Sunday 17 November 2019

John Kampfner: Putin the big loser as punk band put state in spotlight

John Kampfner

The Church of Christ the Saviour is the perfect symbol of what is wrong about modern Russia. In 1931, Stalin dynamited the place to build a monument to Communism. In the 1990s, as the Soviet Union was no more, and the Orthodox Church assumed new powers and re-assumed its role as apologist for the state, Boris Yeltsin decided to rebuild the church. Hundreds of millions of roubles later, a garish gold and marble structure was unveiled. It has become a monument to the mix of power, brute force and bling that is the hallmark of the rule of Mr Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin.

The church is now at the heart of the struggle for freedom of expression in Russia. In March, the three members of the punk band Pussy Riot sneaked in to perform a guerrilla gig, denouncing the former KGB chief for muscling his way back to the top job of president. Their song -- 'Virgin Mary, Chase Putin Out' -- lasted about half a minute. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina were thrown in jail, charged with "hooliganism" and inciting "religious hatred".

The show trial that has taken place since the end of July is widely regarded as a PR disaster not just for the church but for the Kremlin.

These two immobile and all-powerful organs of power have, so we are led to believe, been humiliated by three sassy young women standing in a courtroom cage dubbed "the aquarium" and using their court appearances to deliver punchy and dignified denunciations of the authoritarian regime.

This narrative, which puts a contemporary context on the travails of the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, is half right and half wrong. On Friday, the three will be sentenced. The only question is the length of sentence, with predictions that, on Mr Putin's instruction, they may receive less than the three-year maximum.

This was a fight Mr Putin did not need to pick. Only the most myopic authoritarian would regard protests such as this a threat to the system.

Since "persuading" Mr Medvedev to swap jobs and return to the job of prime minister earlier this year, Mr Putin has allowed his thuggish personality to get the better of him. He has arrested a popular opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, and denounced a popular female TV presenter and "socialite", Ksenia Sobchak.

For sure, many members of the Moscow and St Petersburg middle class are embarrassed by what they see. Mr Medvedev was more their man. He promised a "law-based" society and a clampdown on corruption. Neither bore fruit. Then last autumn Mr Medvedev acceded to the still mysterious job-swap with his real master.

So now Russians are lumbered with Mr Putin. During his first two stints at the top he was relatively adept at managing the message. The Kremlin took to social media and television to proffer the line that Mr Putin provided the only guarantee for social stability and wealth creation.

For the moment, that line remains convincing for most, at least until a credible alternative arrives. No matter how articulate and telegenic three female punks might be, they are not about to send the system crashing down. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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