Putin, Pussy Riot, Hooliganism and the Syrian Bloodbath

The sentencing of members of the Russian punk rock band, Pussy Riot, to two years in prison for a protest song they sang in an Eastern Orthodox cathedral against Vladimir Putin, now president of the Russian Federation, has blackened the name of the second Russian republic abroad in a way its support for the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad ought to have done.

The lack of public support in Russia for the band members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Marina Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, mirrors the Russian public’s lack of support for revolutionaries in Libya and Syria. Outsiders, especially on the British and American fringe left, have sometimes suggested that Russia fears that religious fundamentalism in the Middle East will overthrow secular, modernizing regimes like those of Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad.

But the prosecution of the band members on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church and in the name of protecting the reputation of the increasingly authoritarian president underline the reactionary roots of Russia’s contrarianism. This stance is not that of a progressive afraid of religious obscurantism, but rather of an almost nineteenth-century conservatism. That is, Bashar al-Assad is playing Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, and Putin reveals himself terrified of the passions that might be unleashed by a punk version of the Kreutzer Sonata.

Repression at home and repression abroad, however incommensurate they may be, involve a fight against “hooliganism.”

Hooligan” is a relatively recent coinage, appearing first in a British newspaper in the summer of 1898. It likely was a corruption of the Irish name Houlihan, and perhaps a reference to a character in a comedic music hall song.

Communists, who rather liked rowdiness when capitalists were in power but disdained it once they had captured the offices of state, adopted the term into Russian as khuligan, referring to people insufficiently respectful of the law and of social discipline.

The Baath Party in Syria is sufficiently influenced by Soviet Marxism that it translated the phrase ‘hooliganism’ into Arabic, and uses it routinely to refer to the Syrian rebels.

Hooliganism deserves to have its murky etymology, since it is a term of inherently bad faith. Vandalism is rightly categorized as a crime, but it is a crime clearly visible to all.

Hooliganism, in contrast, is virtually undefined and might well simply be regime code word for ‘having a bad attitude.”

Many of the first revolutionaries in Syria, in spring-summer 2011, actually bore some resemblance to Pussy Riot. Fadwa Sulaiman, an Alawite film star, launched a hunger strike to protest the imprisonment of dissidents.

Or there is the “Freedom Generation” band in Homs, one of whose members explained its goal as:

“to make the world see, and make the regime’s leaders realize, that we are not ignorant and we know what we want. They try to portray us as ignorant, but all we lack as Syrians is freedom and dignity.”

Only when the protesting youth and artists were viciously repressed and tank turrets turned on them did elements of the population turn to violence and create the Free Syrian army.

The Russian Federation should have been a gift to a globalizing world in the early 21st century. A highly educated population, a sophisticated scientific establishment, a population grateful to have escaped the clutches of totalitarianism but clear-eyed about the predatory character of much of late capitalism, should have contributed a new, progressive vision.

Instead, Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems intent on making his country a dreary reactionary state, authoritarian, supportive of a national church (much of the ‘hooliganism’ attributed to Pussy Riot was a protest performance in a cathedral; they may as well have been convicted of blasphemy). And putting it that way makes it clear how Putin is unwittingly drawing close to the reactionary governments of the old Middle East as a social and political model– hydrocarbon cartel state and conventional social repression.

The verdict, in other words, is a Salafi verdict, a verdict of the sort Putin says he is afraid will become common in Syria if the rebels win. He is a hypocrite.

That the Pussy Riot members and the Syrian revolutionaries are both being described with a Soviet term of opprobrium drawn from British anti-Irish racist stereotypes points to the staid, conventional banality of evil that lurks in Vladimir Putin’s notion of order.

Here’s a video of Pussy Riot’s piece of hooliganism:

33 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    I think I preferred your piece yesterday, to today’s piece.

    You are quite correct when you said yesterday “The Great Divide in the Greater Middle East continues to devour its partisans on both sides and to introduce new forms of instability into the region. That it has three levels makes it intractable. ”

    Along with the Britsh Military I am avoiding getting sucked into the intractable situation. Mr Putin is already involved by historical fact.

    It would have been better if the instigators had never started it.

