TIME Person of the Year: Naming Pussy Riot Will Hurt Russian Freedom of Expression

The names Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina may not seem familiar, though you have probably heard of their post-feminist punk protest band, Pussy Riot. 

The three women were arrested following a guerrilla performance at Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral where they gave a “punk prayer” imploring the Virgin Mary to “drive [Russian President Vladimir] Putin out!” The three were arrested and later convicted on charges of hooliganism; Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are currently serving two year criminal sentences in labor camps, while Samutsevich's conviction was overturned on a technicality. The arrests and convictions immediately turned Pussy Riot into an international cause célèbre, as they became living symbols of political oppression under Vladimir Putin. Accolades for the three women have poured in from around the globe, including, most recently, a call to name them TIME Magazine's Persons of the Year.

And that's the problem: While global attention has been focused on Pussy Riot, a litany of other more serious, more impactful attempts by the Putin regime to squash political dissent and freedom of speech have gone on in Russia with little comment by the international community. These moves include the jailing of other political protesters, government harassment opposition leaders and, most recently, passage of a far-reaching internet censorship bill.

Alexei Navalny, whose blog on government corruption launched him into a leadership role in the protests against Vladimir Putin that blew up last December in Russia, is once again facing criminal charges for, ironically, corruption, stemming from work he did as a consultant for a provincial governor in 2009. A criminal case against Navalny was closed earlier this year with no charges being filed against him, but a new criminal case was mysteriously opened on the same allegations just a few months later. That case remains open and Navalny is still officially under investigation.

Another well-known opposition figure, Sergei Udaltsov of the Left Front Movement is currently under house arrest on charges of conspiracy to organize mass riots, stemming from his role in the popular protests that began last December and went on through the spring of this year. To make the charges against Udaltsov even worse, the Russian government is alleging that Udaltsov was secretly funded by activists from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in an effort to undermine the Russian government (Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in the summer of 2008).

Even the powerful are not immune to political pressure. Russian billionaire, and Putin critic, Alexander Lebedev is also facing criminal charges stemming from an incident a year ago when he punched a business rival during a television talk show. In September, Alexander Lebedev was charged with hooliganism; the same charge levied against Pussy Riot, and told not to leave the country. Meanwhile, his son, Evgeny Lebedev, has pulled the plug on a foundation started by the Lebedev family to train journalists to report on government affairs and corruption.

Finally, there is the new internet law that went into effect on November 1, which the Russian government says is aimed at fighting societal ills like drug trafficking and pedophilia. Critics contend that the law is really meant to promote censorship and to create a Russian version of China's “Great Firewall” system to block websites the government dislikes; Russian webmasters, meanwhile, say that the law is so broadly written, it is nearly impossible to comply with, nor do officials know how to enforce it. One webmaster explained the situation: “The law is not worked through – no one knows who to answer to, or for what. It's a clusterfuck.”

It is important to note here that nearly half of all Russians are regular internet users because the internet is widely viewed as the only part of the Russian media space currently not under government control.

So, as 2012 rolled on, the Putin government took aggressive steps to squash the political opposition, intimidate would-be protesters and is trying to close off the one arena of free expression left in Russia. Yet none of these moves have received a fraction of the attention that has been given to Pussy Riot.

And that’s the problem. Pussy Riot’s cathedral performance was so provocative it demanded a response from the government. It is worth noting that a poll taken by the Russian firm VTsIOM showed that 46% of Russians called the performance an act of “hooliganism” and more than half supported criminal penalties of some type. Arguably, Navalny, Lebedev and Russia’s internet users are the targets of government oppression for merely trying to exercise rights given to them under the Russian constitution, yet the coverage of these stories pales in comparison to the amount of press attention given to Pussy Riot, giving them the title of “Persons of the Year” will only shove these other important stories further into the background.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Ed Hancox

Currently working in the risk management sector, focusing on energy-related issues. In my spare time I write about issues in international affairs on several sites, including The Mantle (mantlethought.org) and my blog on international affairs, A World View (edsworld365.blogspot.com/)

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