Let’s be honest: the images that came out of Sochi yesterday were sickening. Thugs in uniforms beating young women with horsewhips, kicking them to the ground and throwing their things in garbage cans — piggish behavior in defense, we are told, of “traditional values.” And why? Because four members of Pussy Riot, the feminist punk protest group, decided to sing and dance a bit. What a lot of nonsense. Or at least I wish it were nonsense rather than the creeping totalitarianism that it is.
A year and a half has passed since they were arrested for “hooliganism” and “religious hatred” after their admittedly bizarre musical performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, but I am still not sure what Pussy Riot is for. Democracy? Feminism? Access to abortion? Gay marriage? Rock and roll? It it is almost impossible to get a straight answer out of them, and I have long given up trying to make sense of things like “Art and the Human,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s meandering 2,000-word manifesto.
That said, I do think I know what they are against, and it occurs to me that I am, on the whole, against many of the same things: hitting women, for example, and encroachments upon freedom of speech; subjecting dissidents to show trials and prison camps; the Church’s serving as the enforcer of amoral political orthodoxies. These are not, one would like to think, private idiosyncratic stances; they are part and parcel of what it means to be a civilized human being.
So it goes without saying that I am fed up with the knee-jerk would-be russophilia of some of my friends on the Right. For Vladimir Putin is not, as my political hero Pat Buchanan has all-but-called him recently, a “paleoconservative.” Nor is this divorcé, who recently announced that he is leaving his wife of thirty years and whose mistress played a prominent part in the Olympics’ opening ceremony, some kind of Orthodox white knight. He is an opportunist who is egging on the most atavistic and xenophobic elements in his country, and all the while lining his pockets and those of his cronies. One need not be looking impatiently at one’s watch for the coming “unipolar moment” or be mildly hawkish, much less find oneself mentally fighting the ideological battles of the last century, to agree with any of this: I for one do not think that Western-style democratic capitalism provides a template that is workable or desirable for every country in the world, nor do I wish to see the United States increase its military budget or fight a war any time soon.
But it’s one thing to recognize that the Cold War is over; to equivocate or attempt to explain away the nastiness of the self-proclaimed “Cossacks” cracking lashes and grunting orders in Russia these days is quite another. These men are scum. In the name of law and order they go around smashing the skulls of anyone — homosexuals, Muslims, critics of the regime — they think they can get away with beating up. They show us the Russian national character at its ugliest. Theirs is the Russia not of Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, and Lermontov, or of Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Musorgsky (of whom Stephen Walsh has recently written an excellent biography) or Glazunov; the great nation whose history is itself as captivating a romance as one could ever hope to read and whose varied landscape (I have never visited, alas) has always seemed to me one of the most achingly beautiful on the planet — but the Russia of pogroms, of dark mysticism and blood and soil myths, of corrupt, faithless priests preying upon credulous old women. And the Church that acquiesces in all or any of this is not the Church of the Holy Fathers, but a perversely secular Babylonian counterfeit.
The brave gals of Pussy Riot — whatever else one might say of them, they are certainly brave — have been put through hell: kept up all night, denied food, arrested and sent to prison on the flimsiest of pseudo-legal pretexts. Only the most willfully obtuse and historically illiterate, not to say monstrously ungallant, of observers could fail to sympathize with them.