Pussy Riot and the Fate of Putin’s Russia

“Sovereign Democracy” and the Politics of Protest

By James Neimeister

Since becoming president of the Russian Federation in 2000, Vladimir Putin has struggled with the task of bringing the country out of the ashes left by the fall of the Soviet Union and the wildly corrupt, anarchic days of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. Putin’s approach is embodied in the concept of “sovereign democracy.” Used in the sense of popular sovereignty, sovereign democracy is a somewhat redundant term conveying the idea that, though Russia has adopted the tenets of formal democracy and the market economy, it has not done so in capitulation and will instead assert its distinct national identity. Further embedded in this notion is also an implicit sensitivity to outside influence. Much of this has to do with the all-pervading fear that Russia might fall apart again at any time. Composed as it is as a federation of “oblasts,” “krais” and autonomous republics representing hundreds of ethnicities and numerous religious groups, contemporary Russia lacks the unifying element once provided by Soviet ideology. Some territories, such as Chechnya, have tried to secede and have been brutally suppressed, providing an especially revealing example of the Russian Federation’s fragile nature.

In response to domestic uprisings and popular dissent Putin has established what is referred to as the “vertical of power,” eliminating much of the power of regional governments setting up a system of “managed democracy.” His policies allow superficial freedoms, permitting the various regions to keep their religious traditions and to maintain their own laws and language in exchange for their loyalty to the State. Nationalism and religion have become pillars of state power as populist tactics are used to neutralize discontent and dissent.

This is precisely where Pussy Riot enters the equation, as they were accused of offending the Orthodox Church as part of their protest. The Orthodox Church has long been a symbol of the Russian state, but since Gorbachev’s restructuring of the Soviet state in the 1980’s, religion has become a means of affirming national identities situated within the realm of politics and power. The Pussy Riot affair represents a challenge to the alliance of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state, as well as its connection to Putin’s managed, sovereign democracy. Through their protest, Pussy Riot has provided a limit case to the idea of popular sovereignty. Their trial and imprisonment should prompt one to ask precisely who are “the people” from whom a state claims legitimacy. Pussy Riot’s act of protest highlighted the weakness of sovereign democracy, the idea that the Russian government can act in the name of the people and simultaneously wield its power to coerce them.

Members of the ruling United Russia party formulated the idea of “sovereign democracy”. With the country in chaos, Yeltsin named his successor Vladimir Putin in 1999. Once in power, Putin quickly went to work, dispensing with his foes in perhaps the only way he knew, with the absolute ruthlessness of a former KGB officer. Putin stamped out the authority of unruly regional governments, completely reorganizing the Federation Council. This is the upper chamber of parliament that had previously been composed of the executive and legislative head of each federal subject. This arrangement had been an enormous headache for the government in Moscow in the previous decade, as it gave regional governors enormous national presence that competed with the power of the president. Putin’s reforms ended the direct election of governors and stripped them of there to power to sit in the Federation Council. Afterwards, Moscow was to submit candidates for executive office, shifting the weight of decision making from the regions to the center. This has since been known as the vertical of power, the fundamental policy behind United Russia’s “sovereign democracy.”

Though Putin’s toughness seemed to be bending the nation toward stability, there was a certain level of weakness apparent in failures such as the Nord-Ost hostage crisis. During the Nord-Ost crisis, the army used experimental chemical weapons that killed both civilians and terrorists who could have been saved if a proper emergency response had been organized. This raised many doubts about the way the war in Chechnya was being pursued, and whether that war might be backfiring, gravely hurting the very people it was meant to defend. With such apparent weaknesses, there was ultimately a need to go even further to solidify control; in order to do so Putin needed to carefully control public opinion so as to solidify his power base.

United Russia has had to carefully manage public opinion by manipulating peoples’ sense of identity. As the USSR began to collapse, people looked to revive national traditions, and religion played an especially important role in that revival. Traditional religions such as Orthodox Christianity and Islam seemingly flourished. Religious practices represented a kind of double heresy inasmuch as it was an affirmation of both national and religious identities, both of which conflicted with the official Soviet ideology emphasizing worker’s solidarity. It is important to note that while many Russians self-identify as Orthodox, relatively few are actually practicing believers. The Orthodox revival was in many ways brought about by peoples’ desire to reassert their distinct national character in opposition to the deteriorating Soviet state.

Under Putin, the phenomenon of fusing religious and national identities has intensified in its political significance. Ever the pragmatist, Putin realized that given just enough self-rule such as the right to keep their language and religious traditions, the loyalty of semi-autonomous regions could be preserved. An extreme example would be the only Buddhist state in Europe, Kalmykia, ruled by the same autocratic president since the fall of the USSR. It was this co-option of religion by the state against which Pussy Riot protested first and foremost.

Pussy Riot’s act of protest symbolically undermines the manipulation of religious, and in conjunction, ethnic, identities that the party uses to justify “sovereign democracy.” The choice of the Church of Christ the Savior as the site of their protest was no accident. The church’s reconstruction began during the mid 1990’s when the country was in an economic morass, unable to pay government workers their salaries or the elderly their pensions. Its reconstruction drew controversy, as some demanded the money be spent on other purposes. The premises of the church are not even managed Church but by the Foundation of the Church of Christ the Savior, which administers paid tours, gift shops, and a parking garage there.

Though Pussy Riot’s performance may have been perceived as blasphemous, and indeed they were tried as such, the members of Pussy Riot intended their act to be a kind of expulsion of the moneylenders from the temple. In her closing statements before trial, Pussy Riot member Natalya Tolokonnikova made reference to the “holy fools.” Analogous to the Old Testament prophets, the holy fools are saints and holy men of the Orthodox faith who decried the evil doings of earthly leaders: princes, tsars, and emperors alike. Clearly stating that their intentions were not to attack religion itself, Tolokonnikova decried that “the state’s leaders stand with saintly expressions in church, but their sins are far greater than ours,” explaining that “this is what made us go into the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.”

It is fitting, then, for Pussy Riot to challenge Putin’s “sovereign democracy” by protesting the alliance between the church and state. Putin and United Russia’s approach to keeping the Russian state together has relied on a ruthless exercise of violence, an almost overcompensating show of strength, as well as a manipulative populism. In juxtaposition, Pussy Riot’s tactics and words, influenced as much by feminism as by their interpretation of scripture, highlight what is lacking in contemporary Russia. “We are angered by the appalling weakness of horizontal relationships within society,” declared Pussy Riot member Natalya Tolokonnikova from a cage before the courtroom.

Putin’s policy of sovereign democracy may have achieved relative stability in the short term, but it is a stability based on the ever-present threat of violence. As the protest movement in Russia grows, it is yet unknown whether such a stability can be maintained. For that reason, simply calling for Pussy Riot to be freed or deposing of Vladimir Putin will not be enough. What remains to be seen is if growing discontent will give rise to a movement that can maintain order and meet the peoples’ demands effectively, or whether it will disrupt the established order, fracturing and rupturing the country once again.

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