Home > Articles > Pussy Riot to Ai Weiwei: The Confused Crushing of Dissent

Pussy Riot to Ai Weiwei: The Confused Crushing of Dissent

Protesters in Times Square. Protesters in London. Protesters in France. Protesters in countries all around the world wearing masks and waving signs: Free Pussy Riot. Protesters safe from arrest and prosecution standing outside Russian consulates while new laws frighten Muscovites from becoming the next Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich.

Worldwide outcry is the expected end of the predictable soap opera that was the Pussy Riot trial and not even the brazen antics of a chainsaw wheeling Feman activist in Kyiv serves as a surprise twist before the credits roll. The moment a Youtube video of women violating the patriarchal order of the Orthodox Church, spiritual legitimacy for the return of Vladimir Putin and hungry for tax breaks and former properties, embarrassed powerful old men there was no question that an example would be made. Heavily armed security forces conducted raids and arrests, court proceedings so transparently scripted that even embittered Russian journalists became disruptive, Madonna risking nothing by making trite declarations from the stage, accusations of Western hypocrisy and paranoid allusions to foreign agents infiltrating Russian activist groups– each scene played out tired and stale. The only development more surprising than the accused not receiving the maximum sentence was that authorities orchestrating this pantomime bothered to frame their reactionary persecution as legally legitimate.

In the bad old days Russia was never shy about political prisoners. They were declared enemies of the state in league with foreign powers, denounced and sent off to the gulag. Citizens were safe, the Russian way of life preserved and damn anyone outside the Eastern Bloc. Today America and other Western nations cry terrorism, suspend civil liberties and hide behind intelligence security whenever the ACLU craps itself.

The three members of Pussy Riot now waiting to have their appeals rejected could have disappeared into prison without being paraded before a bank of news cameras. No one short of angry and scared old people, or the angry and scared and old at heart, have been convinced that Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich present a danger to society, god or religion. Opinion that their persecution is political has only grown since the sham trial caught worldwide attention. Yet the three women were run through the legal gauntlet to prove the courts, not the politicians, are in charge.

Alexei Navalny is not a pretty young woman and may well slip into prison forgotten outside Moscow. Formerly the most recognized face of anti-Putin dissent, he has been a thorn in the side of authorities and businessmen since the 2008 launch of his blog attacking corruption and graft. Prior to last winter’s manifestations he was facing charges of black market timber sales in Kirov oblast, possibly in response to his activism or possibly due to the endemic thievery in that stretch of country. The charges were dropped. Navalny began to appear on cable news attacking Putin’s presumptive return to power. New charges have been filed.

Russia has nothing to fear from international condemnation and almost glories in confounding Western consensus. Instead the courts are poised to host a second high-profile trial of a political dissident instead of simply vanishing Navalny in secret. The legislature is pushing through penalties for protests, cracking down on internet freedoms and going after NGOs receiving money from abroad. A lot of work is being done for no discernible reason.

China also has its own Pussy Riot. Ai Weiwei is currently appealing his conviction for tax evasion and remains unable to leave the country. Since speaking out against inequality during his time in the spotlight of the Beijing Olympics Ai has consistently provoked authority. His public shaming of Sichuan officials in the wake of the 2008 earthquake lead to surveillance, suppression and ultimately the hospital after a police beating in Chengdu. His Shanghai studio was demolished, his blog was deleted and he spent months in custody before being released without charge.

Pussy Riot had fame hoisted upon them by their arrest. Ai has been an internationally recognized artist for several years. Although the thought of attacking a celebrity might give most governments pause, China has never before shown such hesitation when preparing a politically motivated persecution. He could disappear into prison without explanation and the world would continue to borrow money and buy goods without much of a whimper. If Ai is imprisoned for tax evasion it marks a shift for a country that has no history of concern about foreign scrutiny.

This shift is more pertinent now that Chen Guangcheng very publicly won asylum in the States. Chen quietly suffered the consequences of embarrassing local officials with his 2005 class action lawsuit alleging systematic forced abortions and sterilizations in Linyi. Journalists were barred from the courtroom, the case dismissed, Chen was arrested and sentenced to four years for traffic violations. Upon release he and his family suffered a de facto house arrest and Chinese dissidents were beaten when trying to draw attention to the blind lawyer’s plight.

Chen could have vanished into prisons without pomp or ceremony and few beyond the Linyi city limits would remember his name. He was instead battered around a confused system of absurd prosecution and repression masked by the thinnest pretense of justice and law and erupted into a diplomatic spat covered on the evening news. Russia and China seem committed to proving their transition from communist regime to free market regime will bring them in line with the West’s concept of capitalistic democracy and have so far proven themselves to be nothing more than confounded.

Image of Pussy Riot in Red Square by Denis Sinyakov/Reuters. Taken from the Guardian article Pussy Riot: will Vladimir Putin regret taking on Russia’s cool women punks? I call it fair use.

Image of Ai Weiwei in the wreckage of his Shanghai studio owned by STR/AFP/Getty Images and taken from the Epoch Times article Ai Weiwei, Chinese Artist, Arrested at Beijing Airport. I call it fair use as well.

Do you think that Pussy Riot is a three member punk band? They’re not and they never were. They are an amorphous feminist activist group. Vice Magazine understands this. Please don’t be more stupid that Vice Magazine.

If you’re in the market for a good, accessible primer on Ai Weiwei I recommend watching the Frontline documentary Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei.

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