The sentencing of Pussy Riot for hooliganism happened late last week, when I was out of the office. Theirs is clearly and ‘emblematic’ case for human rights groups and free speech organisations like English PEN. However, I do feel a subtle unease at the way in which the case is being reported and discussed in the media and online.
Two pieces of comment scratch the itch. First, Jonathan Heawood says “There’s more to protest that hitting retweet”:
But to pin the fate of Pussy Riot on to one man, as though Putin runs Russia single-handedly, is misleading. He runs a powerful machine, certainly, but there are millions of active cogs inside the Russian regime, and there are many other passive participants who are allowing this to happen. Once the silly season is over, the world will once again stand back as the state machine continues its relentless project to dismantle Russian democracy and civil liberties.
Who’s standing back, you say? We’ve sent literally loads of tweets about it. Some of us have even been to the Russian embassy to protest. How many of you? Oh, at least a hundred. Well congratulations to those who stood up to be counted, but where was everyone else?
This is a theme discussed regularly on this blog. Raising awareness is not the same as establishing consensus, much less provoking the mass movements required to force through positive change.
Jonathan ends the piece by applauding Madonna’s interest in the Pussy Riot case. However, Joshua Foust is less excited. He says that the focus on Pussy Riot actually detracts from the actual anti-democratic manœverings in Russia:
Magnitsky’s death prompted some wrangling in the US Congress, where a bill named after him now awaits enactment. But the many celebrities urging their fans to show concern about Pussy Riot, about Russian women, about the plight of Art, apparently don’t know about the many men, non-punk rockers, regular Russians who face far worse brutality and mistreatment by Putin’s government every day.
Raising the problem of this misplaced attention to spectacle on Twitter raised a number of complaints — namely, that any attention drawn to Putin’s abuses is good attention, regardless of detail (along with some particularly unpleasant comparisons of Pussy Riot to Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks). This is wrong, however: focusing on the spectacle of Pussy Riot actually obscures from the real issues that prompted the Pussy Riot trial in the first place.
So: Emblematic cases are only useful ‘emblems’ if they serve as a gateway to the wider context.
Finally, Rohan Jayaskera of Index on Censorship (the one stop shop for news on Pussy Riot) has a pertinent tweet: