David Nightingale: Russian Protestors

Feb 3, 2019

A USSR stamp, Soviet Nobel_Peace_Prize_winners
Credit Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

In a time of dictators – for example right now in South America’s Venezuela – there will always (thankfully) be dissidents.

In the former USSR, the Nobel-prize-winning Andrei Sakharov, who loved his country but was outspoken on the lack of freedom of expression, was exiled to Gorky and had to go on a hunger strike to allow his wife to be given permission to travel to the U.S. for heart surgery. In Saudi Arabia, people have been killed for criticizing the government, and thousands are imprisoned in Turkey currently for being members of the opposition.

This essay is about the punk rock group “Pussy Riot.” Formed in 2011 by a dozen women in their 20s and early 30s largely from Moscow State University – also Sakharov’s alma mater – they stood courageously against Putin in his election campaign, for his opposition to LGBT rights, gay marriage, and for his suppression of free speech. When he was indeed returned to power in 2012, the group staged a performance inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, to draw attention to how the powerful Orthodox Church’s leaders had been supportive of Putin’s suppressions and were blindly following him. Their song Punk Prayer described Putin as a “rotten dictator” and contained bold lyrics about him. They were arrested and two of them, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were sentenced to two years of prison for the crime of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

The case attracted international attention; both Sting and Madonna called for their release, and human rights groups referred to them as prisoners of conscience.

Nadezhda was the mother of a young daughter, and she faced tough conditions and abuses in prison, causing her to go on a hunger strike. Her husband, Pyotr Verzilov, schooled in Toronto for four years, had left Canada at 18 to become a philosophy student at Moscow State University – which was where he and Nadezhda had met. He was fluent in both English and Russian, and although not allowed to be a member of the feminist group was fully supportive of their anti-Putin protests.

In 2014 the group planned to perform again at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, but Cossack security guards attacked them with whips and pepper spray, and they were also spray-painted green by local youths.

The Pussy Riot women were not, of course, Russia’s only dissidents. Chess champion Garry Kasparov, critical of Putin, especially as further laws were being enacted concerning freedom for journalists and writers, was imprisoned for five days. Kasparov lives now in New York City, and has taken Croatian citizenship.

In 2016, two weeks before the U.S. presidential election, the group released an over-imaginative video called Make America Great Again, in which they picture the just-about-to-be-elected Trump enforcing some of his values, particularly against journalists.

In 2018, Pyotr, after having given a negative interview about the Russian legal system to Al Jazeera TV, was in critical condition in Moscow’s Bakharushin City Hgospital from suspected poisoning.

Finally, one cannot always agree with the methods or beliefs of many dissenters, but one has to admire their courage when basically undemocratic leaders are in power.

David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

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