    Largely as a point of Information

    I checked the records of disturbances in London and found this from the Daily Mail on the sentence of sixteen months on Charlie Gilmour, the son of a Pink Floyd Musician who performed acrobatics on the War Memorial in Whitehall during protests about student fees.

    Three judges of appeal agreed that his sentence was fair.

    link to dailymail.co.uk

    The unfortunatly named Pussy Riot’s sentence does not seem so totally far from European norms.

    Hooliganism is generally used in the context of Football in UK law.

    link to politics.co.uk

    “The Public Order Act 1986 permitted courts to ban supporters from grounds, while the Football Spectators Act 1989 provided for banning convicted hooligans from attending international matches. The Football (Disorder) Act 1999 changed this from a discretionary power of the courts to a duty to make orders. The Football Disorder Act 2000 abolished the distinction between domestic and international bans.

    The Football Offences Act 1991 created specific offences of throwing missiles onto pitches, participating in indecent or racist chanting and going onto the pitch without lawful authority.

    In Scotland, a new law was introduced in March 2012 to deal with the growing problem of threatening behaviour particularly in relation to inciting religious hatred. The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 creates two new offences: Offensive Behaviour related to football and Threatening Communications. The former covers expressing or inciting religious, racial or other forms of hatred and and threatening behaviour at or on the way to a regulated football match. The latter relates to threats of serious violence and threats intended to stir up religious hatred sent via the internet or other communications.”

    As football has largely replaced religion in UK, the young ladies would seem to have been charged appropriately.

    The hooligans attacked the Russian Embassy in London last night. They are entitled to the same level of protection (from Ayatollah Cameron) as the Equador Embassy.

    link to reuters.com

    • Football hooligans typically provoke battery & property damage. Where there is no property damage, i.e. no vandalism, hooliganism is a merely an ideological charge. Our first amendment abhors it.

      • Provoking public outrage counts as hooliganism, even if no battery or property damage occurs.

        Doing things in Church gets people caught under UK law.

        “Much contemporary and sensationalist art is concerned with pushing moral boundaries and provoking strong reactions from its audience. Gilbert and George, Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili and the Chapman brothers are all examples of artists whose work expresses a sense of artistic autonomy which is seemingly protected under our right to freedom of expression, incorporated into English law by the Human Rights Act 1998. However, the ‘right’ to freedom of expression is not straightforward, as there are restrictions and even penalties according to what the government feels is necessary in a democratic society.

        Offences of outraging public decency, blasphemy, corrupting moral values and those under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 are all an attempt to protect the public and control an artist’s and a gallery’s freedom of expression. ”

        link to harbottle.com

      • Our first amendment abhors it.

        Your first amendment is utterly irrelevant outside of the USA. The American constitution and American laws lose all legal force outside of the USA and its territories, it is long past time you Americans got used to that fact.

        Moreover provoking public outrage by engaging in a scatological parody of the liturgy in front of the main (high) altar in any Cathedral is at the very least behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace. To do so in a Cathedral demolished by the Soviets and only rebuilt following the collapse of the Soviet Union is neither art nor legitimate political or social protest – it’s hooliganism.

        mfi

    • I checked the records of disturbances in London

      You mean the riots? The lethal riots?

      I forget, were their riots going on in Moscow, and was Pussy Riot’s performance conducted in conjunction with them?

      • No, actually it happened during a student protest about the tripling of tuition fees. If I recall the only physical assaults taking place on that occasion were by police on horseback charging into the crowd of protestors with batons.

    • The new Scottish law was introduced to try to defuse the poisonous sectarianism attached to the two big Glasgow football clubs: Celtic (Catholic) and Rangers (Protestant). Things had come to a head when Protestant extremists sent a parcel bomb to Celtic’s manager. (I remember some twenty years ago, a work colleague of mine, who was a Rangers fan, almost fainting when she heard that Rangers had signed a Catholic player!) More recently, the God of Irony has intervened, with Rangers going bankrupt over unpaid taxes (a symptom of the crazy financing of British soccer). They have been readmitted to the Scottish league’s lowest division, so there will be far fewer Celtic/Rangers games for the next few years.

    • These women have been in jail for months without, in one case, even visits from her husband! The “offense” was also only a few minutes long.

