World News

02.25.14

Putin’s Police Arrest Pussy Riot Again In Court Crackdown

The punk collective’s two most high-profile former members landed afoul of the cops during massive protests in Moscow over the show-trial of eight activists.

Barely 24 hours had passed since the closing ceremonies at Sochi before the Russian government set about locking up its opposition again. This time it was a dragnet arrest of protestors, outside a Moscow courtroom at Manezhnaya Square, who were there in a show of solidarity with the Bolotnaya defendants—eight members of the May 2012 demonstration opposed to another stolen parliamentary election. While all eyes were glued to Olympic ice hockey or to a crushed-velvet revolution in Ukraine, the Bolotnaya Eight were busy being found guilty of “mass rioting” in a show trial which revealed, as Amnesty International’s John Dalhuisen put it, “a criminal justice system that is entirely malleable to the dictates of its political masters.”

The verdicts for all eight were handed down on Friday whereupon a large protest of around 1,000 people broke out at Zamoskvoretsky Court whereupon Russian police cordoned off the building and rounded up around 200 agitators. So the reading of the sentences—seven received jail terms ranging from two-and-a-half to four years, one received a suspended sentence—was put on hold until yesterday, when another demonstration kicked off, this time with as many as 420 people detained (as ever, estimates vary), a few for more than five hours, and some more than once.

According to the protest monitoring group OGON, the arresting police officers stood within another cordon without identifying badges and started picking people up at random and for no reason whatsoever. Ekho Moskvy correspondent Andrei Poznyakov’s only real crime seemed to be having a job to do in the first place. I’m not sure what infraction a Russian flag was guilty of, but it got taken into custody as well, according to journalist Leonid Ragozin. (The last time I recall an inanimate object being arrested in Russia, it was the manuscript for Vassily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate.)  A tourist from Cologne who was said to be in a state of “shock” at least started smiling again after being chucked into an OMON (riot police) van along with Russians who were evidently more used to such native hospitality. My friend Oleg Kozlovsky, a serially arrested activist, emailed me that it happened again: “I was arrested as I tried to help another activist and journalist Alexander Ryklin who was being detained. No charges have been filed, but a police officer just said that everybody arrested with me may be charged for disobedience and face 15 days in jail.” Elena Servettaz, another friend and a columnist for my magazine, The Interpreter, probably owed only her French press badge to escaping her own trip to the precinct. We spoke as she was headed home.

“People were close to me, just doing nothing, just observing like me,” Servettaz said. “Then we saw 30 OMON guys just walking around and an older one told a younger one, ‘Don't be afraid. You need to start arresting people and I will show you how to do it.’  I also saw one lady who was speaking to an OMON officer and telling him, ‘You are doing all of this because you have salary and your free metro ticket!’  He was laughing at her and asking why she was there. She said: ‘I’m a doctor, I'm saving lives. Why are you here?’”

Among the prominent Russians detained yesterday were Alexey Navalny, the head of the opposition and a recent author of a comprehensive exposé into Olympic corruption (he’d been banned from traveling to Sochi owing to a prior conviction for fabricated fraud charges last July); Boris Nemtsov, a veteran anti-Putin campaigner and former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin (he published his own investigation of where the record-breaking $51 billion went in Sochi); and Ilya Yashin, an anti-Kremlin politician who was actually arrested twice yesterday. All three, as it was later explained, were charged under Article 19, Paragraph 3 of the Russian Criminal Code, which stipulates the “Failure to Follow a Lawful Order of a Militiaman, a Military Serviceman, an Officer of the Bodies for Control over the Traffic of Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances or an Officer of the Criminal Punishment System.” The penalty was what Kozlovsky alluded to without knowledge of its origin: 15 days in the clink, plus a fine. Although for Navalny, who is now living under a suspended sentence of five years in prison, it is unclear whether or not yesterday's arrest could lead to more severe punishment. Some have speculated that his “embezzlement” sentence could indeed be implemented now since it was only ever suspended to allow him to run for and lose the Moscow mayoral election last fall. As for the merits of the fresh charges, Navalny tweeted a video showing exactly how he “resisted” arrest—not at all.

