modernization from 'above', `a la say the two greatest twentieth century Russian statesmen, Pyotr Stolypin and Graf Witte endeavored and failed to travel in the years before the Great War 3. Unfortunately, it also appears that a majority of the regime's insiders, including Putin himself, appear to go down the road to repression, rather than liberalization. Which in some ways is a genuine tragedy, as for all its faults, as the Financial Times correspondent, aptly points out, for a time and to a good degree, the first six to seven years of 'Putinism', did indeed 'work'. Albeit, with astronomically high levels of corruption and governmental incompetence. But, in giving the country years of stability as well as solid (admittedly uneven & resource dependent) economic growth, Putin's regime did 'deliver'. Now of course, all that is potentially at risk. Given the fact that there are many, myself included who think that the regime will inevitably implode if it continues on its present path, perhaps via the long predicted crash in the price of oil, below say eighty-dollars a barrel (currently brent crude is priced at a one-hundred and eight dollars), it is not entirely without reason for many to look at the situation in current day Russia and repeat those horrible words, so well known to Russian ears in the past two hundred years and say: pire ca va, mieux ca est! Or as the Russian analyst Lilia Shevstova, recently characterized the current situation in a more elaborate and elongated fashion: "By censoring the media, discrediting moderate opposition, and provoking popular discontent, Putin is playing with fire. It is impossible to predict when Russia will detonate, but the system’s fissures are undeniable – and growing. The Kremlin, far from being able to control the situation, does not fully grasp what is happening. Russia is moving toward precipice. Massive capital flight and efforts by Kremlin cronies to engineer a safe landing for themselves in the West show that, even in the eyes of Putin’s cohorts, the end of his époque is approaching" 4. 1. For Czech example of the politicization of the ordinary, see: Vaclav Havel. Disturbing the Peace. Translated by Paul Wilson. (1990), pp. 126-132. For an example from Russian history, See: "Introduction", in Landmarks: A collection of Essays on the Russian Intelligentsia, 1909. Translated by Marian Schwartz. Edited by Boris Shagrin & Albert Todd. (1977), p. xlviii & passim, where the future Orthodox theologian, Nikolai Berdyaev noted: "On the soil of autocracy and lawlessness not only is political activity impossible, not only economic activity , but so is any kind of creative activity in general, any, it would seem, politically innocent cultural work; spiritual creativity in religion, science, literature and the education of the nation are all impossible". For an example from Sovietskaya Vlast, the so-called, 'Stiliagi', in the 1940's and 1950's, see: Vladislav Zubok. Zhivago's Children: the last Russian Intelligentsia. (2009), p. 39-59 & passim. If my strictures on these young ladies, seem excessively harsh, it is perhaps due to the fact that unlike most readers of the Anglophone press, I am aware of the fact that all two of three of these young ladies, took part in the infamous, performance art, 'orgy' in the so-called 'Museum of Biology' in Moskva, awhile back. Under the circumstances, being flogged would be very much par for the course for such young rabble rousers. 2. For examples from Russian history of 'full-fledged authoritarian regimes', see: Marc Raeff. Understanding Imperial Russia. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. (1984), pp. 147-226; Richard Pipes. Russia under the Old Regime. (1974), pp. 281-312; Martin Malia. Russia Under Western Eyes. (1999), pp. 85-160; Robert C.Tucker, "Swollen State, Spent Society: Stalin's legacy to Brezhnev's Russia." Foreign Affairs. (Winter 1981 / 1982), pp. 414-434; Marc Reaff. The Well-Ordered Police State. (1983), pp. 250-256. 3. For perhaps the best introduction in the English language, to contemporary, 'high politics' in Putin's Russia, see: Andrew Monaghan, "The vertikal: power and authority in Russia." International Affairs. (January 2012), pp. 1-16. See also: Stephen Holmes, "Fragments of a defunct State." The London Review of Books. 5 January 2012, in www.lrb.co.uk; Peter Pomerantsev, "Putin's Rasputin." The London Review of Books. 20 October 2011, pp. 3-6. On Witte & Stolypin, see: Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution. (1990), pp. 31-36 & 166-187 & passim; Dominic Lieven. Nicholas II: the twilight of the Empire. (1993), pp. 70-85, 170-181 & passim. 4. Lilia Shevstova, "Putin's Ironic Potential". The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 26 June 2012, in www.carnegieendowment.org.