      “The security officials told the girls to leave the church, and the girls left. The police only arrived half an hour later, but they saw no reason to take any action against Pussy Riot. Only a week later, after the video had caused such a stir on the Internet, did the government decide to severely punish Pussy Riot.” (using outside security camera video to even identify them)

      • From the video here, we see several members of Pussy Riot mounting the area just before the iconostasis, and dancing in synch with one another, while a security guy attempts to make them leave. (They do not comply.) To the sides, we see other visitors being herded out. Their expressions and vocalizations seem unsympathetic.

  2. Juan, I have a question for you or your readers.

    Is there any meaningful parallels between your column above on Russia and the fundamentalists actions of the Catholic Church?

    It looks to me like a power play from the Catholic Church using social issues to influence policy, including the American elections.

    The Pope’s statement that homosexuality is a more important issue than the Brazilian rain forest, for example, shows an irresponsible position in the context of the major issue of our time, namely the environment.

    • Don, there is no such thing as fundamentalists actions of the Catholic Church.

      The term “fundamentalist” is not some catch-all for any conservative religious belief or action. Fundamentalism is the doctrine that a religion or society has become corrupted by getting away from the doctrines and practices that ruled it when it was first formed. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, believes that the traditions and doctrines that develop over the course of history, including novel ones that come out of the Vatican, are legitimate expression of divine will.

  3. there is a wide gap between the vapid pussies and tolstoy’s story. Non sequitur.

    • Vapid, really?

      SPIEGEL: From what tradition did the Voina protests emerge?
      “Verzilov: Moscow conceptualism and Russian actionism of the 1980s and 1990s were important influences for us. But there were also philosophical inspirations. For me, they were mainly the classic philosophers of postmodernism, like Jacques Derrida, whereas for Nadezhda it was more the radical feminism of Judith Butler. We were very well prepared when it came to theory.

      “Pussy Riot was a direct response to a decision by (former President and current Prime Minister) Dmitry Medvedev not to run for reelection (as president). It was on Sept. 24, 2011, the day it became clear that the regime has no interest in change and only knows one direction: more authoritarian control. For 15 women, including Nadezhda, it was a wakeup call to do something and plan direct campaigns. The first videos appeared on the Internet only a few weeks later.

      “SPIEGEL: Who came up with the name?
      “Verzilov: These are collective decisions. The name is a reference to the Riot grrrl movement that arose in the United States in the early 1990s, based on a concept of feminine strength, not weakness. It sounded odd in Russia, and even the Western mainstream media has problems with it.”

  4. Thank you for another insightful and informative comment, Prof Cole. I have followed your honest and courageous blog since my days as an organizer opposing the unconscionable invasion of Iraq. I felt the need to comment today to tell you I am inspired by your ever-broadening outlook now encompassing culture and philosophy. Please know that your words make a real difference (and I regularly re-post them). And please always err on the side of optimism for the future. That is when I find you at your best.

  5. I recently read The Man Without a Face – The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen. I have to say that I had little understanding before that of how dangerous Putin is to Russia and so by extension to many of us living elsewhere.

    • I understand how intoxicating it must be to read amplified notions of perception and sentiment but please, do yourself a favor and read Michael Stuermer’s “Putin and the Rise of Russia”. You well then understand that, though a strong arm politician whose policy is in desperate need of economic diversification, he is only a threat to the interests of the West. Oh how easily people forget the drunken incompetence of Yeltsin and the mafia state that existed under him…

  6. If I’m an American, should I believe that I have a greater responsibility to stop the evil of my country, or the evil of its rivals? Because nothing was stopping the Wall Street-neoliberal-Washington Consensus empire and its Shock Doctrine until Bush’s stupidity gave other countries a chance to fight back. Many of the leaders of those countries are not paragons of human rights, and some of them deserved to be overthrown. But it’s clear that we Americans are too greedy to curb our corporations as they grasp at absolute power and, as we see in the news every day, become absolutely corrupt.

    The corporations went through the hassle of turning Mexico into a submissive NAFTA-land, but even an enslaved Mexico can’t provide wages as cheap as China, so the sweatshops moved there instead. China is not submissive. It keeps a share of the profits and develops its population, and that makes it a threat to us. Hooray.

