There is something rotten in the state of Russia. It gets more rotten by the day. There is something rotten in the state of Russia and its name is Vladimir Putin. Putrid Putin, I was tempted to write, and I just have! A former KGB operative, he is now the shady president of a country descending into the worst forms of political gangsterism. Actually, it's just descending into gangsterism, period.
So, what brought this on? It was my first angry reaction when I read on Friday about the vindictive jail sentences passed against three members of Pussy Riot, a female punk band that mounted an anti-Putin protest in Moscow’s main cathedral earlier this year.
It’s not long since I brought the plight of these women to the attention of a BrooWaha audience (Putin Persecutes Pussy, 12 August.) Now Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, a philosophy graduate, Maria Alekhina, 24, a charity worker and environmental activist and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, a computer programming graduate, have been sentenced to two years in jail for ‘hooliganism’, the favourite catch-all offence of the old Soviet tyranny.
To describe their trial as unfair and the judgement biased and politically motivated is probably an underestimate. In some ways it recalls, in a minor key, the old Stalinist show trails of the 1930s, at least inasmuch as there was never any doubt about the outcome.
Speaking outside court after the hearing, opposition leader Alexei Navalny said the verdict was "written by Putin" and was his "personal revenge". Of that I have no doubt. It is also a verdict approved by his cronies in the Orthodox Church hierarchy, whose own vindictiveness seems to be in inverse proportion to their Christian charity.
The three women convicted in this mocking travesty of justice are not atheists, I should add; no, they are believers. Their punk prayer to drive Putin out delivered in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February may have been naïve and misdirected, but it was most assuredly not motivated by ‘religious hatred’, one of the charges levelled against them.
They have since apologised for causing offence, though their ‘offence’ might very readily be compared to Christ driving out the money changers, or Martin Luther nailing his protest against the sale of papal indulgences to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. It was not, in other words, an attack on religion but the abuse of religion.
There are some unhappy truths worth knowing about modern Russia. Peter Gabriel, writing recently in the Times, quite rightly says that the women of Pussy Riot risked their freedom to take on a malevolent power. Older Russians are now saying that they have not seen the use of such bullying and violence since the days of Stalin.
Russia is now a place where protesters are intimidated, beaten and imprisoned; a place where investigative journalists risk being murdered. It’s a place where the authorities sell an individual’s tax returns to gangs so they can be more precise in their extortion. It’s a place where law guarantees nothing, not even the right of property.
I turn to the late Vasily Grossman, a brilliant novelist, the author of Life and Fate, who understood the mentality of his country better than most. I turn specifically to Everything Flows, a novel unfinished at the time of his death in 1964. I open at random and alighted on this, one of the many passages I’ve underlined;
They all saw the power of the Russian soul and its significance for the world, but they failed to see that this soul has been a slave for a thousand years, that its peculiarities had been endangered by the absence of freedom. However all-powerful you are, what can you give to the world if you have been a slave for a thousand years?
Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Lenin, Stalin, Putin, a dreadful apostolic succession, an old regressive history that will never let go. In Russia the same pattern always emerges with depressing familiarity: one step forward, two steps back.
Meanwhile protests against the treatment of Pussy Riot have been mounted across the world, with the American State Department and the British Foreign office registering their concerns with the Kremlin. Putin doubtless is waiting for the women to throw themselves on his mercy, something they are refusing to do, saying they will not be asking for a pardon for a purely political act. In the end nothing may serve to reverse this appalling act of injustice, a finger on the pulse of the gangster state.