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A cruel and absurd farce: Pussy Riot, a metaphor

[Dutch-speaking Council of Women of Belgium, Brussels, 22 August 2012] An article from Katlijn Malfliet, Russia expert at Leuven University and President of the Dutch-speaking Council of Women of Belgium, EWL member.

The worldwide protest against the two year prison camp sentence handed down to three members of the Russian action group Pussy Riot needs to be much stronger, says KATLIJN MALFLIET.

Blasphemy, that is what they say it is about: three young women, feminists and members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, singing a ‘punk prayer’ (not an unattractive melody by the way) in Russia’s most important cathedral, Christ the Savior, next to the Kremlin, asking the Virgin Mary to ‘chase’ Putin.

The Russian Prokuratura qualified the case as hooliganism and incitement to religious hatred, a felony punishable by up to seven years of prison camp, according to the Russian criminal code. Even the prosecution’s final claim of three years came across as a judicial joke, cruel, absurd, Kafkaesque. The severe actions by the government towards the dissident group of young women, the rounding up of demonstrators: it all reminds us of Stalin’s troikas (courts with three judges for extrajudicial punishment), which convicted people without trial and sentenced them to death or to deportation to the gulags for many years. Mikhail Khodorkovski, another Russian political dissident, compared this case to the inquisition of the Middle Ages: the young women are presented as dangerous sinners, locked up in a cage awaiting their sentence. How could one not be outraged?

Demonic

The message sent out by the Russian state and the Orthodox church is that Pussy Riot’s actions constitute a threat to the Russian state. Church and state point out the danger of ‘reduction of the spiritual basis of the state’. There is no questioning the interdependence between the state and the Russian Orthodox church. The church, supported by a large group of churchgoers, called it ‘satanic behavior’ and ‘demonic jumps’. The three masked women accused Putin of macho politics, readily supported in its patriarchal aspects by the Orthodox church. The interdependence of church and state is typical of the Russian culture of power (and its Byzantine roots) and is recognized in the sense of identity of the Russian population: Russian equals orthodox (but not necessarily churchgoing). So when the feminist ladies of Pussy Riot ask the Virgin Mary to expel President Putin from the Kremlin, they directly attack a self-conscious Russia, which develops its power in an arrogant way, without any respect for human rights.

The western world, America, Western Europe, human rights organizations, the feminist movement and the arts world also consider this to be ‘blasphemy’, but in a quite different sense of the word. Political personalities and international stars have spoken out in support of Pussy Riot. Last Friday (August 17) people all over the world demonstrated for their release, claiming the protection of human rights, in particular the inviolable right to freedom of speech. So far, the feminist claim of women’s rights being human rights is still not heard loud enough.

Arrogant nation

Yet, this is also about women’s rights, worldwide. The international women’s movement watches with dismay as conservative powers, seconded by religions (the catholic church too is to blame), try to undermine the international recognition of women’s rights (for example within the UN) and to force women back into their traditional roles in society.
Hence the support of the feminist movement for Pussy Riot equals a strong signal that any attempt to backslide on women’s rights in the name of a conservative political or religious ideology will not be tolerated.

But even more is at stake and therefore the pressure from the Western world from all possible sides should develop into one radical voice. The Pussy Riot trial is a metaphor for an arrogant nation, with no limits, a political regime not to be intimidated by western protests demanding respect for human rights, a regime chasing its geopolitical ambitions in the most absurd and cruel ways - and no one doubts these ambitions. A regime that gets rid of all forms of opposition, pursuing its urge to survive and to grow stronger, to which end any method can be used, even radical and absurd ones if necessary.

The international protest must be loud and clear, coming from many angles, because Pussy Riot’s ‘trial’ is a key moment, a metaphor for a nation putting itself on the international map in a powerful and bold way. We cannot ask ourselves whether this will happen. It will. The only question is: when? Pussy Riot shows us what is coming our way. Rights and freedom are at stake in Europe. We must make it clear to the Putin regime that any attack on human rights is unacceptable. Urgently.

Who? Prof. dr. Katlijn Malfliet, Russia expert at Leuven University and president of the Dutch-speaking Council of Women of Belgium

What? The international protest against the Putin regime must get more powerful.

Why? The Pussy Riot sentence is a key moment in the development of an arrogant and powerful nation.

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