The saga of Russian feminist grrl-punk band Pussy Riot continues: On Friday the trio was sentenced to two years in prison for the crimes of “blasphemy” (a word most of us have difficulty writing or saying aloud without smirking just a bit) and encouraging “religious hatred,” which apparently is a euphemism in Russia for “criticizing Putin.”
The three young women have become a cause célèbre after their storming of a Moscow cathedral in February as a form of protest against the diminutive Russian president. Every busybody rock star this side of Bono came out in the gals’ defense, and public intellectual Slavoj Zisek uttered a characteristically moist denunciation of the Russian authorities’ persecution of the band with his industrial-strength lisp.
The media attention has turned the Pussy Riot trial into a circus, pitting West against East, free speech against authoritarianism, Slavophiles against Russophobes. One Russian politician even described Pussy Riot supporter Madonna as a “moralizing slut,” one of the more unlikely contradictions in terms in recent memory.
But there are those who have argued that the attention of celebs such as Madonna, Paul McCartney, and Bjork has done more damage than good, putting Putin’s back up and giving the little guy the impression that “the West” is giving orders to “the East.” The Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill opined that the support for Pussy Riot “crossed the line from solidarity into something more like cynical Russia-bashing” intended not to support free-speech rights but to “advertise the inner decency of Western human-rights types in contrast to the evil Putin.”
He may have a point about the moral vanity of Western meddlers—and let’s not forget that, if Pussy Riot had violated a mosque and menstruated all over a copy of the Koran, I doubt Slavoj Zisek or any other fashionable bien pensants would have leapt to the defense of their right to blaspheme. But that ignores the fact that the “blasphemy” charge was always a thin veneer for the real issue, which is that they trespassed into the Orthodox cathedral not to mock Jesus or Mary, but to criticize Putin, who like many authoritarian rulers, has skin so thin it borders on translucent.
And let’s not forget the pushy short-guy factor in all this. Putin may be a former KGB thug, a judo expert, a man who wrestles rhinos with his bare hands and sucker-punches wild boars for kicks and poses shirtless for photographers more often than the members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but none of that erases the fact that he also a guy who can’t reach a bag of frozen kasza on the top shelf of the freezer without the aid of either a chair to stand on or a stack of Turgenev novels. And if there’s one thing little guys don’t like, it’s being given orders by bigger guys.
Putin’s over-the-top macho shtick has a certain cachet in the West, where emasculated beta-male politicians (Tony Blair and David Cameron and nice-guy Obama and what’s-his-name who runs Canada) are so bland and flavorless that Putin’s shirtless swagger and old-school authoritarianism can seem sort of refreshing. But it’s probably safe to say that it’s a routine whose charm increases in direct relation to how far away one is from Russia. For Westerners, it’s a bracing change of pace and almost endearingly cartoonish; for journalists and artists and free-thinkers in Russia itself, the borscht-swilling Napoleon is probably about as likeable and charming as your high-school principal, but one with a massive police-state apparatus behind him.
Meanwhile, it turns out that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the most photogenic of the Pussies, might actually be a permanent resident of Canada—she denies this, but photos of both a resident card and a Canadian health card seem to suggest otherwise. With this new and exciting plot twist comes the likelihood of demands for Canadian diplomatic intervention on her behalf.
Is this likely? Well, Canada’s record for bravely standing up to dictators and totalitarian thugs isn’t exactly stellar. Several years ago, Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death in an Iranian prison and the Canadian government’s response was, if memory serves, a strongly worded statement to the effect that they politely but with the utmost cultural sensitivity disapprove of such tactics.
Working in her favor might be that Tolokonnikova is a hottie (she plays the lanky Michael Nesmith of the group to the Peter Tork and Mickey Dolenz-in-drag of the other two, apparently). This may encourage some reaction on the part of the authorities to take action against the rather draconian sentence (feminists always seem slightly less annoying when they’re good-looking), but don’t count on it. Canada is precisely the sort of soft, feminized, meddling-Western do-gooder cliché of a nation that Putin would presumably least like to take orders from as a matter of general principle. Any self-respecting authoritarian despot would sooner carry luggage for the Prime Minister of Sweden while wearing a maid’s uniform than be seen taking orders from Canada. And “L’il” Putin is no run-of-mill authoritarian despot. He’s short, he’s bald, and he’s Russian—the perfect trifecta for creating a man of boundless, earth-scorching resentment and with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Pushkin monument. I feel for the Pussy Rioters, really I do, but common sense dictates that you just don’t piss of a guy with that many complexes, especially when he has the army and police force on his side.