Pussy Riot as a symptom – Part 1

When the three members of Pussy Riot received their sentences last week, it was both expected and unexpected. Reading the coverage on Twitter it was apparent to me that while the majority had expected the sentence to be, to an extent, harsh, they were nevertheless baffled when the judge actually sentenced the three women to two years in a penal colony. This schizophrenia has been haunting both Russia watchers and, more importantly, the Russian society for some time now. Its persistence, rather than the trial itself is the reason that makes the Pussy Riot case a turning point. Or rather, one of the several events constituting an important turning point. 

Before looking at the depths of the problem, we should start with the manifold explanations of the trial and the sentence. When Mark Galeotti published two insightful blog entries about the “Pussy Riot clichés” and  “the politics of example” last week, I agreed with most of what he wrote. However, there are some points, which I cannot agree with. One is the argument that Putin is simply “playing to his own base” and that he lost little more than “Paul McCartney’s vote” with the sentence.

On the other hand, when a little earlier, in his PV podcast, Brian Whitmore together with Kirill Kobrin argued that the elite had made a big political mistake and as a consequence they had to choose between a bigger and a lesser evil (from their point of view), I agreed, although I doubt the authorities had had a real choice. This is due to the undoubted necessity of Putin playing to a part of his base (in fact, he has been doing this for a while; see the repressive laws adopted in the recent past), but also to the fact that this base has become increasingly fragmented, to the point that it might be difficult to “play to it”. And this is why I disagree with the above remarks.

The reasons of this fragmentation are multiple. First of all, Putin’s core constituency, the ruling elite has been characterised by visibly centrifugal movements for almost a year now, that go beyond the usual scuffles. Officials have started to play their own games, allowing potential outcomes that don’t count with Putin’s supremacy as a variable any more. This has resulted in violent disputes and harder-than-usual critics from the sidelines of the elite. As I blogged before, there is a growing group within the elite for whom a potential demise of Putin would mean less than a regime change, provided that the source of their wealth/power are further guaranteed. No doubt Putin feels he needs to play to them.

On the other hand, as I wrote last month, there is a growing division within the masses: some equate Putin’s demise with a (desired) regime change while to others – to Putin’s core countryside, industrial, etc. voter base, that is – the dismissal of the tsar would be too much, as all they want is to change some, mostly local elements of the regime that they are annoyed about. I have no doubt that the elite keeps a close eye on the numbers and as soon as the former group becomes visibly stronger, the distant possibility of a “coup” will come considerably closer.

But this won’t happen, right? Or will it?

Let me now refer to the schizophrenia that I mentioned above. The most interesting thing about the events of the recent past is that a couple of years ago they would have gone on almost completely unnoticed. Although it wasn’t necessarily rubbed in the face of the people, everyone inside and outside Russia perfectly knew what to expect from Putin’s regime. And now as well, deep in their guts, people did know that Putin would come back as president. They did know the Kremlin would try to crack down on protesters. They did know that Pussy Riot would get a prison sentence. But somehow, despite all, all these now felt anachronistic or illogical.

This is exactly what Mark Galeotti himself pointed out not so long ago: Russia’s “deep state”, the officially non-existing, unspoken, tacit “social contract” that was obvious to everyone but that nevertheless should have remained hidden, coming to the surface. He spoke about last September; the announcement of Putin’s coming back to the presidency that undoubtedly caused considerable irritation among voters. I, however, think that the reaction of the authorities – the repressive laws, the crackdown on protesters and their leaders, or the Pussy Riot case – were similar unveilings of the “deep state”, as they caused similar irritation and therefore must be treated as parts of a whole.

I agree that the assessment of the Pussy Riot case was very controversial in Russia and that many among voters, notably in the core base of Putin, did feel hurt in their religious feelings – from this point of view, showcasing the trial might even have helped Putin strengthening his base in certain echelons of the society. However, I suspect that another aspect of this story might be more important. Considering the long-lasting debate about the relations of the Russian Orthodox Church with the state that did not start with the Pussy Riot trial (remember the story with the luxury watch of Patriarch Kirill?), I think that an increasing number of Russians find the church yet another corrupt and unduly privileged institution – which it has been for a long time, only it wasn’t rubbed in people’s faces.

According to a recent poll by VTsIOM, an increasing number of Russians think that the church should keep out of politics, and while those actively speaking against the church are mostly young and educated people, it seems that a considerable (and increasing) number of people from other social spheres would also (passively) support this opinion, making Putin’s base more fragmented. “Those who consider active participation of religious institutes admissible in all spheres of social life, including politics, constitute a minority of 16 to 17 per cent” – reads the survey which points to a potential silent majority on the other side. Silent majorities are almost as dangerous as vocal majorities, and this is especially true in a society as fragmented as Russia’s. No wonder Vladislav Surkov is needed again to help restore the credibility (pun intended) of the church. There is clearly trouble.

And this is far from being everything.

(to be continued)

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