    Now we’ve lost Central Asia to the SCO, and Latin America to populism. The BRIC states openly work against Wall Street-mandated intellectual property tyranny. The Arabs refuse to choose between the stereotypical boxes we’ve set out for them. We’ve begun the fight for Africa when we’ve already lost it to the Chinese. And yes, Russian oil & gas have sabotaged Cheney’s efforts to peonize Europe via the BTC pipeline.

    As for Russia, read Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” for the story of how America helped Yeltsin destroy democracy and precipitate a mass dieoff of the unproductive. It’s amazing the Russians didn’t vote in an outright Hitler after what Yeltsin did.

    If we lack the courage to topple our own bad guys, then other bad guys have to provide a balance of terror to wear us down before our corporations conquer the world and crush all alternatives or any possibility of change for generations, or even cause its extinction by denying climate change. A competent tyrant is the worst of all, and greed seems to be that tyrant, America’s gift to the world.

    • Maybe it’s just a point of view kind of thing, but would it maybe be a little more accurate to say it a little differently? That “our own bad guys” actually OWN US? Given who has most of the wealth, most of the political power, most of the police power, pretty much unbridled ability to have whatever they want to do, to us or anyone else, declared or recognized or accepted as “not illegal,” or at least “without any effective remedy at law or in equity”?

      And most of these “corporations” are not in any real-world sense “American” any more — they are post- and trans-national, are effectively “states” in the Great game sense, have no loyalties to anything other than self-aggrandizement, filled with people who have inhaled the heady smoke of power over others.

      “We” already belong to “them.” “We” are just a rump tail of little people, little minuscule humans who work our butts off, individually or in our little collectives, to create real wealth that these creatures strip off us to fund the End Game of our species.

      But it’s good to read about the actions of others, elsewhere, to “do something” about all of that.

    • Thank you for this, i find those in the West complaining about Putin to either have selective Amnesia, down right ignorant or just being totally unrealistic.
      We had absolutely no problem supporting the drunk, incompetent Yeltsin for a decade while he ran Russia to the ground and stole an election. Yet we act surprised when the Russians decide they don’t like being humiliated and Put a strongman like Vladimir in power.
      Lets be honest the only reason the establishment does not like Putin is because he is not a weak, pathetic leader that will allow his country to be ravaged.

      • Ugh. That’s a very backward-thinking – and IMHO silly – way to judge Putin. There’s a very valid reason to explain suspicion of Putin: The man is a nasty authoritarian who has a cracked down on domestic dissent. Not much to admire there, pal.

        • Yeah, IYHO is right. If the Pussy Riot trial proves anything its how underprepared most commentators and pundits are when delving into Russia. There is no country with a more complex and unacknowledged history. We berate Russians for Stalinism when they were its greatest victims. We berate Putin for corruption when he built his political resume on fighting it. Authoritarian as he may be, he is at about 67% approval right now with a 5% economic growth rate for the first half of 2012 + oil prices staying north of $100 a barrel. He is likely to stay popular for a while. Get over it. If he were by some chance removed, it would be the most undemocratic thing to happen to Russians since the Soviet Union. If the West wants to enact real change in the world it will man up and tear down the trans-national corporate lobby systems that run their governments. But “democracy” isn’t really what’s at stake here, is it?

  7. Outsiders, especially on the British and American fringe left, have sometimes suggested…that religious fundamentalism in the Middle East will overthrow secular, modernizing regimes like those of Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad.

    I’m assuming that the phrase “that Russian fears” is a typo.

    I don’t think the western leftists who side against the Libyan and Syrian rebels honestly do so out of a fear of Skeery al Qaeda Mooslems. After all, these people – in most cases, literally the same people – spent the previous decade railing against the depiction of political Islam as a threat, claiming that the government and media were hyping the al Qaeda threat for political purposes, and claiming that such depictions were intended to discredit the legitimate gripes of people suffering oppression from western-aligned governments in the Islamic world.

    To attribute their (highly selective) concern about Arab Spring uprisings to an actual fear of fundamentalist Islam gives them too much credit. More likely, they’ve decided to adopt what they consider to be a line of propaganda that will be effective with the American public, and will discard it with the same ease with which they discarded their previous opposition to such discourse.

