A Hardening, a Blurring, and a Slow Sink

by Casey_Michel on 8/21/2012 · 2 comments

Now that all the Pussy Riot-ing’s settled — and now that women’s rights orgs have been rerouted to more legitimate, more pressing issues — it may be worth a step back to frame all of the claims that have been knocked back and forth over the past few weeks. None of this squabbling exists in a vacuum, and while the women will be all but silenced for the following few years, there may yet be a series of slow-creep results that are set to follow.

Before parsing those trends, though, it should be noted that Foust was absolutely correct: Those slacktivists carrying Pussy Riot as a pet cause diminished all those hard-wrung realities of Navalny and Kasparov and Khodorkovsky and Magnitsky. They turned the trial from a domestic farce into an international one, and turned those previously legitimate concerns facile. And while I think mere awareness still carries some merit — the more who know, the more dominos may fall — all those musicians who picked-and-chose this cause cut the actual complaints, and actual travails, at the knees. One more reason to loathe the hipsters, and all that.

But this doesn’t mean that the Pussy Riot sentences were without repercussion, that they didn’t have some form, some moment, of reverberation in the Russian populace. Yes, most of the people disapproved of the women’s effrontery — wouldn’t you? — but the sentencing, predisposed and heavy-handed, seems to have caught both international and domestic audiences aback. While Khodorkovsky and Kasparov can be legitimately portrayed as sifting oligarchs and angry, arrogant pricks, the crimes of those Pussy Riot ‘sheroes’ were vibrant, obvious, and, most importantly, filmed.

As such, a pair of polls came to light recently, setting the trial and the attendant outcries in a bit of context. And they may be worth keeping in mind for those who slough off the trial and sentencing as mere dog-and-pony pointlessness. Show trials can be controlled and paced, but reactions — especially when the ripples are conveyed via Twitter, rather than samizdat — are still a relative crapshoot.

The first poll, published earlier this week by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), details the Russian populace’s feelings toward the Russian Orthodox Church. While the narrative would make it seem that the encroaching intimacy between Putin and Patriarch Kirill — and the subsequent blurring of lines between civic and religious institutions — would find large approval among the nativist Russian populace, the poll indicates that residents are perhaps not as open to the caste of Breguet-wearers and devil-watchers as we’d believe. Some 75 percent of the populace wants the Russian Orthodox Church to “stay out of politics,” a sharp rebuke to a group that believes the separation of church and state was a “myth” of the 21st century.

While this may’ve been a bit of a gimme question — the separation is constitutionally mandated, and there are no follow-up reasons detailing why people would want church and state apart — it’s worth noting that there’s also been a six-point increase (44 to 50) in those observing the church’s presence in domestic politics. Moreover, and dovetailing with the international decrease in religious affiliation, less than half of Russians surveyed claim that the church plays any role in their lives. As time passes, and as the church grows enmeshed in Putin’s policy, the believers have seemingly begun to stray.

These numbers, I imagine, would  surprise any lay readership. After all, the entire arc of the Pussy Riot narrative — the persecution of those “girls” by state and church alike — painted a picture of a nation swelling behind the bipartite powers of Putin and Kirill. And yet, should these poll numbers be believed, the opposite is suddenly the case — as the trial carried forward, and as the church cozied to the state, an increasing number of parishioners grew distant, wary, and bemused.

This poll should be sufficiently notable as a standalone. And yet, in a strange update, it seems that as Kirill’s influence wanes, so does Putin’s. As the Levada Center publicized last week, Putin’s approval numbers have slipped below 50 percent for the first time in his tenure as president. To be sure, the number remains higher than, say, either Romney or Obama — but his 48 percent clip represents a far cry from the 65 percent average he maintained during his first terms as president. It is also a significant tumble from last May, when his approval stood at 60 percent.

This, far more than the church’s slow retreat from public approval, should be a cause for surprise. Putin’s negatives (25 percent) are still manageable — a number any American party flack’s die for, certainly — but it seems this’d be offset by 56 percent of the 1,600 respondents noting that they’d tired of waiting from positive developments from the president. As memory of the halcyon ’00s replaces those of the dark ’90s , people’s patience, it would appear, grows short.

