I subscribe to Registan.net’s RSS feed to stay up to date on Central Asia, and I generally don’t mind them, if I don’t always find them the most professional. But I think their Pussy Riot commentary is really off the mark. Joshua Foust starts off his whopper of a piece, “When Putin Becomes Religion,” innocuously enough, with a summary of the Pussy Riot case, but quickly veers into explaining just how wrong it is that people care about the plight of these women, comparing it right off the bat to Kony 2012:
In a real way, Kony 2012 took a serious problem — warlords escaping justice in East Africa — and turned it into a crass exercise in commercialism, militarism, and western meddling. Local researchers complained about it, and lots of scholars used it as an opportunity to teach how not to do damaging activism.
In Russia, Pussy Riot is doing the same thing — taking a serious issue (Russia’s lack of political freedoms or civil liberties) and turning it into a celebration of feminist punk music and art. Pussy Riot are being unjustly imprisoned, but that doesn’t mean all of the protests against their imprisonment should be lauded.
Wait, really? “A celebration of feminist punk music and art” is the same as “commercialism, militarism, and western meddling?” Madonna’s show of solidarity, for example, is “damaging activism,” and/or the same as a falsified PR campaign that led to military involvement and a Senate resolution? (OK, haha, let’s not pretend that Senate resolutions really mean anything, but still.) Because they don’t seem that similar to me. Let’s read on for a better explanation:
For example, the media frenzy over Pussy Riot’s possible three years in prison is obscuring the much harsher sentences facing their not-famous, not-female co-protesters.
First of all, is it? Would there be more reporting on the Bolotnaya arrests if Pussy Riot weren’t around? Maybe – there is a limited amount of Russia news the West is really interested in hearing (I have tested this hypothesis by talking about Russia at parties) – but can we see some proof? Second, it’s worth noting that no one in that case has actually been sentenced, much less given a “much harsher” sentence. The “much harsher” sentences in question are three extra years of jail time – a ten-year maximum instead of seven.
I guess they’re not pretty girls in a punk band with a naughty name, so they don’t deserve the Amnesty International campaigns and celebrity solidarity. When Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer in Russia who was arrested after alleging widespread political corruption, died from the abuse he suffered in prison — having never even gotten the courtesy of a trial, like Pussy Riot — there were some peeps of protest by some politicians but nothing on the scale of the Pussy Riots. Russian authorities acted suspiciously after his death, leading many to assume they had something to do with it.
Magnitsky’s death prompted some wrangling in the US Congress, where a bill named after him now awaits enactment. But the many celebrities urging their fans to show concern about Pussy Riot, about Russian women, about the plight of Art, apparently don’t know about the many men, non-punk rockers, regular Russians who face far worse brutality and mistreatment by Putin’s government every day.
OK. OK. The West not paying attention to Magnitsky was not Pussy Riot’s fault. Also, the West did pay attention to Magnitsky, to the tune of over a hundred mentions in the New York Times since his 2009 arrest, and, you know, a Senate bill. (Note: not a resolution.) It wasn’t a Madonna concert, sure, but since you’re so contemptuous of that sort of “slacktivism” anyway, isn’t solemn NYT reporting and legislative activism actually better than a Madonna concert?
Also, can we bring up their gender a few more times? I get that you’re frustrated that the media loves young, attractive women more than middle-aged lawyers – as someone whose time as a young, attractive woman is waning, I feel you! – but this is starting to sound a little misogynist, along the lines of “She only got that raise because the boss likes her tits.” The fact that this case is the one that drew widespread attention to the abuses of the Putin-era judiciary does not in and of itself mean that those abuses have been obscured. Attractive women and serious journalism can and do mix.
But not here, apparently! Mr. Foust’s claim that “focusing on the spectacle of Pussy Riot actually obscures from the real issues that prompted the Pussy Riot trial in the first place” is proven by quotes from a New York Times article about an event in support of Pussy Riot, held at a hip Manhattan hotel and mostly attended by well-off, liberal women and mid-range celebrities for whom he actually appears to ooze disdain:
It wasn’t thousands of people rallying in the streets of Moscow for political freedom that got Le Tigre into Russia, it was three girls in a punk band showing up in her twitter feed. And she responded by going to a poetry reading in Manhattan.
