Putin Clamps Down

Pussy Riot was just the start. How Russia is turning into a dark nation of fear, paranoia and repression

Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova being detained by the authorities this winter
AFP/Getty Images
By Janet Reitman
May 07, 2014

"NADYA, PAY THE BILL" Masha Alyokhina says impatiently, taking a drag of her cigarette.

“OK, OK,” says Nadya Tolokonnikova. She stubs out her own cigarette, reaches into her bag and languidly hands the waitress her Visa card. The woman looks at the two a little tensely. Does she recognize them? Maybe.

Nadya and Masha, the women generally referred to as Pussy Riot, have been eating lunch at Il Patio, a casual Italian chain restaurant in a shopping mall near the Tulskaya Metro station in southern Moscow. It’s an early-spring afternoon, and Russia’s most famous dissidents, members of the riot-grrrl-inspired, anti-Putin “punk collective,” are free of their neon balaclavas and trying to keep a low profile, which is tough enough without reporters tagging along. “We’re going to München,” says Masha, a chirpy, black-clad 25-year-old with a cascade of frizzy blond hair, held back by a sparkly green headband.

“Munich,” says Nadya, a quieter, almost ethereal, pouty-lipped 24-year-old brunette in a black-and-white polka-dot miniskirt. She runs her elegant dark-blue lacquered- nails through her hair and adjusts her white chiffon T-shirt with some annoyance. “We’re going to Munich.

The women plan to attend a screening of a documentary: Pussy vs. Putin. After that comes music week in Estonia. Then Brussels and New York. Ever since their release from prison in December, having been convicted in August 2012 of “hooliganism,” the duo have been on a human rights tour through Western capitals, meeting with activists in Paris, attending a film festival in Berlin, dining with Madonna, chatting with Stephen Colbert, having their photo taken with Hillary Clinton.

In Russia, where state television screams of Western aggression and “fascist” plots in eastern Ukraine, things are far less glamorous. Here, if Pussy Riot are mentioned at all in the media, it’s as “traitors,” “demons” or “agents of Western influence.” Their arrest in March 2012 for performing what they called a punk prayer at Moscow’s central cathedral – an act of guerrilla theater that was immediately denounced as “blasphemy” by the Russian Orthodox Church – led to one of the most Kafkesque show trials in recent Russian history, after which the women were sentenced to two years in prison. Sixteen months and several frigid penal colonies later, they emerged defiant – Nadya walked out of her Siberian prison camp, flashing a victory sign and shouting, “Russia without Putin!” – to continue the struggle.

Since then, they’ve been detained, interrogated, even horsewhipped by Cossacks guarding the Sochi Olympics (an event Pussy Riot exploited in full, making the horsewhipping a feature of their YouTube video, “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland”). A few weeks before I met them, the women were eating breakfast at a McDonald’s in the provincial city of Nizhny Novgorod when they were attacked by a group of men who doused them in wallpaper glue, dumped garbage on their heads and sprayed them with a noxious green antiseptic called zelyonka, which has recently become popular in attacks on Ukrainian opposition.

“And not only that,” says Nadya. “Masha was also beaten.” Masha turns around to show me the scar near her hairline – she’d been hit with a flying metal bucket.

Their attackers, they later learned, were on the payroll of a local police official. “That’s not unusual,” says Nadya.

“This official even wrote about it on Twitter,” says Masha. “He got a promotion.”

TO MOST WESTERN AUDIENCES, Pussy Riot, notably Masha and Nadya, are the face of Russian activism and opposition to President Vladimir Putin. But while they are easily the most famous Russian protesters in the world, they are a radical sliver of a much larger and more fractious “protest culture,” in the words of writer Masha Gessen, whose members haven’t been horsewhipped, but have in some ways suffered a far worse and much less celebrated fate: collapse. “Pussy Riot are the first real dissidents of the Putin era, but like all dissidents they’re individual actors, perpetually out on a limb,” says Gessen, author of Words Will Break Cement, a chronicle of the group’s rise. “Their actions have had dire but clear consequences, and in return for the hardships they’ve faced, they have received a voice and a mission. The larger protest culture, on the other hand, is at this point either totally disintegrated or, in the case of a few dissidents, trying to keep protest alive in the face of greater and greater risk. There’s really no hope for change. Russia has become a dark and dangerous place.”

