Pussy Riot goes global

The members of a Russian feminist punk band (sort of) have been sentenced to two years in prison for making a critical video of an anti-Putin song.  Most reports suggest that the ambitions of the three young women in the bank are more political than musical, and that their connections to reform movements in Russia developed after their video debut.

The first struggle for reformers in Russia is to create enough space for meaningful political organization and action when government authorities face no effective political or moral constraints in shutting them down.  Here’s yet another case where the old dictum, that the losers in any fight have an interest in bringing the crowd in on their side, hold true.  When the effort to bring in outsiders crosses national lines, Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink 
wrote long ago, we can think about it like throwing a boomerang.  Activists get their story out to mobilize external pressure on their opponents.

Pussy Riot is hardly the first effort of dissidents in Russia to do exactly this, but it’s been the most dramatic in recent years, and it’s generated a great deal of attention, as well as the interest of globally famous musicians (e.g., Madonna, Sting, Paul McCartney) who hadn’t been particularly public about whatever their beliefs about Putin’s Russia are.

Sending the women to jail might be the very worst thing that the Russian government could do for their own interests.   The presence of these three young women in jail means that everyone who signed onto their cause still has a grievance.  And the odd circumstances of Pussy Riot’s actions mean that these three women will get far more international attention than the much larger number of political prisoners.  If things go well for the opposition, Pussy Riot will shine a light on others in prison for their opposition to Vladimir Putin.

To think about how a political prisoner can serve as the focus of a long term campaign for reform, think about Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel.  I pick these examples to show that the international efforts can be important, albeit not quick or easy.  There’s been no indication, so far, that the members of Pussy Riot possess the extraordinary resolve, temperament, and eloquence of Mandela, Havel, or Aung San Suu Kyi.  Unlike those heroes, Pussy Riot hasn’t grown up within a reform movement and built long term organizational ties to carry on their efforts (thus, it may be right that the drama of their actions attracted international attention that far exceeds their local support).  And this may make international reformers reluctant to build their campaign around the band.

The key for activists in Russia is to mobilize enough international pressure to force the authorities in Moscow to afford them some space for politics.  Pussy Riot might be the wedge that draws attention to one-time chess champion Garry Kasparov, for example.  There’s no sure recipe for this, so a lot of the sentences will have “might” in them.

So, Amnesty International and other groups will work mostly on the politics of attention, getting people and governments to pay attention, again, to Putin and Russia.  Their success will depend upon just how much the political and economic powers in Russia care about the good opinion of others.  (See Evan Osnos’s excellent piece on The Burmese Spring in the New Yorker.  It shows just how much contingency there is in a political revolution.)

An Olympic boycott would be a showy move, but one that would be unlikely to get enough international support to affect the Olympic games of politics more generally.  (You recall the boycotts of the Moscow and Los Angeles Olympics, when bloc politics ensured a certain amount of support.)  Isolation like this can strengthen the position of authoritarians, who now have a better excuse for cracking down on domestic opposition (think, for example, of Iran or North Korea).  Over the long haul, it’s more likely that making it hard for the Russian elite to travel and do business abroad will be more effective in promoting domestic reform–but that’s a long haul effort.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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3 Responses to Pussy Riot goes global

  1. Pingback: After the Pussy Riot Trial | Mobilizing Ideas

  2. Pingback: After the Pussy Riot Trial |

  3. Pingback: Celebrities of all sorts extend Pussy Riot | Politics Outdoors

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