Friday, August 17, 2012

An Open Letter to Vladimir Putin on Pussy Riot: Gregory Kataev (film and theatric director, Moscow)

Dear Paul,
I recently returned from France where my sister organized a musical festival.  An excellent group of international musicians and students from the French conservatories participated, with each concert being an event unto itself.  People from all over the globe were in attendance – friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

I was inundated by questions about why the girls from Pussy Riot were in prison.  A high ranking diplomat told me bluntly if the girls had danced on the altar of Notre Dame they would be sentenced to a fine or, barring payment, a week of public service.  It would never have occurred to anyone that girls who caused no physical harm or material damage to the church could be in prison.  Their punishment is purely political, he declared.

Others were equally incredulous:  A Belgian burst out:  “What is your court doing?  Not everyone approves of what they did, but the legal process produces nothing but a feeling of disgust!  The whole world is indignant about this inquisition, and the names “Nadia-Masha-Katya” now are symbols of political repression.”  An American complained to me:  “I admire Russian literature, music and the churches.  But the shameful stories about the Patriarch’s 40 thousand dollars Breguette watches and his self-serving apartment law suit case and the shameful trial of Pussy Riot have caused a general loathing of Russia around the world.  More and more people view Russia as a totalitarian, abnormal state with a medieval mentality.  Who can give credence to Putin’s ludicrous statements about democracy, rule of law, and the creation of favorable social and business climate?”

What could I possibly answer as someone who loves his country but completely shares this outrage?

Pussy Riot adds to the too many Russian trials over the last few years that have caused terrifying reputational damage to Russia.  No real or imagined CIA campaign could cause such psychological or ideological harm to the Russian image as this trial. The Patriarch’s silence is shameful.  The cowardly, Pontius-Pilate  Putin’s position, when he washes his hands of the case demonstrating that he has nothing to do with the show trial,  evokes even more international shame.  Civilized countries cannot remain indifferent to such abuses.

A friend invited two wives of Russian billionaires to the music festival.  At the end of the second day, during the final part of the concert, two young women entered the packed concert hall after ***knocking on the door.  They were met with scathing glances and they remained standing near the door, their expressions assured, if not haughty.  I found myself near them, and couldn’t resist asking if they were Russian.  They both proudly responded yes, but obviously took offense at the question.  I took note of their magnificently varnished nails and expensive clothes.

 After the performance, I told my friend not to bother introducing me to the two young women. I didn’t like them and didn’t want to meet them.  Regardless, after 15 minutes of subtle maneuvers through the crowd, my friend tapped my shoulder and introduced them.  They announced that they were both Natashas (or Svetas - I forgot) and that according to the Russian tradition I could stand between them and make a wish.  I stood between them and said that I wished the girls of Pussy Riot to be freed!  Another young Russian woman in their entourage exclaimed, “But why should they be released?!”  As I was trying to explain my position, she shook her head and covered her face with her hands, once again loudly exclaiming, “No, there was a cross, it was a sacred place, you can’t do such things there!  They are criminals and should be judged as such!”  The billionaires’ wives nodded agreement while smiling at me at the same time.  Their friend and I continued to argue, attracting distasteful glances from those who heard what was going on. After I slipped away, a vacuum formed around the billionaire’s wives’ group, and they quickly disappeared.

After returning to Moscow, I now suspect that too many Russians share the views of  the tackily but expensively adorned billionaires’ wives.  I read the comment sections of the press on Pussy Riot, and I see Russia itself.  These are not Europeans or Americans commenting, but Russians, with an almost childlike or fairy tale interpretation of the controversy, expressed primitively and agressivly.  Any intelligent discussion elicits vicious responses and these opinions continue to safely hover on the internet.  They cannot merely be explained away as nonsense and political naivet√©. The only explanation I can come up with is the indulgence of the Russian intelligence services. The same story with the numerous illegal surveillance recordings of the Russian opposition on the internet. 

In any country that respects its own laws the publication of private information gathered illegally on regime opponents would cause a hurricane of indignation in the media, followed by criminal trials of  those responsible.  But in Russia, only starkly unjust criminal trials are initiated against  the political opposition and now the innocent girls of Pussy Riot.  But the outside world perfectly understands what is going on.  And morning, as the Russian song says, will eventually come.

