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Russia: Foreign Ministry Looks to Germany to Justify Pussy Riot Verdict

In the aftermath of Pussy Riot's two-year sentence, delivered on August 17, 2012, the Russian government has been under intense international pressure to explain a verdict that most Western countries deem excessive, if not downright absurd.

For liberal Russian bloggers, the legal system's decision was expected, though many were shocked by its severity. Many Orthodox believers and activists, on the other hand, celebrated the ruling, viewing it as recognition of their primacy in post-Soviet Russian society.

In the days after the trial ended, Russia's Foreign Ministry made a series of comments to reporters that further enraged Pussy Riot's supporters in the streets and online. On August 18 [ru], and again in greater detail on August 22 [ru], the Foreign Ministry's official spokesperson, Aleksandr Lukashevich, defended the verdict and lashed out at the West for ignorance about the band members’ pasts and highlighted perceived double standards regarding interferences into religious services and criminal penalties.

German Foreign Minister Jonas Støre and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in front of the tomb of philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kaliningrad, Russia. 7 March 2011, photo by Utenriksdepartementet UD, CC BY-SA 2.0.

German Foreign Minister Jonas Støre and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in front of the tomb of philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kaliningrad, Russia. 7 March 2011, photo by Utenriksdepartementet UD, CC BY-SA 2.0.

In a move that outraged bloggers like Andrey Malgin, Lukashevich argued that understanding the crimes of Pussy Riot requires a separate knowledge of the group Voina, an older collective of similar shock-artists who also produce politically and socially conscious material. (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is a former member of Voina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich collaborated with the group on various projects in the past.)

By highlighting its members’ links to Voina, Lukashevich hoped to emphasize the pervertedness of Pussy Riot's aims:

Те, кто уже успел ознакомиться со «свободой самовыражения» группы «Война», знают, какое групповое «действо» в форме свального греха с участием беременной женщины они устроили в музее и как они привлекали к своему «творчеству» дохлую курицу, причем в присутствии малолетнего ребенка. Почему-то не вызывала возмущения толерантного Запада и их странная акция с «повешением» в крупном супермаркете гастарбайтеров и представителей секс-меньшинств.

Those who are already familiar with the “free self-expression” of the group Voina know about the spectacle they staged in a museum in the form of a group orgy, in which a pregnant woman [Tolokonnikova] participated, and they know how Voina incorporated in their “artwork” a dead chicken, all in the presence of a young child.

Lukashevich didn't finish his Voina commentary there, however. He went on to discuss how the group, in the face of Russia's supposedly totalitarian censorship, actually won a April 2011 state prize in visual art for an act of public vandalism during the St. Petersburg World Economic Forum in 2010. (Voina painted a large phallus on a drawbridge facing the local offices of the FSB. Lukashevich avoids mentioning that the award ceremony's organizers tried to disqualify [ru] Voina's initial nomination.)

Writing in his LiveJournal [ru], Malgin took issue with the idea of justifying the verdict against Pussy Riot's members on the basis of Voina and its history:

Кто-нибудь объяснит мне – кто из трех политических заключенных – Толоконникова, Самуцевич или Алёхина – засовывала себе курицу? Когда об этом пишут нашистские тролли, это понятно. Но если это утверждение содержится в заявлении МИДа, хотелось бы или получить ссылку на источник или услышать немедленные извинения от правительства.

Can someone explain to me: who of the three political prisoners — Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich, or Alyokhina — shoved a chicken into herself? When NASHist trolls write about this, it's understandable. But if these allegations are supported by announcements from the Foreign Ministry, one would like to receive either the exact source of such information, or immediate apologies from the government.

While “How to Snatch a Chicken” is one of Voina's most infamous and grotesque acts, Lukashevich also cited one of the group's 2008 exploits, wherein members pretended to hang by the neck “homosexually-dressed” men and three migrant workers in the middle of a crowded Moscow department story. (The measure was intended to criticize then-Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's stances on the rights of gays and migrants.)

Malgin raised the same objections over the Foreign Ministry's reference to the department store incident, claiming that the state owed Pussy Riot an official apology, given that they were not involved. (A careful review of Voina's own documentary footage [ru], however, reveals that both Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich did take part in that event.)

Screenshots from Voina's 2008 department store action, featuing Tolokonnikova (right) and Samutsevich (left). 14 September 2008. YouTube.

