Pussy Riot & the hypocrisy of the West

by Sam Kriss

No you’re not.

Those Pussy Riot balaclavas are going to be a fashion item. If it hasn’t started yet (and it probably has), it’s pretty much inevitable. Cadaverous models will levitate along catwalks in brightly coloured versions of the things, made from cashmere or PVC or carbon nanotubes; maybe they’ll strike a fierce revolutionary pose at the end for the furiously blinking cameras before turning back to clear the stage for the next human coathanger. It will stand for empowerment, and liberation, and confidence, and subversion, and all the other catchphrases of that most profoundly feminist of institutions, the beauty industry. Finally, the balaclava has been liberated from those dull, earnest, unsexy terrorists of the IRA: this will be Pussy Riot’s greatest gift to the world, reverberating far longer than their performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour or their courtroom denunciation of Putinism. Even that won’t last. In a few months you’ll be able to get a pink balaclava at Primark. By the time Nadezhda Tolokonnikova & co are released from prison, they’ll be totally passé. Congratulations, welcome back, time to get rid of that old thing, this year it’s all about semitransparent burqas. So daring. Late capitalism has a remarkable ability to drain the politics out of anything genuinely subversive and leave it a desiccated object of the aesthetic. Eighty years ago, the aestheticisation of politics was called fascism. Now, it’s disguised as solidarity.

It’s not hard to see why Pussy Riot have been so popular in the West. They’re young, sexy and politically involved – everything we wish we were. They let newspapers print the word ‘pussy’ on their front pages and congratulate themselves for their iconoclasm. They let tired old pop fogeys like Madonna and Sir Paul McCartney make a last desperate grab at legitimacy. They let us feel good about ourselves. In an era of neutered, commodified antiestablishmentarianism, they provide a vicarious sense of revolt: David Cameron might listen to the Smiths, but somewhere in the world, being punk still means something.  Pop on the balaclava and you too can fight the power.

Except the power is cheering you on. Cameron has criticised Putin over the case, the Foreign Office has expressed its disappointment, Barack Obama has castigated the Russian judiciary for the disproportionality of its sentencing. Everyone wants to be a rebel, even the government. From the flurry of international reactions to the sentencing, you’d think the Pussy Riot case marked the apogee of Putinist excess and post-Soviet repression. Which it doesn’t. Last year the government embarked on a systematic and under-reported campaign of rounding up Tajik migrant workers. Other immigrants are subjected to murderous violence from the police and neo-Nazi thugs (the two are often the same people). Journalists critical of the government such as Anna Politkovskaya are frequently assassinated or found to have mysteriously disappeared. Several regions of Russia have imposed bans on the dissemination of so-called ‘homosexual propaganda.’ Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, striking oil workers have been shot in the streets, with survivors sentenced to years of imprisonment, all with barely a peep from the Western media. No colourful balaclavas, no publicity stunts, no references to genitalia, not interested. Even the issue of atrocious gender inequality in Russia, which the group was trying to highlight, has been consumed ourobouros-style by Pussy Riot’s sudden international celebrity.

The tidal wave of popular sympathy in the West is mirrored by a seemingly inexplicable mass condemnation in Russia.  In one survey, 53% of respondents said they considered the trial’s verdict to be fair. Are they all vile agents of patriarchal orthodoxy and the Orthodox Patriarchs, eager to crush women’s liberation and free expression? It’d be absurd to deny that sexism is an enormous problem in Russia, but in the country that gave us the October Revolution, it’d be presumptuous to blame simple reactionaryism. Of the 27% who considered the sentence ‘unfair’, only 19% viewed the intervention by foreign pop stars positively. Far from agitating the population, stunts such as Madonna’s have been massively counter-productive. It’s not exactly surprising that Russians would react poorly to a millionaire Westerner telling them what to think. The Western powers tried to crush the Revolution in 1918, threatened to wipe out Russia’s population in a thermonuclear inferno throughout the Cold War, sent hundreds of advisors to implement the shock therapy under Yeltsin that eviscerated the Russian economy and parcelled out its gory remains to leering oligarchs, crowed over the most comprehensive and most precipitous decline in living standards in history as an ideological victory. Now these same people are lecturing Russia on a punk group with an English name written in Latin characters – no wonder they’re resentful.

And it’s not even like we’re in any position to lecture. The liberal West has consistently shown itself to be as hostile to freedom of speech as Putin; really the only difference is where we limit it. Just as the Orthodox church is sacrosanct in Russia, so here we punish for expressions offensive to the doctrines of multiculturalism and racial equality. In the UK being a racist twat is no longer just socially unacceptable – it carries a jail sentence. Of course, it’s true that there’s a marked difference between Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Liam Stacey. But the State is now intervening to protect ever more diminutive sacred calves. During the Olympics, a teenager on Twitter who dared to call sudden national treasure Tom Daley an ‘over hyped prick’ who’d let his (dead) father down by coming fourth in the synchronised 10m diving was arrested by Dorset police. 19-year-old Azar Ahmed has been put on trial for making some correct if inarticulate points about the glorification of Our Dear Brave Occupying Forces in Afghanistan. Two men who posted statements in support of last year’s English riots – much like I did – have been sentenced to four years in jail: twice as long as Pussy Riot. And, of course, an American citizen and his 16-year-old son were executed without trial by President Obama for what amounts to having posted some inflammatory YouTube videos. Nobody is protesting in al-Awlaki beards. No spandex. Don’t care.

The nucleus of the issue is revealed in the call for Pussy Riot to be freed: buried in that slogan is the insistence that the Russian government listen to our very reasonable advice and become like us – a tame, sensible tyranny that is happy to tolerate the imagery and appearance of revolt while crushing anything beyond that, one that only locks up the loud and boorish, the racists, the misogynists, the rioters, the unsexy. Some achievement that would be. A far better demand is this: keep them locked up! If Pussy Riot are iconoclastic radicals fighting a repressive government, of course they should be imprisoned. If their message is violent and destabilising, of course they should expect to be met with the crushing weight of State force. To call for clemency on the part of the government is to do them a disservice: it turns them into hapless victims, it invalidates their entire campaign, draining it of all its political fury, rendering it safe. They’re not weak. They don’t deserve mercy. That’s why they’ve never asked for it. It’s not Putin that’s doing the real violence against these women, it’s the West. He can only lock them away. We’ve managed to utterly disfigure them.

Long live Pussy Riot! Keep them in prison!