Pussy Riot And Russian Politics

Putin might be wondering how went so wrong. So fast?

First, demonstrators marred return to overt power. Putin cried a bit. Former Finance Minister Kudrin and others broke Kremlin ranks and criticize Russia politics in stylized manner.

Lately, he’s blamed for inept responses to massive flooding and failed rocket launches. Putin’s presidency is now so volatile speculation how soon he ousts Medvedev as Prime Minister grows. Some wonder whether he can control elite factions anymore. Three young women posing as punk rockers for protest are now international superstars.

Putin, Pussy Riot, Madonna

Putin Is An Analog Guy

Putin and his collective instrumental base show a political deaf ear and marked clumsiness since his return as president, at least as far as Moscow and Piter are concerned. It’s a common mistake to attribute everything to Putin himself. Putinism operationally (as opposed to substantively) is about preserving his role as arbiter.

Within the wider personal and institutional factions, much occurs without him. Either by ‘working towards’ him by anticipating what Putin might want, or operating more broadly, with the ‘better to seek forgiveness than permission’. Corruption is a vital currency. Putin’s long delay announcing his new government underscores the fractious nature of this political ecosystem – and his essential role as arbiter.

So when Putin does act, it is often in broad measures, trying to set systemic guidance by dramatic example. In the past, these actions were carefully choreographed in exquisite detail by Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s former young eminence grise. Thus, among other things, Putin the action figure. Surkov is now gone. Astute Russia observers suggest Putin misses Surkov’s shrewd ear to the ground. Putin’s appetite for actually governing in detail grows less and less.

Surkov is gone because he couldn’t foresee the rise of the networked nation and social media. Surkov relied on TV to sell a facade of Putin because TV gives narrative control. Comparatively, Putin allowed print media much greater latitude and even quasi-independence. Surkov and rest simply don’t know how to make Putinism work in a peer to peer world. The 30 year old daughter of Putin’s mentor and party girl, Khesenia Sobchak, was fired from her TV gig for anti-regime commentary. Via Twitter she has become improbably a serious leader of the Opposition. Aleksei Navalny, the controversial blogger, equally (and more substantively) so. Just two examples out of many.

So why don’t they control the social media space?

Missing The Slam Dunk

The Pussy Riot trial is the latest in a series of court cases against Opposition leaders. Sobchack and Navalny have been fighting off lurid accusations designed to use court as a theater to tarnish them. There are other cases, too. Pussy Riot was to be a slam dunk.

Domestic Russian politics can be opaque. Even for Russians. When the Pussy Riot Installation – in the Gustav Metzger sense of an auto-destructive shock event as ‘happening’ – occurred, many Russians, including in the Opposition, were appalled or disapproved. Religious conservatives, secularists and educated progressives alike.

There is a deep political history behind Pussy Riot and art anarchist groups. A gift for Putin. Apostate, marginal (socially) women triumphantly humbled before State power on a national stage.

And so far a disaster. First, on technical grounds, show trials are essentially a play. Script is everything. The new media ensured narrative chaos. The women also proved to be powerfully articulate (and chose an incredible brand name). When a Deputy Prime Minister loses a Tweet battle with Madonna, it’s not good. Second, the regime misread drastically domestic sentiment; contemporary Russia might be critical of the stunt at the church, but many are not willing to embrace old (neo-Stalinist) political forms. Time to look for a face saving way out?

The real question (beyond the verdict to be delivered later this month) is what’s been learned learned? Will the regime see the Pussy Riot results as a signal to recalibrate engaging the Opposition? Or is it a one off, situationally unique? A bungling of discrete factional strands? If the latter, Putin’s headaches may only grow worse. What else will be learned?

_______
Verdict Update

The verdict convicts the women of hooliganism and sentences them to two years in jail (of a possible seven). An outcome representing the managed politics in Russia 2012 and a retreat from the initial onslaught against the women for their stunt.

True, the court ran roughshod over defendants’ witnesses and even blatantly misrepresented testimony. Judge Marina Sirovaya’s reading of the lengthy, verbose verdict intended for domestic audiences. Her soporific droning speaking directly to activated elements of Putin’s domestic base: religious conservatives, nationalists, anti-Westerners. Arresting marginal liberals like Gary Kasparov and Left Front’s Sergey Udaltsov at the court during demonstrations icing on the cake.

Putin, Pussy Riot, Verdict

Following show trial norms, the court verdict tried to signal society what are tolerated behavioral and political norms. For example, Sirovaya blatantly linked blasphemy with notions of criminality. And mocked feminism while purporting to support equality. All while claiming to uphold freedom. And on and on.

Still, the regime in some aspects probably regrets the whole affair. Russian non-Orthodox Christian leaders as well as domestic Imams and Rabbis spoke out in support of leniency. Naturally, militant nationalists howl at such ‘alien’ support. But other Russians appalled by the Pussy Riot stunt still opposed the regime’s handling. Domestic support for show trials simply isn’t there. Regardless of the massive international blowback.

The Russian Levada Center, a prominent Russian polling agency, showed that 58% Russians believed that the punishment demanded by the prosecution was too harsh. Only 33% agreed with prosecutors. More importantly is the vector of change. Each month since March has show support grow weaker and disagreement grow. Any politician knows what that means.

From the ruling system’s perspective the verdict (pending any appeal or further action) is an unexpected compromise. A two year sentence (harsh from a humanitarian point of view) isn’t the initially intended crushing signal, and still less than the already compromised 3 year request. Since the arrests, the regime -loosely defined- has only moved backwards. Putin even hinted *before* the verdict he’s open to an appeal when meeting with Russian Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin. That is not the sign of a confident regime asserting power.