Inevitably, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, the two (former) members of Pussy Riot, also got carted off in front of the courthouse yesterday. Two months ago, they were unexpectedly granted amnesty by Putin after serving nearly two years in the gulag for a “punk prayer” against him in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. Just a week ago, both had found themselves in similar circumstances after being arrested again for an imaginative “theft” at their hotel in Sochi, from which they had planned a sequel performance against Putin, this one on the no less holy ground of his international moment of triumph. They were released, then attempted their demo anyway, then found themselves being horsewhipped and pepper-sprayed by Cossacks in a rather Sex Pistols-meets-Isaac Babel moment that would have actually made a fine addition to the lavish romp through Russian history that was the Sochi opening ceremony. In the event, it only got a scene in the music video for “Putin Will Teach You To Love the Motherland.”

Not many people would invite two back-to-back prison trips after two years of hard labor. Tolokonnikova may have had her moment of adoring fandom at the Barclays Centre with Madonna and Yoko Ono a few weeks back, but she made it clear that her native absurdistan is where she prefers to get down to business. The photogenic feminist tweeted a selfie from inside her paddy wagon yesterday, claiming that she and her fellow passengers were holding a “[s]eminar on the rights of detainees.” She also explained what the officer who booked her said in an instance of self-conscious irony (similar to letting arrestees tweet from cop vans and prisons): “Let’s get it done quickly. Now I always write up Yashin very quickly—done—and on to the rally.” The cops know it’s all a show, and they’re only performance artists, too. Well, up to a point. Another Nadya tweet: “We headed to the exit—whoops, surprise, they don’t let us out. ‘The bosses,’ they say, ‘have not given approval.’ We’re screwed.”

Naturally, the Putinist media treated the entire unflattering spectacle even more creatively than it did the apparent Kristallnacht hatched by Washington and Brussels in Kiev. Alyona Popova, an activist and entrepreneur, made the mistake of following LifeNews, an outlet intimately tied to the security services: “The LifeNews correspondent reports that there have been no arrests. At that moment, apparently accidentally, two law-enforcers land into the TV frame who are dragging a young man away by the legs. Before that, he was peacefully standing on Tverskaya. Several minutes later, another correspondent appeared in the frame near the opposite entrance to Manezh Square (this area has been blocked off to pedestrians since morning) and reports that the camera crew has caught about five detentions and a small group of ‘aggressively minded people.’ On the whole, the correspondent notes, no supporters of the prisoners of Bolotnaya on Manezh have been observed.”

No one supports Bolotnaya, nothing to see here—this is not putschist Ukraine. In fact, Maidan is the image upon which Manezhnaya has been superimposed, as Bolotnaya defense attorney Sergei Panchenko told gazeta.ru on Friday: “I very much fear that the tragic events in Ukraine will reflect on the defendants—a decision of a non-guilty sentence for our clients may be taken as a go-ahead to the opposition. That is, beside the fact that they are innocent yet put in jail, they also risk bearing the burden for actions that are not theirs.”

Panchenko has a point. Russian chess players use an expression known as mnogohodovka, which describes a problem requiring several moves to resolve. I was in London during the start of the Bolotnaya verdict-readings when Masha Karp, a Russian emigré writer who is currently working on a book about George Orwell’s importance to Russians (a subject long overdue), told me that this concept also nicely applies to the Cheka who rule her homeland. Foreign policy and domestic policy are one and the same in Russia—that’s the problem—and so, to solve it, Putin needs to contrive a series of interlocking moves simultaneously and blame one set of people for the actions of another. Threatening to invade Crimea (which his government did four days ago, and may be about to do at any moment) coincides with jailing lesser-known protestors arrested and held for three years in pretrial detention just hours after a global athletic tournament drew to a close and months after globally recognized Russian dissidents were suddenly let out of prison. Yesterday, while all eyes were trained on Moscow or Kiev or elsewhere entirely, Putin made another move: he announced an expansion of his reviled “NGO Law,” which categorizes any civil society organization that receives foreign money or engages in undefinable “political” activity (these can be AIDS charities, environmental or election monitors) as “foreign agents.” Under the new amendment, “surprise inspections” of NGOs can now happen at any time. This adds only a layer of legal formality to what was by design and implementation already an arbitrary infringement on constitutional freedoms, which blamed others for the actions, be they real or perceived, of the U.S. State Department.

The games everyone wanted to watch in Russia may be over, but the ones that matter for Russian are just getting warmed up.