Pussy, Pietersen and Putin: Place and Protest

by HST UK on September 3, 2012

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I was told that Sussex Gardens was known as one of London’s hottest spots for prostitution. I didn’t see any evidence of vice when I was there, staying at the Lancaster Court Hotel. It was difficult to see anything through the drowsy haze caused by the dozens of cold capsules I had swallowed. I also ran on cheap wine brought from the local Tesco. The combination didn’t sit well, and as I slept in my basement room spiders seemed to be crawling in through the crack in the ceiling which looked like a miniature version of the San Andreas Fault.

When I woke up the next morning I stumbled into the dining area for a continental breakfast. This meal consisted of toast and a selection of spreads. I picked butter over the Nutella and marmalade, playing it safe. This was Day Two of the third and final Test Match between England and South Africa at Lords. My two friends had hauled ass out of town after Day One and I was on my own.

Feeling disappointed by the breakfast I returned to my room to mope around for an hour and began scrolling through the Guardian on my phone. I came across a story about the plight of Pussy Riot. Reading intently I was drawn in by the story of the three members of the Russian Punk band who had been charged for a peaceful, albeit disruptive performance in a building of religious significance. It surprised me that Punk Rock could still carry any sort of impact. I’d long given up hope that a Punk band could shake up the pillars of society.

When I viewed footage on YouTube of the band’s Punk prayer performance at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral I chuckled at the bumbling security guards who made a right pig’s ear of bringing a halt to proceedings, it made me forget breakfast. The whole thing seemed rather tame and this includes Pussy Riot’s pastel coloured drama school rebellion that manifested itself under the guise of serious political protest.

Then I delved a little deeper, the threat of a seven year jail sentence, the Russian Orthodox Church seemingly divided. The aftermath mattered ten times more than the initial moment. I had to leave the hotel and clear my head. This was a month that had already left me reeling as a Sports fan. In the world of Sport, where everything and nothing can matter at the same time, I had heard news that Kevin Pietersen, one of the finest batsmen of the last decade, had been dropped from the England squad for allegedly sending derogatory text messages to players on the opposing team about his coach and captain. I was not going to get to see KP play in the flesh, and after his innings of 149 in the last Test at Headingley, I was all the more disappointed.

Pietersen’s demise came after a YouTube video was posted for public viewing. In it Pietersen appears to have a Social Media breakdown, in that he gives clarity about his Test Match future, and states his desire to play for England. The video seems to exist only in Pietersen’s own world. Orchestrated by the PR company that represents him, before he had even approached the team management, the video is borderline delusional, in that one man looks exclusively after his own interests.

Pietersen exercised his freedom of speech. Rather than going the conventional route, working with the England and Wales Cricket Board, and putting out a structured statement or appearing at a press conference, he and his advisors wanted to get their point of view across. Pietersen’s performance was widely ridiculed, though it had wider implications. For one, a player can’t speak out without repercussions, for KP he was dropped from the team, and cast to the wilderness.

Nose dripping, fever sweating, whilst walking to the mecca of Cricket I considered Pussy Riot’s case further and the conviction of the three members – Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, with two years’ imprisonment the punishment. The sentence seemed disproportionate, yet I had already read news stories about people in England sent to jail for inappropriate (racist) Twitter posts ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/may/22/muamba-twitter-abuse-student-sorry ), and certain other tongue in cheek tweets leading to high profile courtroom battles ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2179782/Twitter-joke-trial-Paul-Chambers-wins-appeal-conviction-airport-bomb-Tweet.html ). Were we in England right to call Russian sentencing disproportionate when it came to free speech?

Free Speech is great until someone gets offended. The twitter cases underlined how few people follow Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s old adage “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Most people would rather call someone out on what they have said, then engage with them, and try to understand what they actually meant.

Amnesty International has deemed the three convicted Pussy Riot members prisoners of conscience, but we need to look closer about whether or not they were arrested for their politics or whether they were dancing on sacred ground. See, there could be an argument made that this isn’t a question of freedom of protest, but more where it is acceptable to protest. In the Pussy Riot case, if they performed just outside of the Cathedral then nothing much would’ve happened. They also wouldn’t have drawn any attention to their cause. Performing inside a place of worship it could be argued is disrespectful to those who practice their faith and infringes with a person’s right to freedom of religion. They took a risk, somewhat naïve of the potential consequences.

They’d never got away with this if they did this in St. Paul’s, even the Occupy protestors had the decency to set up camp outside an iconic religious building, and that peaceful protest resulted in the Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s resigning over the possibility of police brutality and the Dean resigned because of the reaction to a planned forced eviction. The public took notice and a message was delivered through Britain’s retreating media that were facing their own battle for legitimacy at the Leveson Enquiry. Had Occupy been inside one of London’s most iconic buildings then they would have struggled to gain the public’s sympathies.

In 1998 the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell interrupted the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon, he was fined just under twenty quid, and had to pay about three hundred quid in court costs, and that was it, the incident was viewed as a minor public order offence. Tatchell at the time tried to defend himself for exercising his right to free speech and peaceful protest. You wonder what would’ve happened had Tatchell tried to do the same thing in 2012. Even in Britain he’d have likely received a far harsher punishment.

Some argued that feminist protests in Russia are likely to get harshly punished in a male dominated society, ruled by a masculine leader in Putin. A guy who grapples with bears and pours vodka on his cornflakes, but Putin himself has made little comment on Pussy Riot despite the band’s punk prayer being directed towards him, people are just putting his name into this mess. Putin has enforced stronger penalties for public order offences, but most countries have in light of recession related riots and the shockwave felt from the Arab Spring.

Putin is considered by several noughties public opinion polls to be one of the most popular Russian presidents of all time, but that popularity doesn’t extend to his most recent term, where he has been seen as a dictator figure, corrupted by big business and organized crime. If an American or a British president was faced by the Pussy Riot story then chances are they would pass comment or intervene. Putin hasn’t cared about bad PR because that’s mostly coming from the West. For Putin, the story just isn’t significant enough to warrant his attention.

When Yekaterina Samutsevich says “”The problem for Putin personally now is that a lot of people no longer see his strong hand and authority, but his fear and uncertainty in the face of the progressive citizens of Russia, who grow more and more numerous with every step like our verdict,” she overstates the importance of the case in her own Country. Pussy Riot is not high on Putin’s agenda, he will not bite.

The Pussy Riot case sums up the sense of helplessness that arrives after a domestic story gains worldwide coverage. Though millions across the world might support Pussy Riot, these supporters hold no sway. In 2012 Freedom of Speech is confined to liberal borders, where common sense and acceptance prevail. The borders are blurred, and the winds of change still struggle to stir.

– RJW

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