One of the tests applied to any society that aspires towards democracy is the way in which it responds to dissent, or challenges to its authority. Recently Vladimir Putin has found more attention than he would have chosen focused on an unlikely thorn in his side, namely three members of the Russian punk collective, Pussy Riot.
Their crime was to burst onto the space in front of the altar in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February 2012 and stage an impromptu concert. The intention was to highlight the cosy and corrupt relationship between the Russian Orthodox church and the Putin government. Perhaps they were inspired by the scene in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem and turned over the money lenders’ tables, decrying how the religious leaders of the day had turned his Father’s house into a den of thieves (Matthew 21:12).
If so, the assembled worshippers and the Russian authorities certainly didn’t see it that way. So far as they were concerned the Pussy Riot stunt was nothing more, nothing less than a blasphemous insult perpetrated in one of the most sacred places of their faith. Their sensitivity was almost certainly heightened by the fact that the original Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was blown to smithereens by the Soviets in the 1930s, only being rebuilt following the fall of communism.
Either way, three of the young women in the collective were arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment. One was then released on appeal, the other two were let out just in time for Christmas.
In the process they managed to become an international symbol of opposition to Putin’s increasingly autocratic rule, garnering a worldwide following and massive attention in the western media.
Pussy Riot is a band in the loosest possible sense of the word. Their musicianship is non existent, and despite the enthusiastic support they have received from rock aristos like Sting and Peter Gabriel, their guitar work puts Sid Vicious up alongside Eric Clapton. It’s a shame really, because the name alone is to die for. But that’s the whole point. It’s not about slick, prepackaged music downloaded to your Apple app. Pussy Riot is an artistic and political statement, and if you don’t get it it’s because you’re part of the problem yourself. It’s more Dada than some global mega act from Live Nation doing the rounds of the world’s football stadia.
I don’t think Indonesia’s President Suharto would have “got” Pussy Riot either. If Nadya, Maria and the rest of the girls in the collective feel hard done by at the heavy handed treatment they’ve received from the Russian judicial system, they can at least console themselves they didn’t try to pull off a similar stunt in Suharto’s Indonesia.
Despite the fact that Indonesia in the 1970s never seemed a particularly devout Muslim society, I shudder to think what the consequences would have been of staging an impromptu punk protest in a Jakarta mosque. Off to the cells for a thorough aperitif beating, followed by several rounds of gang rape and torture as a main course, with a garrotting for dessert. Far from becoming poster girls for the likes of Madonna, they’d have more likely disappeared never to be heard of again. And that was before the strains of fundamentalism we in the west have come to associate with Islam really kicked off.
The heroine of my novel Francesca may well have “got” Pussy Riot, though in all likelihood she would have been perplexed by them. Having suffered dreadfully at the hands of the Indonesian military machine, she lacked the strength to take on a tough regime intolerant of dissent. She didn’t have an urge to change society, so much as to be left alone by it to live in peace.
I’d be fascinated to hear from readers, especially in Russia, Indonesia and East Timor. What are your views on Pussy Riot? Did Putin score an own goal in allowing his courts to crack down so hard on them? How would the situation be handled in today’s Indonesia? Feel free to comment, tweet, retweet and link back in.
Francesca, my novel set in 1970’s Indonesia is available now from Betimes Books.