Monday, 30 July 2012

A very modern protest

This post hinges on the protest and subsequent arrest and trial of three women in Moscow. Called Pussy Riot (you may think that is all you need to know, but exercise care when you google them.), they staged what appears to have been an anti-Putin, anti-Russian Orthodox event in a Moscow Church. They have come to the attention of civilised Europe because the trial is said to be directly under the influence of Vladimir Putin. Already the three women have spent months in prison awaiting trial and may face up to seven years in prison for what amounts to a short, peaceful (if aggressive) invasion of the tallest orthodox church in the world, Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Those are more or less the bare facts. Also to be taken into consideration is the position of the official Orthodox hierarchy, headed by Patriarch Kirill, who is seen by some as pro-Putin and anti-democracy and who, by some accounts, has rather more in common with Russian Oligarchs than is usual for a church leader.

The Telegraph reports today:

In a passionate statement read to the court by a defence lawyer, Miss Tolokonnikova admitted that she and her friends may have committed an "ethical error" and were "very regretful" if churchgoers were insulted by the cathedral protest.
But she said their song was a reflection of many Russians' discontent at Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church, showing open support for Mr Putin as a candidate before the presidential election on March 4.
"We, like many of our compatriots, find unpleasant the insidiousness, deceit, venality, hypocrisy, acquisitiveness and lawlessness with which our current leadership and authorities are sinning," she said.
The "punk performance" was a targeted protest at the Patriarch propping up Mr Putin's "authoritarian and antifeminist course", she added.
Prosecutors said the group had "insulted in a sacrilegious manner the centuries-old foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church".

The affair raises many issues, about the role of church and state, about freedom of speech and about the etiquette of protesting.

I began by saying that this post hinges on the Pussy Riot incident. In order to understand what is going on I had to refer back to my days as a writer for the Catholic Herald. Their archive still contains a piece I did in 1980 about the gaoling of a Russian Orthodox Christian dissident called Alexander Ogorodnikov.

Ogorodnikov was never a member of the Orthodox Establishment. He was as much a pain to the hierarchy then as he is now. His activities still attract the displeasure of Putin and the FSB. What I wanted to know is how much had changed in the intervening 30 years of Soviet and post-Soviet relations between the Church and State, and indeed the nature of that relationship with the Russian people themselves. I also wanted to understand if there are lessons to be learned for our own country and how the two compare.

The parallels are probably obvious. Anti-Capitalists camped outside St Paul's Cathedral in London for months. A quaint headline of the time reads, "St Paul’s Cathedral appeals for anti-capitalist protesters to leave". That more or less says it all. Not only did the happy campers stay for weeks on end, disrupting the life of the Cathedral, they urinated and shat and remained in a drug-induced stupor until it was finally sorted out. They were simply moved on. They caused many thousands of pounds of damage and they did not advance their cause one jot. In all, it seemed to me to be a rallying point for all the usual suspects and a hang-out for spongers and dope-dealers. The amount of official tolerance of these "protesters" was breathtaking in its naivety, as was the protest itself. One protester had a placard which bore the legend,"Tahrir Square, WC2" . And yet, this is our country, this is the way it works. But Tahrir it is not. Nobody is going to get out of a black car, pick you up and take you to the woods for a serious talking to. Nobody rots in gaol. Had the spunky girls of Pussy Riot done their show in St.Pauls, there would have been a lot of hand-wringing, a lot of heated debate in Forums, and a fine or a suspended sentence for the perpetrators. Perhaps they might easily have just been told off.

The women known collectively as Pussy Riot face seven years in gaol. It think that sums up the difference in the way we deal with protest in Britain. The rider to that is that there are still areas where the security services use draconian powers to clamp down on those who they see as detractors. There is still plenty of unfairness in our own system and I return to this at the end of my piece.

But back to Russia. Has the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Oligarchs changed since the bad old days of Soviet Russia? I don't think so. People are still imprisoned for political action. Votes are still rigged and the Orthodox Church gives explicit approval to the Russian government, and in particular, Vladimir Putin.

Ogorodnikov, whom I quote from a 2010 interview, seems to agree:

Listening to my old friends, I realize freshly how difficult it is to get rid of the Communist system. Although 1991 was the official end of the Soviet Union, from the moral point of view it still has not ended. I compare it to a corpse which is decomposing and the poison it creates is everywhere. We carry it in ourselves. It is very important to stress this fact because people tend to underestimate it, and to underestimate the tragedy of Russia in this century.
Reading thus far you may think that we are lucky. Some can protest and the BBC and the Guardian will write sympathetic stories about travellers, rioters, anti-capitalists and Islamic fundamentalists. I am  not convinced we are that lucky. Repression is embedded in British society to such an extent that it registers hardly at all. To most, its perception is subliminal. To others it is quite real, it depends on what axe it is you wish to grind. We don't imprison those who dissent, but there are many injustices that continue with the tacit approval and connivance of the media, the state and its executive. We do not live as free people, we are slaves to a system that, is for all practical purposes as punishing as the Soviet model. Some subjects cannot even be discussed openly without attracting the interest of the cyber snoopers. The examples are endless and I would invite you to tell me what you think they are.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Witch Hunt

I can claim to be a descendant of a young woman who, in 1692, was tried and found guilty of being a witch. She was later vindicated and the guilty verdict was rescinded, after she had been hanged.

I don't pretend to understand a witch hunt. I am not a psychiatrist, but I am pretty sure it has something to do with fear, lack of imagination and a failure to understand, to use a current, hijacked word, diversity.

I can think of one high-profile criminal case where an arrest was made of someone who was obviously chosen because he looked and behaved eccentrically. His name and life were plastered all over the papers before it became obvious that he was not involved in murder. His crime? He was a bit odd.

Why is this relevant just now? Well, I was intrigued by the case of a young man who had "twittered" that he was going to blow up an airport. It was a joke, a bad one, but it was taken seriously enough for him to be arrested and initially, convicted of sending a menacing public electronic message. His conviction was quashed on appeal.

Some people appear to scour the web hoping to be offended. In this case there are other factors. We struggle with a communications medium that is new and unpredictable and yet we use it in a very old fashioned way. Twitter is pub talk, tittle-tattle with a bit of spleen-venting on the side. I suppose it can also be used to encourage democracy but we treat it as if it is personal and conversational, a thing the appeal judge recognised in overturning the guilty verdict. 

Another factor in this case is more tangible. We have been terrorised by certain sections of the community to the extent that we see demons and witches around every corner. That is not to say that the threat of being blown up by a terrorist is as imaginary as witchcraft. It is a real and present danger. Perhaps it is better to remember that you have more chance of being killed by a barbecue than by a suicide bomber.

In a climate of fear people look for scapegoats. The clever thing is to figure out the difference between the real and the imaginary and make sure that those in charge of our security understand it.