Thoughts coming from a book I didn’t even want to read

I had the story of Russian protest group Pussy Riot on my shelf for quite some time, but only in the last few months have I felt inclined to take a look behind the workings of the Russian state machinery.

The book was actually a friend’s copy, and I had it for an embarassingly long time. About two years ago she gave it to me saying it’s something I need to read, and I was meaning to, but there was always some other book to be read first (you know how it is with books). I even tried to give it back a few times unread, but my friend always said she doesn’t need it back yet and I need to read it. So I gave it a go recently and I have so much thoughts.

Masha Gessen’s book on the Pussy Riot story

If you don’t know, Pussy Riot is a Russian punk rock art group, active since 2011, with the main aim to protest Putin’s regime with their performances. Most of the members are not even artists, so their works were always less about the music, and more about the message. Although it’s hard for me to identify with their art form, I can deeply respect their commitment to let the message out no matter what. The book is about the trial in which three of the members of the group, three young girls were charged and two of them got convicted and sent to labor camps for something that is in advanced democracies called practicing their freedom of speech. It is an unsettling read.

Of course what interested me most was what this story tells about today’s Russia and the inner thinking of Putin and his state machinery. While the world wanted to consider Russia as a country on the right track ahead on development (since February we saw how many Western brands were present there), we could hardly call any country democratic where there are labor camps with very little judicial control over what charges can get one there.

I wasn’t intent to find paralels between Putin’s Russia and today’s Hungarian political regime, yet I could find some too. For one thing, after my experiences as a vote counting officer at this year’s election, it was disturbing to learn that a similar thing occured on the 2011 Russian elections when Putin was about to return to power after a few years of shadow governing. Russians turned out in record numbers to count votes thinking that this kind of monitoring the elections will prevent him from frauding it. Just like in 2022 Hungary, they did not take into account the brainwashed masses who actually wanted to vote for Putin. After a few years of relative “westernization”, Russia’s real journey back to the socialist era and the protests against it started that year.

The majority of the book is about the trial of the girls, recounting their speeches at court appearances, their correspondence at the time and it’s a chilling insight into Putin’s methods of silecing opponents. Other opposition figures appear in the story including a young Alexei Navalny who was also jailed a few times in those first years of protests and we know how he’s got silenced since.

One of the girls writes that prison is the copy of society. Its sole aim is to dehumanize people, to make them feel inferior. Prisoners start to collect useless stuff just to feel a sort of control over their rather uniform surroundings. Not long before I read the book I was wondering what made the generation of my parents collect all those tiny porcelains and other decorations (that their houses are still filled with) that are just nuisance when you’re moving, or even when cleaning… The book sort of answered that, it was the socialist era, and that’s what you do when you’re prisoned (or feel prisoned).

One more thing: the regime is a show that conceals what in reality is chaos. What looks orderly and restrictive is in fact disorganized and inefficient. Obviously, this does not lead to order. On the contrary, people feel acutely lost, in time and space among other things. As everywhere in the country, a person does not know where to go with a particular problem. So he goes to the head of the detention facility. That’s like taking your problem to Putin outside of jail.

Another thought that sadly resonated with me, was about how citizens are educated not to feel citizens anymore. Or perhaps it’s the lack of any such education, but either way, citizens are discouraged of feeling any kind of responsibility for their surroundings. The powers that be made them so spineless that they don’t even protest when their own lives are on the line. They get so used to being suppressed that they don’t even realize that’s not normal anymore. It kind of relates to the above quote too, when there’s nowhere in the system to turn to when things don’t go well, you just stay home and get used to it. That’s what happens in many autocratic regimes, and that’s the part of such a system that cannot be changed overnight. It would take generations to reverse the effects of such systemic brainwash and autocrats know that. In recent years it became clear how Putin is a master of desinformation that has the power to spread fear and weaken democracies. The biggest task before world leaders these days is to find out how to fight him effectively on that front preferably without sinking to his level.

Anyway, the girls got locked up for a few years with protests over their treatment all around the world, and got released before serving their time due to an amnesty that affected several other political prisoners. Since their release, two of them continued being active in protesting against the injustices of the Putin regime. One of them fled Russia recently after being arrested another few times for her activism.

The book is an unsettling, but important read.

Author: admin

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