    • Nice generalization, bro. The people of the world have the right to political self-determination whether religiously based or otherwise. I think most libruhls, toothless as they may be, would agree with that. Depict political Islam how you like cause here is a radical thought: ITS NONE OF OUR BUSINESS.

      And, yes, insurgencies are a reaction to oppression and occupation. That’s kinda how it works. Whether Algeria or Iraq, the struggle is a nationalist one first and foremost, religious zeal is simply what gives a large portion of fighters their opiate.

  8. It’s unfortunate that Russian Orthodox often seem to lack the humility and winsomeness of Alyosha and Father Zossima in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”, or the wayfarer in “The Way of the Pilgrim”. Holding icons while thumping gays and hooligans on the head is not really holding up the picture of Christ.

  9. Professor Cole,

    With all due respect i disagree with your analysis, first and foremost whether we like it or not Putin is the most trusted, respected and popular leader in Russia right now. All poles, both internally and externally support this assertion. So we may call him names but the facts are the fact, majority of the Russian people want him just where he is. But this is not a debate about Putin and i will leave it at that for now.
    On to the Pussy Riot clowns, i am sorry but i have zero sympathy for these women. I myself have no particular religious convictions. In fact i think they are all fairy-tales and not particularly interesting ones at that. That being said, people should have the right to practice their religion in peace. These foolish women should have taken their protest somewhere else. They had no right to interrupt Sunday mass to spew their nonsense ( in which majority of Russians do not even agree with). The law is the law and they broke it, we may not like Russian law but the fact of the matter is that is their law.

  10. They could have passed this off or welcomed the opportunity for dialogue with a young generation alienated by the church. Ironically they turned these women into widely known heroes inspiring similar spontaneous actions by women across the former soviet empire and beyond, which may not stop until Pussy Riot are vindicated.

    The group FEMEN in the Ukraine is more extreme. They protest topless with slogans scrawled across their bodies, and chainsawed down a crucifix monument. They were charged with “Part 2 of Article 296 (hooliganism) of the Criminal Code of Ukraine.”

    It appears at the moment the impossible may be happening and in the face of widespread Pussy Riots the church is changing course?

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    interview with husband of a jailed Pussy Riot member:
    link to spiegel.de

  11. The begged question offers the intellectual no avenue but sentiment.

  12. Juan –

    I hugely enjoy your blog, but I’m not convinced the Riot case has anything to do Russia’s Middle Eastern policies. Three points:

    (1) Putin is simply a nationalist, period, and Russia’s Middle Eastern foreign policy is deeply colored by Russia’s own post-imperial brand of Orientalism (i.e. Putin and the siloviki regarded Assad and Qaddafi as bulwarks against the sort of fundamentalist violence which has indeed killed lots of people in Russia, much as the US regarded Mubarak and Ben Ali). I personally detest all Orientalisms, but that’s just how Russia’s political class thinks.

    (2) Most Russians really, really, REALLY don’t like the idea of anyone kicking up a ruckus in an Orthodox Church. Russians have awful memories of decades of Soviet repression. I’m not defending the jail terms for the protestors for a single second, just pointing out that Russia is a socially conservative society (conservative, as in the gender and racial norms of Eisenhower’s America), with a hugely diverse and multiconfessional population, which makes religion especially touchy.

    (3) Yes, there’s plenty to critique about Russia’s very young and flawed democracy. United Russia’s demonization of Russia’s LGBTQ community is hideous and disgusting, and Russia’s draconian drug laws are as idiotic and damaging to civil liberties as their US equivalents. But the standard for Russia should be places like Turkey, a society still emerging from decades of authoritarianism, e.g. the ugly treatment of Kurdish journalists and human rights activists.

    Painting the world into quasi-Cold War zones of influence is precisely what the 1% want us to do: to keep us 99Percenters fighting over bogus divisions, rather than uniting to solve our problems.

  13. Juan: Wouldn’t the Tim deChristopher case be an apt comparison?

  14. Actually, the difference between normal and punk protest is known ever since the caves, it has little to do with Putin and ROC. Defending punks did not change meaning since then.

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