Once more, there’s little indication as to the reasons for the surge in disapproval — perhaps people are still irked by the poor showing in London, or maybe they’re bothered that Putin has allowed colorful balaclavas to suddenly come back into style. Whatever the reason, in the soft-autocracy framework Russia maintains, the Kremlin will find the numbers unsettling. The mandate with which Putin was elected five months ago, the unilaterality of his reascendancy, appears to be slipping.

Now, we’re all healthily aware that Putin’s reign is forever tied to commodity pricing. (It’s the economy, durak.) But the looming gas glut, and whatever potential implications carried therein, is a tale for another time. So while these numbers should not indicate any inevitable impotence for Putin, they may yet serve to highlight a domestic response, and domestic theme, that will emerge as Pussy Riot’s remaining members plot their next maneuver.

The women imprisoned may have generated faux outrage among a few has-been musicians — and consequent antipathy from knowledgeable observers — but they may have also, in a way we’ll only know going forward, catalyzed something. Their timing may be pure coincidence, true. But their circus seems the latest reason for the growing distance between Putin, the church, and the erstwhile flocks. And the more that Putin slams the separation of church and state as a “primitive notion,” and the more Kirill insists on blessing Putin’s moves and motivations, the more both institutions risk tethering themselves to another organization that is increasingly maligned, increasingly irrelevant, and, it appears, slowly sinking.

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This post was written by...

– author of 29 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Eurasian political and social development, and he has worked with both International Crisis Group (Bishkek) and as a Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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Narcogen August 21, 2012 at 8:16 pm

It’s hard not to see the sniping at Pussy Riot, their supporters, and the coverage of their case in the Western media from Registan and other CIS-centric blogs as understandable.

After all, the writers here and elsewhere in the blogosphere are paying attention to human rights issues all the time, even when they don’t involve girl bands. It’s bound to be galling.

However, it also seems to me that the backlash is counter-productive. It seems to me there could have been a real opportunity to at least try to raise the level of awareness of more pressing and more widespread human rights issues in the region to the level attached to Pussy Riot, the response has been to try and reduce and undermine the level of importance assigned to them in comparison with those other issues. That strikes me as short-sighted.

To be honest, I had similar thoughts about the group for most of the time this story has been going on– that they were posers. Given that this is the FSU, I also heard stories from more than one place that they were actually agent provocateurs, and that nothing would happen to them– and some have even pointed out to me the “leniency” of the sentence to justify that interpretation!

Then I read the final statements, where I was a bit surprised to find that it seems there was actually a well thought out reason for the group’s actions– objecting to the way in which Putin’s government has coopted the imagery of the Orthodox church.

To a foreign secular humanist like myself, that isn’t really a particularly interesting issue, I admit. The trial and relatively brief incarceration of this group don’t rise to the level of what has happened to others– those who have not and may never get a trial (in Russia and elsewhere) and those who have lost their lives.

Maybe it would be more useful, if a tad more cynical, to spin the shallow interest in the “young girls in prison” angle that so fascinated the Western media into more interest in the region’s other human rights abuses, rather than bemoaning the whole situation as another thing to hate about hipsters– that doesn’t seem to me to be a terribly productive response.

Casey August 24, 2012 at 9:21 am

A fair response, and, mirroring the foreign secular humanism, it’s clear that this issues been promulgated far more than it ever should’ve been. And the backlash, the nit-pick and the mockery and the clarification, has risked pushback of its own. (Your comment, for instance.)

Opting for your tack of spinning that shallow interest, though, seems intellectually cheap. And that intellectual honesty and attendant interest are not mutually exclusive — it’s just a matter of finding the certain context, and the correct narrative. That’s the largest complaint existing within this whole discourse — that new observers had no idea how to slot these women (these “girls”) into any kind of existing narrative within Russia. They latched onto the women’s trials, lofting those wonderfully Western narratives onto this nymphic trio and assuming that this was another instance of Bad Religion/Worse Putin.

As those around here know, it’s our job to correct that narrative as best we can. I don’t know that those of us in that initial backlash tamped down any of this awareness — if anything, we kept the trial alive, kept the women in the news as most turned away to Todd Akin and the Empire State Building.

As a recent op-ed noted, this was a lose-lose in every arena. Nobody comes out clean from any of this — not the women, not the government, not any of the cause-of-the-day hipsters bandying wristbands and squint-eyed enthusiasm. We’re to inform, honestly, and if that entails bemoaning and shifting any misconception, so be it.

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