The verdict’s reactionary verbiage is a sop to conservative and nativist elements in the disenfranchised ‘base’. But at what cost?

Comments

    • Charlie Stross says

      Off topic, but — your Sociable plugin for WordPress is squatting in the left magin of your blog and making it annoyingly hard to read by scribbling over some of your deathless prose. Please get rid of it! (It’s also making it really hard to read the captcha.)

      • Dr Leo Strauss says

        Charlie, thanks for the feedback. After your comment have experimented with different social media approaches – none seem ideal. The current configuration one hopes removes the earlier inconvenience.

  1. says

    I’m going to blog about this in more detail, but I’m not convinced about Surkov. When I read Andrew Wilson’s classic Virtual Politics back in 2006 or thereabouts, one of the things that stood out for me was that so much of the successful Cheney/Bush media control package had been deployed with success in the FSU in the late 90s/early 2000s, by Surkov and Gleb Pavlovsky on behalf of Putin and the power ministries. Talking-points distribution to selected Internet influencers (“temniks”), building up a conspiracy counter-media, bullying or replacing key TV people.

    I think he may have missed the transition from the Internet as an elite medium to a mass medium. Also, development of user-generated video. And transition from PC-centric to mobile (which is closely related to the last point).

    • Dr Leo Strauss says

      Look forward to your future thoughts, Alex. Your last paragraph is a concise and compelling summation.

      It’ll be interesting to see what time offers. Rising generations in Russia have known nothing but new media and it will soon less and less be thought of an Opposition enclave/lifetsyle/technique. Maybe one hint of what might come is the recent attack on Medvedev, which began with an anonymous YouTube video. Obama and Progressive dominance of new media arguably lasted less than 2 years before equalization of use and technique set in.

      • says

        Well, they’ve extensively tried to build up a loyalist countermovement, which has already gone through a few rebranding cycles. Nashi/Marching Together/whatever it’s called this week. The analogy with the wumaodang, dittohead etc phenomenon is clear. But they’ve already been there and done that, including encouraging marginal and violent groups to crack heads. (The pro-regime neo-nazi phenomenon actually started before the end of the USSR, according to Wilson.)

        And when Putin needed it…well, they sort-of turned out, but it was very widely noted that nobody took it very seriously, numbers were thin, and the level of enthusiasm was poor. Despite, or probably because, the administrative resources were heavily used to get people to turn out – “Youth officials” leaning on students etc. This is the exact case where one volunteer beats ten pressed men.

        Nashi etc. was explicitly loyalist. Perhaps a quasi independent campaign would work better – fenqing rather than wumaodang. But they’ve already done that a lot, right back to 1991, and they also have a problem that the extremist fake opposition tends to turn into the real thing (see Navalny’s ties to the Natsbols, and that movement’s history in general). Fake opposition is a common post-soviet trope, but I wonder if it’s sustainable in a non-TV environment.

        My meta-point here was that these methods happened in Russia first, and there’s a lead of a couple of years on them.

        • says

          Your meta point about the head start is well taken. Equally important is how much pretense colors post-Soviet political forms from many sides. The latter so often overlooked in breezy Western reporting of villains and heroes. Perhaps because to discuss it in detail raises uncomfortable political questions at home.

          Succinct description of Nashi and its operationally limited impact. Like your diagnosis of 10-1. Agree on one possible future you suggest — that they could be effective most by seeming independence but also your warning of morphing into the real thing.

          By coincidence, Nashi declared to Russian media today they are sending “cultural observers” to Syria this September to observe the state of “historical and cultural heritage”.

          Great question about what a post-tv environment means for fake movements and figures.
          drleostrauss recently posted..Pussy Riot Shows Putin Misreads Politics

  2. rkka says

    ” The women also proved to be powerfully articulate”

    http://mercouris.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/pussy-riot-2/

    “The “punk prayer” was an obscene parody of the act of Christian worship carried out using excremental language in Russian Orthodoxy’s most important Church in an area just before the sanctuary which contains the Altar access to which is prohibited to all except members of the priesthood. The “punk prayer” contained abuse of the Patriarch, the leader of the Russian Church, calling him a “bitch” (suka) and accusing him of believing in Putin rather than God. The “punk prayer” was carefully planned, the location having obviously been chosen in advance for maximum effect and the form of the “punk prayer” adapted to mimic the order of the Christian service starting with the making of the sign of the cross followed by an obscene prayer to the Virgin (the Theotokos) and ending with a scatological parody of the Sanctus. The “punk prayer” was performed by three young women dressed in skimpy and brightly coloured clothing with bare arms the wearing of which is prohibited in a Russian Orthodox Christian Church and was accompanied by dance and music of a sort also prohibited in a Russian Orthodox Christian Church. The “punk prayer” used offensive and coarse language of a sort that is also prohibited in a Russian Orthodox Church and which Russian Orthodox Christians would be expected to find grossly disrespectful in a house of God. ”

    So, yeah, these antics play well in the Anglosphere Foreign Policy Elite and Punditocracy, which already hates Putin, but go down pretty badly in Russia.

    And who do you think matters to Putin, the AFPE&P that hates him, or Russians who know that he pulled the place out of its 1990s death spiral?

    • Dr Leo Strauss says

      Excellent quote. We agree, I think.

      The stunt at the church is airbrushed out of Western commentary and the AFPE&P (great name). This is what I was referring to mentioning that the West doesn’t follow (or acknowledge) Russian domestic politics.

      One can only imagine if OWS drum circles went into [pick nationally famous religious house of worship] and said and did the same things. The Fox Nation and candidates would be demanding blood. Even Morning Joe would tut tut and disapprove.

      Mishandling and lack of narrative control transformed what should have been a routine procedural matter into the current fiasco. We’ll see what lessons are learned.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv badge