News Analysis

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Russia can't blindfold the eyes of the world at Sochi

Eilis O'Hanlon doubts whether a call to boycott the Winter Olympics is the best expression of Pussy Riot's valid message

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 29/12/2013 | 02:30

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Maria Alyokhina. Photo: Sergei Karpukhin
Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezha Tolokonnikova

Bursting into Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral in the middle of a church service attended mainly by elderly women, then singing a deliberately offensive song on the altar -- including the words "Sran Gospodyna" ("shit of the Lord") -- is hardly a commendable use of the right of free expression, however justified the cause. There were other ways for punk rock feminist band Pussy Riot to protest about the links between the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and Vladimir Putin's despotic government.

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That's why many Russians still, after all the international consternation at the jailing of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, believe the group's actions, in the words of Putin last week, "went beyond all boundaries". Not least because it happened in a church destroyed by Stalin and symbolically rebuilt after the fall of Communism.

Such protests can lead to serious repercussions in countries far less repressive than Russia, after all. Trenton Oldfield swam into the Thames to disrupt the Oxford/Cambridge boat race a few years ago in a protest against "elitism". He was convicted of public nuisance and sentenced to six months in jail. He served seven weeks behind bars, was electronically tagged for the remainder, and is now fighting a bid to deport him back to his native Australia, despite having no previous convictions. All this for swimming. There are a few murmurs of dismay in Britain about this, but not many.

Anti-fracking protestors; climate change activists; those out on the streets agitating about austerity -- they've all seen the inside of prison cells in recent years. Had the Russian authorities handled the situation more astutely, Pussy Riot may have been quickly forgotten, just like all the rest.

Instead they decided to get tough, not only jailing Nadezhda and Maria for two years, but sending them to women's corrective labour camps far from their families. That was the game-changer. If it's not too fanciful a comparison, it was similar to when the British decided to execute the 1916 rebels, thereby turning what had been an inglorious and failed exercise with little public support into a mass popular cause.

Pussy Riot turned into an international cause celebre. Amnesty International listed them as prisoners of conscience precisely because of the severity of the response of the Russian authorities. Even those who had condemned the original stunt soon came to see their treatment as unduly harsh and politically motivated.

Now the two women are out once more, a few months short of their scheduled release date, as part of a general amnesty voted through by the Russian parliament in advance of the Winter Olympics, due to get under way in Sochi in February.

If anyone thought that jail would have tamed Pussy Riot, however, they were in for a nasty shock. Nadezhda and Maria came out of prison unbowed, unchastened, unapologetic, and instead used the international media attention to carry on where they had left off.

Still in her prison uniform, Alyokhina went directly to a meeting of the Committee Against Torture. She then took part in an illegal setting-off of fireworks outside the prison where she was held.

"My attitude to the President has not changed," she said defiantly. The two women even said they would have turned down the chance to be part of what they considered a public relations stunt by the Russian government if it had been offered to them.

"We didn't ask for any pardon," as Alyokhina put it.

"I would have sat here until the end of my sentence because I don't need mercy from Putin."

Both women now say they will campaign even more vigorously for human rights in Russia.

"Everything is just starting, so fasten your seatbelts ... I'm not afraid of anything any more, believe me."

Truly, nothing about their time in prison became Pussy Riot so much as the way they left it.

This is certainly a far more inspiring message than the so-called "punk prayer" which Pussy Riot performed on the altar of Christ the Saviour. That was like a petulant teenager's stamped foot; inchoate rage, without shape or direction.

Two years on, harsh experience has matured these women into formidable figureheads for a younger generation of Russians, more focused and articulate than ever. Whether a boycott of the Winter Olympics would be the best expression of that message is another matter.

Pussy Riot have called for other nations to stay away next February in protest at Russia's human rights record, similar to earlier calls for a boycott to highlight the crackdown on gay rights under Putin; but a partial boycott, which is all it would ever be, would simply mean a slightly smaller public relations success for Russia than the one on which they're relying -- not a failure.

All that can be said for sure is that the eyes of the world will be on Sochi in February, and they're eyes that Russia will not be able to keep shut. There'll be hundreds of international media organisations there; tens of thousands of broadcasters and journalists; all beaming pictures back to an audience of hundreds of millions.

Russia might long to use the event as a modern equivalent of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, glorifying a despicable regime, but there are too many voices and too many witnesses. What better platform for a powerful and genuinely meaningful protest against the Putin regime? Not shouting "Sran Gospodyna" at a handful of elderly Christians, but shouting loud in support of political prisoners and against Russia's crackdown on gay rights to a massive audience at home and around the world?

There's no point to most boycotts. The Americans stayed away from the 1980 Moscow Olympics; the Soviets refused to turn up in Los Angeles four years later in revenge. Ultimately, neither gesture made the slightest difference to anything.

That's what would have happened had Jesse Owens also stuck to his original plan to boycott the 1936 Olympics in disgust at the Nazis' racism. Instead he went, triumphed, and will be remembered as a result.

The International Olympic Committee does not look kindly on political causes hijacking their games, but there's going to be a 21st Century Jesse Owens at Sochi in February whether the bureaucrats and the Russians like it or not. Someone who symbolises the exact opposite message to the one the regime wants to convey. We just don't know who it's going to be yet.

Whoever it is will be indebted to the glorious example of resistance given by the two jailed members of Pussy Riot since their release.

Despite calling for a boycott, the women also seem to be explicitly giving such protests their blessing in advance.

"You can only push this button once," Tolokonnikova said last week about Sochi. "This is a one-off chance."

February is going to be interesting. It may well turn out to be the one performance by Pussy Riot to which the whole world has been invited.

Irish Independent

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