Putin, Pussy Riot, and the Future of Russian Politics

Putin, Pussy Riot, and the Future of Russian Politics

Writing about the Pussy Riot trial seems roughly analogous to going to Church on Easter: You just have to, and that’s that.

| This article originally appeared on Forbes / by Mark Adomanis.

For me, writing about the Pussy Riot trial seems roughly analogous to going to Church on Easter: it’s not unpleasant or bad, but you really don’t have much choice in the matter. You just have to, and that’s that. Expectations have to be met.

So what can I hope to add to a story that has  been exhaustively covered by a pretty much every single media outlet on the planet? Well, I’d like to think a little more deeply not about the rightness or wrongness of the trial, I’ve repeatedly noted that I am of the (utterly banal) opinion that the members of Pussy Riot should never have been jailed in the first place, but about its likely impact on Russian politics. There seems to be virtually unanimous agreement from the left, right, center, and everywhere else that the trial of Pussy Riot is a transparent attempt by the Kremlin to bolster its position at the expense of the opposition.

There is, however, substantial disagreement over whether or not this will actually work. One school of thought sees the Pussy Riot trial as yet another example of the Kremlin’s incompetence and idiocy, a sad-sack attempt at repression that will blow up in its face. Another sees the trial as a rather canny ploy on Putin’s part that simultaneously divides the opposition and accentuates the growing divide between the (relatively) wealthy residents of the largest cities and the rest of the country.

This disagreement isn’t perfectly binary, there are some people whose opinions really can’t be put on a “it will work” vs. “it won’t work” spectrum, but it does seem to largely break down along those lines.

The “it won’t work” position is demonstrated quite nicely by Michael Weiss in The Telegraph:

In its role as helpmeet of the prosecution, the Church cited John 10:33 against Pussy Riot, a verse that was even included in their criminal file: “For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.” It should be a fair sign of how demented, stupid and self-destructive Putin’s regime has become that it now readily identifies its victims with Jesus Christ.

The second is clearly visible in Oleg Kashin’s article in The Guardian:

You can sneer at this formulation all you want, but it makes Putin’s power more stable. The hatred being cultivated in Russian society will become a source of legitimacy for Putin…Thanks to the trial against Pussy Riot, the main theme of discussion in Russian society became the role of the Orthodox church in the life of the country, and there are much fewer opponents of Orthodoxy among Russians than opponents of Putin.

I’m with Kashin. That fact that a plan is distasteful and disagreeable (and an attempt by the authorities to paint big-city Russians as less than authentic is genuinely vile) doesn’t mean that it’s destined to fail. Consider, for a moment, all of the electoral mileage that Republicans have gotten by stoking the cultural resentments and insecurities of the working class. Every four years liberals and progressives manage to convince themselves that this will be the election that the public finally ignores all of those “distractions” and instead votes in its economic self interest. No fake issues this time around! Just the “real” issues. Dollars and cents.

And, as everyone’s favorite African Dictator/blogger astutely noted, it keeps never happening: just when you think that the ability to capitalize on resentment of the self-styled elite has been exhausted, someone else invents a new way of stoking the fires. Whether it’s hockey moms, job creators, or “you didn’t build that,” there’s always a new way of dossing up the same thin gruel.

We’d have to be pretty damn naive to think that relying on the grievances of “real Russians” is a losing proposition for Vladimir Putin. People often react very favorably to ego stoking: they like being told that they’re the moral foundation of the country’s greatness and that their opponents are degenerate liars and cheats who are probably foreigners anyway. Even though their own lives might be pretty bleak, the “real Russians” for whom Putin is posturing want to be told that they’re better than those hipsters and their ipads. The fact that they know this isn’t true only makes it more pleasing.

It’s true that Russia has never previously had a politics based on getting people to actively dislike Moscow and Petersburg, but I don’t see why thiscan’t happen. In the long-term Putin’s decision to cast his lot with the more religious, poorer, and less dynamic parts of the country probably isn’t a very smart one,  but he seems increasingly focused not on crafting some sort of world-historical legacy but on simply surviving in power. And if that’s his only goal, then divisive stunts like the Pussy Riot trial are actually a pretty astute choice.

So, while it would be nice if idiotic stunts like the Pussy Riot trial were actually damaging to the Kremlin’s short-term position, so far it seems that the outrage is mostly coming from foreign entertainers and one-named rock stars like Bono, Bjork, and Sting, people whose opinions have never held much sway in the Kremlin. Look, the whole Pussy Riot trial has  just been a thoroughly depressing and rotten spectacle, but I don’t think it’s going to have nearly as de-stabilizing an effect as most people assume.

| Sources: Article (Mark Adomanis) / Image ().

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