Gwynne Dyer: The power of mocking political tyrants
How much do tyrants fear mockery? Consider the case of Belarus, often called “the last dictatorship in the heart of Europe,” where President Alexander Lukashenko has just fired his air force and border security chiefs because they did not stop a Swedish light plane from dropping teddy bears into the country.
The plane, chartered by a Swedish public relations firm called Studio Total, crossed into Belarusian air space from Lithuania on July 4, and dropped hundreds of teddy bears on little parachutes on the outskirts of the capital, Minsk. The teddies bore labels calling for freedom of speech and respect for human rights, which is only what Lukashenko’s opponents within the country demand (before they are carted off to jail).
Lukashenko, who has won every “election” in Belarus since 1994, was furious. “"Why didn't the commanders intercept that flight?”, he raged last week. “Who did they sympathise with?” In reality, his commanders weren’t paying much attention to air defences because nobody is going to bomb Belarus, but he couldn’t accept that explanation. His power rests on people believing he is too strong to resist, and the teddy bears said the opposite, very loudly.
Meanwhile, some hundreds of kilometres to the east, a trial opened last week in Moscow. Three young women, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich—Masha, Nadia, and Katya to their friends—face a charge of hooliganism that could send them to jail for seven years for singing a song in church. Their real offence is that it was an anti-Putin song.
Masha, Nadia, and Katya belong to a punk rock band called Pussy Riot. It’s a loose collective of around ten young Moscow women, feminists in a very macho country, who dress up in brightly coloured clothes and balaclavas and use music and performance art to criticise the repression and conformity they see around them. They are funny, brave, and sometimes offensive. They are not criminals.
In an action that one band member later called an “ethical mistake”, five of them entered the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer in Moscow last March, stepped onto the altar, and delivered a cheeky, shrieky song begging the Virgin Mary to free Russia from Putin. A companion videotaped them, and the performance lasted exactly 51 seconds before the security guards intervened and the police were called.
The cops came and took down three of the band members’s names (the other two escaped), but they made no arrests, did not confiscate the videotape, and did not open a case against anybody. Only nine people had seen the performance, and most of them were guards. It just wasn’t worth pursuing—until the video appeared on YouTube two weeks later and went viral.
This all happened during the election campaign that saw Vladimir Putin return as Russia’s president after eight previous years in that job and four more as prime minister (to get around the constitutional limit of two terms as president). Pussy Riot chose to make their protest in Moscow’s cathedral in response to Patriarch Kirill’s public statements that it was “un-Christian” to demonstrate and that the Putin era is “a miracle of God.”
It is alleged that Kirill called Putin demanding legal action against the blasphemers. He was certainly very cross: his spokesman, Vsevolod Chaplin, declared that “God condemns what (Pussy Riot) have done. I’m convinced that this sin will be punished in this life and the next. God revealed this to me like he revealed the gospels to the Church.” But the decision to make a horrible example of the young women was Putin’s, not Kirill’s.
People accused of non-violent crimes are hardly ever held in custody in Russia before their trials, but Masha, Nadia and Katya were refused bail and have already been in prison for five months. Nobody has been allowed to visit them, though two of the three have small children. The state-controlled TV channels (i.e. almost all of them) have waged an endless propaganda war against them, portraying them as foreign agents.
The trial verges on the ridiculous. On Thursday a lawyer for one of the cathedral guards (who has “suffered deeply” and lost sleep over the incident), described the punk band as “the tip of an iceberg of extremists, trying to break down the thousand-year edifice of the Russian Orthodox Church by...guiding the flock through trickery and cunning not to God, but to Satan.” And behind it all, of course, was the “world government”: the Satanic West.
The girls of Pussy Riot—they deliberately call themselves girls (“devushki” in Russian) to emphasise their innocence and powerlessness—have done more by mockery to unmask the authoritarian nature of the Putin regime than all their more earnest colleagues together. At a greater personal cost than they ever imagined, they have raised political consciousness in Russia and made the regime look both cruel and foolish.
Vladimir Putin is no fool. He realises that things have gone too far, and on a visit to London last week he tried to throw the machine into reverse. “There is nothing good in what (Pussy Riot) did,” he told reporters, but “I don't think they should be judged too severely.” The court, no doubt, will take this an order. But the damage to the Putin regime is already done.