Sunday, 5 August 2012

I Predict A Riot - Russia's Circular History

The most notable news story from Russia in recent weeks has been the arrest and trial of the three members of Pussy Riot. This is the female punk band that staged an anti-Putin protest with a satirical hymn to the Virgin Mary in Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow during the run up to the Presidential elections earlier this year (although it is to be noted the music track on the video below was not played in the Cathedral, but overlayed when it was uploaded to Youtube and the world).

Needless to say, their performance was executed without the approval of the religious authorities of the Russian Orthodox Church and the women are now facing up to seven years in jail for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Their trial began last week and appears to be a parody of justice - the prosecution witnesses talk about how they felt hearing the song, while only three of the thirteen defence witnesses have been allowed to be called. The prosecution witnesses are questioned about their religious beliefs, giving them full opportunity to stigmatise the defendants as blasphemers, while any attempts to show the defence witnesses to also have Christian beliefs have been repeatedly ruled out of order.

 Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and
Maria Alekhina
  face 7 years in jail.
It is a case that even RT News has admitted is dividing Russia between those who cling to Putin's nostalgic and increasingly repressive nationalism, and those who for the last two decades have been working for a free, democratic society where freedom of expression is a given. It is of little surprise to discover that the group was motivated to stage its protest where it did because of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch's public call for worshippers to vote for Putin. This was/is at a time when millions of Russians were protesting their suspicions of the President's "manipulation" of first the Parliamentary and then the Presidential elections. As the established Church in Russia - the Patriarch swears the President into office - its head should be at least formally neutral but, in the "managed democracy" that is the Russian Republic, this was blatantly broken - but  unlike the singers, no cleric has faced any charges such as abuse of office or breach of election law.

The outcome is expected soon. Putin appears mildly embarrassed by the international attention it has drawn, with politicians and celebrities across the world calling for the charges to be dropped. Today, he seemed to be suggesting there should be some degree of leniency shown in sentencing (this before a verdict is given). But it is already too late for him to pretend that somehow Russia has any sort of functioning civil society: the struggle between authoritarians and liberals is now fully on, and the trial is only one of several aspects of this, including the unprecedented range of anti-government demonstrations in recent months.

Supporters see the case as key to freedom of speech in Russia
For Russia, it is not an unfamiliar scenario, at least in the perspective of history. Almost exactly 99 years ago, Czarist Russia was rocked by a strikingly similar set of circumstances, albeit with rather different and more serious charges involved. Likewise, it marked a turning point in the political struggle between liberalism and authoritarianism.

In Kiev, in spring 1911, a young boy, Andrei Yutshinsky, was found murdered, stabbed dozens of times in what the rightwing "Black Hundreds" (who agitated violently on behalf of the Czar) and the gutter press quickly decided was a ritual murder of a Christian by Jews. A witch-hunt followed with a Jewish man, Mendel Beilis, arrested and charged in spite of a total lack of evidence - but in the two years he waited in prison for his trial, he was utterly demonised as a "Drinker of Christian Blood". His wish to do such a thing was based on the false "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", a tract written by the Czar's police, which created the myth of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the Christian world: Hitler later used it to great effect.

Two Russian policemen discovered the truth - the boy had in fact discovered that a friend's mother had been involved with a black market gang and threatened to report her, only to be murdered by the gang. However, on the Czar Nicholas' orders, they were dismissed and the prosecution of Beilis went ahead in September 1913 in order to "prove" the Jewish conspiracy theory was real. The Judge was met by the Czar and promised promotion if there was a conviction; the jury was packed with Government sympathisers and the defence was repeatedly denied the right to put its full case.

Outside the Court, Russian society was fractured, with liberal and socialist parties calling for Beliss' acquittal and decrying the whole affair as a disgrace to Russia' faltering steps towards a modern society. By contrast, the nationalists and royalists called full throttle for Beilis' execution and the expulsion of the Jews (tens of thousands had been murdered in recent years in vicious pogroms tacitly encouraged by the authorities). Abroad, the celebrities of the day petitioned for Beilis' freedom - H.G. Wells, Thomas Mann, Thomas Hardy, academics, politicians and students among them.

In the end, the case against Beilis was so thin that even the biased Court proceedings and the pro-Czarist jury didn't convict him. He was released and fled the country within a few weeks, never to return. But the Czarist Government continued with its repression unabated, the Beilis case being perhaps the final nail in the coffin of the very limited political and social reforms following the 1905/6 Revolution.

Putin and his coterie of course look back wistfully to the Czarist days and the ceremony around the Russian Government now owes much to the Romanov Court in its final days. Likewise, the restored, pre-eminent position of the Orthodox Church, used by the State now in the same way as the Czar to associate good, normal Russians with God and the President.

But as we await the outcome of this trial, a key one for freedom in Russia, Putin might do well to reflect that in less than four years after the Beilis case, the whole rotten edifice of Romanov Imperial Russia was to collapse in the flames of the revolutions of 1917. No autocracy can last forever. "Czar" came from the title "Caesar" in the old Byzantine Empire, where Emperors on their Coronation Day were accompanied by two men, one of whom whispered constantly to the ruler, "Remember, you are mortal." And the other one measured him for his coffin.

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