On February 5th, two members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot—Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova—appeared as special guests at Amnesty International’s “Bring Human Rights Home” concert at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. The concert and its associated media coverage drew attention to human rights abuses worldwide, though with the Sochi Olympics in the foreground, Russia’s human rights track record is in the spotlight.
It only makes sense that the performers would make a stop at Brooklyn. After all, it’s not for nothing that Coney Island shares a boardwalk with Brighton Beach, New York’s so-called “Little Odessa” and the largest Russian-speaking community in the United States. Like many generations before them, Pussy Riot fled political persecution at the hands of the Russian government to the welcome arms of the New York emigrant community. That being said, Pussy Riot’s Brooklyn appearance should not be construed as a simple cause for celebration. Pussy Riot’s freedom instead reflects Putin’s continued efforts to bolster his image of power and authority both domestically and abroad. Simultaneously, he demonstrated the extent to which he remains the ultimate puppet master.
Since first coming into power on the eve of the twenty-first century, Putin’s regime has been characterized by the suppression of the free media as well as the oligarchs, the entrepreneurs whose corruptly acquired finances threatened the President’s authority. Importantly, the granting of amnesty to Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova should not be seen as Putin turning a new leaf. Rather, the Kremlin’s action is little more than a ploy to attract positive international attention in the lead up to his Sochi Olympics spectacle. Putin’s decision to grant amnesty to such a wide range of political prisoners is but one event in the broader context of Putin’s scenario of power. In addition to the two members of Pussy Riot, Putin granted amnesty to several high-profile prisoners, including the Greenpeace activists and crewmembers of the Arctic Sunrise, who were arrested in response to protests against Russian gas monopoly Gazprom in the Barents Sea.
Most notably, Putin exempted jailed oligarch and former head of the Yukos oil enterprise Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was sentenced to back-to-back jail terms on a variety of offenses. Khodorkovsky’s political ambitions, in addition to his financial influence, drew Putin’s wrath. In the early 2000s, Khodorkovsky was one of many oligarchs sacrificed by Putin’s rise to power. Like many of the oligarchs, or the tycoons who seized former Soviet state assets in the chaos of the post-collapse 1990s, Khodorkovsky built an empire at the expense of the fledgling Russian Federation. In 2003, under Putin’s first term, Khodorkovsky was arrested for tax evasion and sentenced in 2005 to nine years in a medium security prison. Again in 2009, Khodorkovsky was charged, though this time for embezzlement and money laundering. As recently as 2013, rumors circulated that prosecutors would seek a third term for Khodorkovsky. Needless to say, Putin’s decision to grant Khodorkovsky amnesty came as a surprise.
The members of Pussy Riot know better than many of the extent to which Putin controls freedom of expression in the Russian Federation. The performers served a two-year stint amidst the horrors and deprivation of the contemporary Russian prison system after their political performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior provoked the Kremlin’s ire. After entering the Cathedral on February 21, 2012, five women from the punk collective stormed the altar and removed their warm, dark winter garments, only to don brightly colored ski masks. The women then broke into their “punk prayer,” raging against the Orthodox Church’s traditionalist views and close ties to then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Church officials tried to seize the women, who jumped up and down, frantically strumming at guitars while punching the air and crying out for the Virgin Mary to expel Putin from power. One member even fell to her knees, crossing herself and bowing in supplication as a man in dark clothing grasped her arm to pull her from the stage.
The sacrilegious nature of the performance—even though no church service was in session at the time—was likely to anger many Russians, regardless of the political undertone. Three of the group’s members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina were arrested and convicted on charges of “hooliganism” and sentenced to two-year terms in penal colonies. Samutsevich was released in October 2012 on a suspended sentence. The remaining two imprisoned members, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, were released in December 2013 [ed. note – it was reported on February 7, 2014 that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are no longer members of the group].
Whether current or former members, the women of Pussy Riot attracted international attention for what was widely considered to be a politically-motivated trial, divorced from Russian law. Even among Pussy Riot’s domestic critics, many of whom reacted harshly to the performance’s anti-Church rhetoric, the sentence was considered extreme.
In a regime defined by Putin’s consolidation of power at the expense of a free media sphere, Pussy Riot’s release does not portend greater freedom. Within days of announcing the granting of amnesty to such high-profile political prisoners, Putin’s administration demonstrated that freedom of expression and information is far from the Kremlin agenda. On December 9, 2013, Putin announced the closure of state-owned news agency Ria Novosti and the radio station Voice of Russia, to be replaced with International News Agency Russia Today. A notoriously conservative pundit, Dmitri Kiselev, was appointed head of the news agency.
Since the Kremlin takeover of the television networks during Putin’s first term in office, the major television networks have been under Kremlin control, with state Duma members and the owners of influential and state-backed enterprises frequently owning majority stock in these television networks. Despite this restrictive atmosphere, Ria Novosti had gained a reputation as a bulwark of balanced reporting. The Kremlin framed the closure as a necessary move for financial restructuring. Sergei Ivanov, the head of the presidential administration, insisted that “Russia has its own independent politics and strongly defends its national interests,” a statement that reflects the extent to which the Kremlin views control of the media as a facet of national security. Moreover,the appointment of such a staunchly conservative Kremlin supporter at the agency’s head shows a clear contrast from Ria Novosti’s history and should be interpreted as a further constraint on the freedom of speech in Russia.
The Sochi Olympics also fit into Putin’s legacy. At the same time that he consolidated power in the Kremlin and clamped down on the media, Putin waged consecutive wars against Islamist separatists in the North Caucasus. The decision to place the 2014 Winter Olympics in the subtropical Caucasus—as opposed to any of the more obviously icy territories of Russia’s vast snowy expanse—is laden with political undertones. Sochi, if nothing else, is Putin’s opportunity to show to the world that the tumultuous Caucasus has been pacified, and his hold over Russia is firmer than ever.
Putin did not free Pussy Riot because they were wrongly imprisoned or to quell international outrage. Rather, Putin freed Pussy Riot, the Arctic Sunrise Greenpeace activists, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky to draw more attention to his ultimate show of authority, the Sochi Olympics. By hosting the Winter Olympics in the Caucasus, the region most closely associated with Russia’s domestic terrorist movement, Putin risks high stakes to demonstrate the firmness of his hold on Russia.
image credit: flickr/AKRockefeller
Jorja Knauer is a senior at Barnard College, where she is writing her senior thesis on violence against journalists in Putin’s Russia. Her academic writing has been published in The Birch, Columbia University’s undergraduate Slavic studies journal.