The widely criticised detention and trial of the three members of the Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, now awaiting verdicts in Moscow on charges of ‘hooliganism’ for an anti-Putin protest happening at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour has been widely – and rightly – reported as a litmus test of the nature of power and opposition in contemporary Russia.
But for anyone with a slightly longer historical memory – and an interest in East European affairs - it also has echoes of earlier trial of a group of muscians in a politically constructed trial four decades ago: that of the Plastic People of the Universe in communist Czechoslovakia in 1976 on a charge of ‘organised disturbance of the peace’.
Having stemmed popular protest following the Soviet-led invasion in 1968 that had terminated the Prague Spring reforms and then a variety of organised political groups in the early 1970s, Czechoslovakia’s hardline communist rulers wished to complete the ‘normalisation’ of the country by sending a powerful and intimdating signal to artists, intellectuals and young people with unconventional tastes.
Subsequent jail sentences for the long-haired Plastici ranged from eight to 18 months. Outrage over the trial provided the key impetus for the diverse groups to coalesce into the Charter 77 movement, creating the peaceful civic dissent that eventually provided the political leadership for the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
In some ways Pussy Riot trial seems to offer direct parallels. An authoritarian regime with no real ideology which has emerged in the wake of a failed democratic experiment seeks to reassert its potentially fragile social control itself by making an example of a rebellious non-conformist musicians with an English name.
A trial with a veneer of legality - and large doses of bathos and farce – ensures and proceeds to a predictable, politically fixed conclusion. Custododial sentences for loosely framed public offence seem a distinct possibility. But in seeking to dish out exemplary punishment and send a signal to sectors of society inclined towards protest and opposition, the regime miscalculates. The trial creates a focus for a diverse national and international coalition
But the Pussy Riot trial also underlines how authoritarianism and opposition have moved on. Czechoslovakia’s Plastici were alternative, avant-garde and deeply at odds with their cultural and artistic values of the regime, but were in no sense a political opposition. Left alone they would probably have eked out an existence as part of a marginal underground sub-culture. But while happy to see people retreat into private and family life, Czechoslovakia’s communist ‘normalisers’ were determined to monopolise public space and seek and crush pockets of organised cultural and social non-conformity.
Putin’s more modernised post-Soviet regime wouldn’t have bothered.
It has learned the lesson that, provided the commanding heights of media and economy are securely under control, society can be kept on a much looser leash.
As various in-the-field projects written by SSEES students about St Petersburg punks and Moscow football hooligans attest, marginal sub-cultures happily flourish on the fringes of contemporary Russian society.
It is independent political activity and political protest that brings a sharp, brutal tug on the leash. For while they might share some of their avant-garde aethetics and style, unlike the Plastics, Pussy Riot are clearly in the business of overt, provocative political opposition – opposition intended to be seen and heard as widely as possible.
The two trials also highlights changes in the breadth, gender and social composition of those involved in anti-regime protest in Eastern Europe. While the Plastics of 1970s - like the later Czech dissident cultural and intellectual elites their trial helped give rise to- were exclusively male, with wives and female partners very much in the background. Pussy Riot’s identity, impact and elan, by contrast, stem from the fact that its members are young, female and feminist – although the Western media, well accustomed to kick-ass punk heroines, doesn’t dwell on the gender politics.
Where the two historical moments seem to touch, however, is in highlighting the underlying continuties of an over-powerful (post-)communist power apparatus accountable neither to law, nor society.
Pussy Riot’s commitment to
… horizontal political activity, self-organization and the capability to be aware of oneself as an equal participant in civil politics, to understand one’s rights and fight for them to develop…
would be immediately comprehensive to even the most non-hip, conservative Chartist of the 1970s or 80s, as well as to those like Havel with more obviously Bohemian cultural leanings, although its feminism, anti-sexism and libertarian leftism and in-your-face political militancy would probably be less palatable. Also deeply familiar across the the gap of decades and countries is the absence of the rule of law, facade of independent legal process and the obvious political pliability of judges and courts.
Whatever the sentences next week, the final unanswered question is if and how the Pussy Riot trial will have the politically galavanising effect similar to that of the Plastics forty years ago. Putin’s Russia is not Communist Czechoslovakia whose apparent strength eventually proved so brittle, but a far more adaptable and multifaceted regime whose hard to grasp mix of concession, repression and regression may be altogether tougher to crack.