Mr. Putin, you should pay attention to what the international community is saying - the words and deeds (or lack thereof) of  the church make it clear that Patriarch Kirill is your  puppet (or at least trying to be one).  Either you are not a very smart person, Mr. Putin, or it is your advisors (which does not preclude the first option). People are discussing this in every corner of the world… Paris, Orleans, Lyon, London, Edinburgh, Rome, Florence, Venice, Brussels, Antwerp, Amsterdam, the Hague, Washington, New York and most importantly…in Moscow.  And I, and the millions of others who love Russia and her culture, are terrified by the Pussy Riot process, along with the other unjust and shameful legal situations in Russia.  I urge you to speak in support of the girls from Pussy Riot, Mr. Putin.

Imagine how your prestige and authority (and that of the Russian Orthodox Church) would rise if you (or Patriarch Kirill) publicly denounce the charges against Pussy Riot.  The group acted in bad taste and offended parishioners, but they did not cause harm to any people or icons. These girls, whatever they are -  our children, we forgive them; we love them and would like to meet with them in order to explain something.  Imagine the shattering impression this would make on people around the world.  This would be similar to Pope John Paul II meeting with the Turk who had shot him in order to forgive him.  This was the event of the year, but I don’t urge you in order to follow a Roman Pope.  I urge you to switch on your mind (and your heart, if it still switches on) for the glory of Christianity,  the glory of the historical confessors of Orthodoxy - in the glory of Russia.

If you cannot do this, the impression will be justified that you have no spiritual  values and that  the president of Russia has only his own self-serving calculations and political interests at heart.  But, it seems to me that you will say nothing.  And it seems that you will craftily continue to refer Pussy Riot  back to the Russian Courts and await  “ their” decision.  You are crafty because this was the same position you took during the Khodorkovsky trials while at the same time you unsubstantially accused him of being up to his elbows in blood and applied pressure to the courts.  This is unfair and illegal.  And while you are the Egyptian Pharaoh of Russia you are beyond the law. 

But things can change. And I hope they will. And how will Russian history remember you?  Will you be remembered as the one who created self-destructing “vertical” of  power, primitive “manual control” and whose throne was propped up by the oil, gas and lumber that are the national resources of  the entire country?  Will you be also remembered as the one under whose name, with your consent, citizens were pursued, judged and sentenced as if Russian justice is  a medieval inquisition?  Just imagine what future school children and students will read about you in their textbooks in fifty years from now?  Or a hundred?  In your place, or that of Patriarch Kirill, I would feel fear and shame.


  1. 1. Russia had a law on the books against “hooliganism” which has a maximum sentence of 7 years in prison. The “protesters” should have known that going into it.

    2. We have similar laws against things like vandalism or violence. Violators of the law, if found guilty, are subject to a penalty, and the judge has some discretion as to the magnitude of the sentence.

    3. The magnitude sentence might be harsher if the violation involved some kind of particular impropriety, involving children for instance. Most would agree that judges should have that kind of discretion.

    4. The violation of sacred space is a huge impropriety in the eastern churches (most eastern religions for that matter) and especially in Russia where in living memory of many of its citizens the government was destroying the churches.. People bled for them, were imprisoned for them and died for them.

    5. So the fact that the girls got 3 out of 7 years reflects how, if not the Russians, at least that judge, feels that sacred places should be treated. From the history I’ve read, I think the vast majority of human beings that have lived on this planet would be on the side of the judge. The fact that many today are not may be the opposite of progress.

    6. So I think this has little to nothing to do with free speech and it’s a little absurd for Americans to criticize Russia on the topic of civil liberties when last year our “liberal” democrat president assassinated 3 american citizens, signed the NDAA which allows our government to detain american citizens indefinitely, made it illegal to protest anywhere the secret service may be present, kept the Patriot Act going and continues to support legislation to censor the internet (SOPA, CISPA)… maybe we need to focus on getting our own house in order.

  2. "After returning to Moscow, I now suspect that too many Russians share the views of the tackily but expensively adorned billionaires’ wives."

    I don't doubt it, and that is why Russia is ruled the way it is ruled. You get the government you deserve, thus Russia always has a czar.

    Sorry if that cuts close to home.