There was nothing even vaguely resembling the Russian feminist punk rock band at play 31/2 decades ago when Anatoly Sharansky went on trial on a treason charge in Moscow’s Proletarsky district. The government accused him of spying for the United States. He faced the death sentence.
It’s important to reflect on this moment now as the young women facing a couple of years in jail take on the dusty role of dissidents being punished by a new authority that is as aggressive as the old Soviet one, this one represented by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Except it’s not the same, not at all.
Soviet-era dissidents were involved in an elaborate and dangerous dance that welded their interests to the foreign policy of a Cold War United States. The punk band is different, a trio of anarchists who most likely got exactly what they expected, a jail sentence and the attention of a whole world.
It was a well-planned protest, moving into an Orthodox Church to taunt Putin with a display unquestionably viewed as inappropriate and immoral by much of Russian society. The band won’t find a lot of support on the homefront, I suspect. Maybe it didn’t expect or want that.
Just a day ago, even as they sat in prison, the band released a new piece of music called “Putin Lights Up The Fires of Revolution.” It has three chords and a lot of shouting. It says the Russian leader uses Botox and pumped up his chest and abs to impress people.
The timing is suspicious, of course.
When was this song produced and where? Is there more to the punk-rock band than meets the eye, or did the trio work with a bigger group of activists?
It doesn’t matter.
Maybe what the world is witnessing is more a marketing campaign than dissent. That’s admittedly cynical, but then, on a lot of Russian fronts, I am admittedly cynical.
That happens when you see it up close.
Perhaps 25 or so of us hung out in the street while the Sharansky trial took place in the courtroom. Outside, an intimidating line of security kept us at a distance. They were public thugs, very rough men rounded up by the police just to send a message about public support for the law.
Every few hours, Sharansky’s supporters would gather to tell us what was up. There was no other way to know.
It was perhaps the greatest show trial of the era of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, a dying art form invented decades before and aimed at sending messages to outsiders and to those at home who would challenge Soviet power.
It was deadly. It was serious. It was decisive.
Sharansky was convicted, as we knew he would be.
He had to know that, too, which made his behavior as a dissident valiant. He believed in his cause. He was not executed. He was sentenced to 13 years at hard labor and traded in 1986 in one of those spy swaps that make such good movies. Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan negotiated that deal. The dissident made his way to Israel, changed his first name to Natan and became a politician.
But the experience gave the world a close look at what Soviet leaders were willing to do to try to crush dissent. They ignored outside pressures and plodded along. I think they understood that the dissenters of that era represented a genuine threat, a moral authority and voice in the Soviet wilderness shouting truths to anyone who wanted to hear.
Ultimately, dissent was impossible to crush. Along with a consensus among the people of the Soviet Union that the place was disintegrating. Eventually, the Soviet way of life disintegrated, undone by its own big lies.
This is different.
Putin may well be constructing his own cult of personality, but it’s going to take more than a rock band to reveal its excesses and identify its crimes. Russia is not the Soviet Union, but it remains a place where aggressive reporters can be killed and the government just can’t seem to find out who pulled the trigger.
Given that level of corruption, cracking down on a small collection of aggressive rockers is simple. Undoubtedly, the rockers understood that, too. They knew they were going to be arrested. That’s why they did it. How else are you going to get Madonna and the U.S. State Department on your side?
Putin’s people played this badly.
They forgot how deeply implanted are those memories of the Soviet era. This production had just enough resonance to tickle those old thoughts and dust a little essence of Stalin on Putin’s reputation.
But not that much resonance and not that much essence.
The punk rockers probably won’t spend their entire sentence in prison. Perhaps Putin himself will provide a pardon (although the band isn’t asking for that). Then they can all come to New York and stage protests, this time against capitalism.
We should not make the mistake we have made before, thinking that everyone wants to be just like us, that all protest is a longing for democracy.
That’s not what anarchy is about.
Charles M. Madigan is the presidential writer in residence and the head of the journalism program at Roosevelt University.