Pussy Riot bridles Putin—delights late grandfather

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My Grandfather would have liked Pussy Riot. That is, he would have liked their sticking it to Putin. He may have even smiled at the fact that they stuck it to him in an Orthodox church—singing to the virgin Mary to drive Putin away. Well, maybe that’s more my read, he was Mennonite and respectful. Still, he would have cheered the intent. Never trust a Russian politician was what he had said. Meaning, never trust any politician associated with Stalin—however remote.

He had reason. Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture killed an estimated 10 million peasants—my grandparents’ only good fortune was to not be among them. They escaped in 1927, just before the succession of Stalin’s five-year purges kicked in to high gear. Nevertheless, on the way to state ownership and control of all things, from farmland to private opinion, a series of raids by the Red Army took away everything my grandparents worked for.

As many stories of personal trauma go, the details are lost, silenced by the pain of recollection. Half-stories remain. Stories about soldiers arriving at night—fear the great weapon—the terror of a door splitting open, threats of torture, the sport of a couple running across a field while drunken soldiers practiced their aim.

The story of their escape is clouded as well. But elements persist. My grandfather, an accountant and a farmer, had means and was resourceful. He managed to hide some money and jewellery. By way of a deal with a self-serving yet conciliatory soldier, he offered up the location to his cache in exchange for a uniform, and made for the border. Dressed as a Red Army cavalryman, and no doubt equipped with some plausible story about temporary accommodations for his family, he was given passage across Russia’s southern border. My father was five or six years old at the time.

Things have changed. International exposure does carry clout—at least a bit. In my grandfather’s time disappearances were common, the gulag’s were full, lives were lost as quickly as records. Stalin, the ‘man of steel’, was immune.

Putin, as both Gorbachev and Kasparov have indicated, pines for those days. Those days, the members of Pussy Riot would have had their heads on pikes on a Moskva River bridge. But a shrinking globe has brought some public shame to bear. Today the self-styled bare-chested-judo-he-man has backed away from three young women. And just recently he has said the "verdict should not be too severe."

Still, Putin’s desire to undo Gorbachev’s reforms and return to a repressive state is obvious enough. While there is freedom of movement and some freedom of expression, state run media is again absolute. And while there is some freedom to demonstrate discontent, Russia is hardly an open democracy. And gestures of temperance such as Putin’s latest conciliatory comments are, for Putin, calculated plays for social capital.

But I like to think that small demonstrations of defiance are more than political annoyances. That their weakness is their weight, strength and possibility. You can see this in the case of Pussy Riot’s "prayer" offered in an empty church. The Russian people, at first somewhat scandalized, witnessed the heavy machinery of judgement falling upon a group of young women and saw the excess of power which exposed the cowardice and smallness of Putin’s government; then came the swing of opinion, and now Putin’s new moderation.

Is it beyond the ken to hope that this finger in the eye of power will change the direction of the nation back to that of glasnost and radical perestroika? Perhaps. But Russia does again seem to be at some kind of tipping point. How appropriate that a small group of artists and musicians be the catalyst for the collapse of the Stalinesque Putin. My grandfather would smile at this.

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