What does Mr. Foust think she ought to have done instead, I wonder? Or does the very fact that she would go to a poetry reading, or Manhattan, negate the value of anything she could do? Look, this isn’t the kind of party I’d go to, either – if there’s a reporter there taking note of Chloe Sevigny’s eyelet dress and flats, it’s probably not my scene – but that doesn’t mean it was completely worthless.
He goes on to protest the numerous mentions of the patriarchy at this event (“I didn’t realize Russia’s biggest sin against freedom was its male chauvinism,” he whines), not seeming to have ever learned that this is a normal thing that happens, different people deriving different meanings from art (which he would capitalize, because Art! How silly and pretentious!). And not seeming to realize that an anti-patriarchy reading of Pussy Riot’s actions would, um, probably not be censured by the group themselves.
He closes his discussion of this article by eviscerating this quote: “Three women standing up against Putin,” she marveled. “They are nobodies. They could be silenced tomorrow. They are sheroes, to the world.”
Kudos for introducing me to the term “sheroes,” but honestly: give me a fucking break. Pussy Riot are not normal peasants grabbed off the road and put on trial for being women — they are rather famous (at least in Russia) political activists who got arrested for political activism. That is a horrible, ludicrous thing for Russia to do, but making them into everyman “boy life sure is hard under government” types is worse than silly. It is ignorant.
Dude, I’m pretty sure that was a reference to Samutsevich’s closing statement:
I now have mixed feelings about this trial. On the one hand, we expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial.
(Except “sheroes,” cause that pun doesn’t work in Russian.) But has he read her closing statement? Does he care about this case at all? I mean, it’s fine if he doesn’t, but then why is he writing about it? Oh, right, to bitch and moan:
That’s what is so awful about the way the Pussy Riot media frenzy has played out. Reporters have focused on the most narrow, attention-grabbing aspect of the story (pretty young punk girls being told feminism is bad and put on trial) and have completely ignored that Pussy Riot are part of a larger mass movement within Russia to demand more political freedom that’s being literally, physically, beaten back by Vladimir Putin’s thugs.
Citation needed. I haven’t seen many articles about this case that haven’t mentioned the mass movement, the larger problems with the judiciary, Putin’s thugs. Like, “Move along, folks, nothing systemic to see here, just some poor pretty little girls being pushed around.” Also, again with the feminism-hating. Literally no one is saying this is about “girls being told feminism is bad,” or, as he asserts above, that these girls are being “put on trial for being women.” Are we straw-manning, here? Josh, do you have a problem with women you’d like to talk about?
I’m sorry, but this just sounds like ordinary whining that there are n00bs on your territory who couldn’t ever possibly know or care as much as you do, with a dash of distaste for women who are obviously not as cool and tough and smart as you. From where I’m standing, the Western attention Pussy Riot has gotten is largely a positive thing. It has been coupled with equal attention and support from within the Russian protest movement – hey, another way it’s unlike Kony 2012! – and, with today’s guilty verdict, two-year sentence, and further arrests of dozens of protesters, I think it’ll be great if the media continues to milk the story’s popularity by demanding follow-up reports from Russia.
The mass media, social media, viral media, Ksenia Sobchak remaking her playgirl image via Twitter – none of these are unproblematic. It sucks that most people don’t know that much about the world around them, until someone somewhere gives a push and a story snowballs big enough to roll downhill and smack them in the ass. And it sucks that those pushes aren’t administered fairly. For example, I would love it if the English reporting on this case had done more to explain what Voina is, and what these women’s ties to it are. But Mr. Foust’s argument that the attention Pussy Riot has garnered is wrong or unjustified just doesn’t hold water.
FREE PUSSY RIOT.