Screenshots from Voina's 2008 department store action, featuing Tolokonnikova (right) and Samutsevich (left). 14 September 2008. YouTube.

Commenting on Malgin's blog post, Ivan Simochkin complained [ru] that Lukashevich purposefully misled the public about the department store protest by describing it as a display of violence against migrant workers and gays. (The Foreign Ministry representative emphasized that these people were “hanged by the neck,” seemingly implying a hate crime.) As Simochkin points out, Voina was actually demonstrating its opposition to the discrimination of gays and migrants.

Malgin expanded this notion of intentional disinformation in his conclusion, writing that the government is trying to distract the public by focusing on Voina, in order to downplay the less abstract and more transparently political nature of Pussy Riot itself. (For instance, he summarizes the band's first three songs and flashmob concerts, underlining the overtly political themes: the Arab Spring, Russia's prisons, and a revolt against Vladimir Putin.)

Also in response to the Foreign Ministry's damage control campaign, Expert magazine published an article [ru] by Sergei Sumlennyi that specifically addressed the government's frequent claim that other European countries also criminalize the disruption of religious practice. Sumlennyi's piece attracted significant attention online, garnering a republication from art critic Marat Guelman [ru], and retweets from Duma Deputy Ilya Ponomarev's press secretary, Danila Lindele [ru], as well as Russia's best known blogger, Aleksei Navalny [ru].

The essence of Sumlennyi's response is that European nations — specifically Germany and Austria, which Lukashevich has named in multiple press conferences — have indeed instituted penalties for assaults on religious groups and institutions, but prison sentences are extremely rare. Sumlennyi concludes that Pussy Riot would only have seen the inside of a jail after several repeat violations, and even then their sentence would likely have been only a few months of suspended incarceration.

Echoing fears about disinformation, Sumlennyi explains the logic of the Foreign Ministry's questionable self-defense:

Разумеется, все это прекрасно известно немецким чиновникам, на которых направлены заявления российского МИДа. […] Впрочем, возможно, что мне не придется краснеть за российский МИД, — ведь всегда есть вероятность, что заявление на сайте МИДа предназначено в первую очередь для внутреннего употребления и призвано оправдать приговор Pussy Riot в глазах граждан России. В таком случае ссылка на немецкие и австрийские параграфы без разъяснения того, что за ними стоит, может и в самом деле оказаться действенной.

It goes without saying that the German bureaucrats on the receiving end of these announcements understand all this perfectly well. […] In fact, perhaps there's no need to be embarrassed about the Russian Foreign Ministry, as you can always be sure that any statement on their website is calculated first and foremost for internal consumption and designed to justify the Pussy Riot verdict in the eyes of Russia's citizens. In that case, citing German and Austrian legal clauses without explaining what they mean could actually work.

Writing in his blog [ru] at Echo of Moscow, lawyer and author Leonid Storch recycled several case studies from Sumlennyi's article, adding one from Finland, to further refute the Foreign Ministry's claim that Western democracies typically punish church vandals with significant prison sentences. Like Malgin and Sumlennyi, Storch also accused the government of consciously deceiving the public with misinformation.

  • Parag

    “The essence of Sumlennyi’s response is that European nations —
    specifically Germany and Austria, which Lukashevich has named in
    multiple press conferences — have indeed instituted penalties for
    assaults on religious groups and institutions, but prison sentences are
    extremely rare.”

    Sentences against disturbance of public order are not rare in the “democratic” West. In fact, they are also disproportionately severe. Not that I agree with the jail sentence handed down to Pussy Riot, but I don’t think that the Russia government’s defense is off the mark. Unfortunately.

    See here about the Charlie Gilmour case in the UK:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/jul/15/charlie-gilmour-jailed-david-son-pink-floyd

    This case only received media attention because the defendant is a celebrity – or at least his father is.

    Not that the “liberal” British media really care about the sentence:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/07/charlie-gilmour-prison-david-mitchell

    Thanks to the media coverage in the UK, and the outrage it provoked, the lad was released after 4 months. Not that any Western democracy will ever admit to excessive sentencing – oh no, that happens in Russia, China, Ukraine and everywhere else – not here, not with us good Westerners!

    In the end Russia may be only taking the cue from of Western “democracies”, but they will find that the double standards which Western nations apply freely, are not the prerogative of Russia.

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