I’ve come to Moscow to find out just how bad things have gotten for those who oppose Putin’s regime. It seems like the right time: The Sochi Olympics are long over, the annexation of Crimea is well under way, and Russian forces have moved into Eastern Ukraine, where they are operating with impunity. The country is, at least according to reports, awash with patriotism. This is not readily apparent. As many as 50,000 people turned out for an anti-war rally in Moscow a few days before I arrive, dwarfing a government-sponsored pro-war rally down the street. Though the Kremlin has requested that those who support the actions in Ukraine hang a Russian flag from their window, I see only a handful. On the other hand, polls show that Russians overwhelmingly support the actions in Crimea, something almost every Muscovite I meet swears is true, and Putin’s approval ratings are at a three-year high.

Two and a half years ago, things were vastly different. A spirit of defiance spread through Russia, after Putin, who’d stepped aside in 2008 to become Russia’s prime minister, announced he’d be returning to the presidency. More than 100,000 people streamed into the streets of Moscow in December 2011, and over the coming months, a heady idealism infected not just the tiny left but also large swaths of the educated urban middle and upper classes, who “felt like their human dignity had been affronted,” in the words of Artemy Troitsky, a professor at Moscow State University and one of the country’s leading cultural critics. “This was an insult to millions of people in Russia. They hadn’t been asked – they’d just been told that Putin would again be the president, and there was nothing they could do about it.”

But the opposition was disorganized – the most unified statement anyone could actually come up with was “No more Putin!” – and the revolutionary spirit that briefly seized the nation soon faded. Now Russia has entered a new phase, something Troitsky recently dubbed “Staliban”: a meld of Soviet-style totalitarianism and ultraconservative orthodoxy, highlighted by vast distrust and moral superiority toward the “decadent” West. It’s an appeal that plays well with many Russians, who lost much of their identity with the collapse of the Soviet Union; it has also worked undeniably well for Putin, who until 2012 seemed to lack a cohesive ideology. “For a Russian leader, that was quite unheard of,” says writer Anna Arutunyan, whose recent book, The Putin Mystique, offers a piercing analysis of Russia’s power structure. “The tsars adhered to a messianic idea of Russia as the chosen people, and in many ways communism was a continuation of that idea. When Putin came back for his third term, he realized he had to find something unifying. He couldn’t tap into communism, but he tapped into that pre-revolutionary- idea of orthodoxy and autocracy.” As a result, the Russia we see today – call it Sovietism with a tsarist face – is not based on the political reality but, as Russian political analyst Aleksandr Morozov noted, “a political myth.”

A big part of that myth is the specter of America as a malign and meddling force. Within the Kremlin, notes Marat Guelman, a former adviser to the Russian government, there is serious discussion about the psychological warfare waged against Russia by the United States, as if the Cold War never ended: “They truly believe that there is an organization in D.C. that is working day and night on destroying Russia.”

Since Putin’s re-election, Russia’s state-controlled media (which, by now, is virtually the entire Russian media) has relentlessly pushed the idea that NATO troops could be at the border, threatening the sovereignty of Eastern Europe. Among the more compelling forms of propaganda: a series of “investigative” documentaries like the two-part Anatomy of a Protest or The Biochemistry of Treason, which aired during the Olympics and, using carefully interspersed clips – Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, Pussy Riot, the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad – accused the U.S. of secretly plotting to overthrow the Russian Federation.

In service to this ideology, all opponents of Putin’s policies – notably, the recent incursion in Ukraine – have been marked as “nationalist traitors.” The Russian Ministry of Culture recently floated a policy that would cut off support to artists whose work “exerts a negative influence on society” by presenting a “liberal Western” point of view. Shortly before I arrived in Moscow, several independent news sites and blogs, including one belonging to opposition figure Alexei Navalny, were blocked. For a time, if you clicked on it, you’d get a picture of a yellow-eyed goat.

Navalny, a 37-year-old attorney and anti-corruption crusader who many consider the only viable opposition leader, has been under house arrest since February, accused of embezzling funds, a charge he denies and claims is politically motivated. Another leading opposition figure, Sergei Udaltsov, is also under house arrest. His movement, known as the Left Front, is largely shut down.

Shortly before being placed under house arrest, Navalny was detained while protesting the sentencing of eight people who’d taken part in a rally on the eve of Putin’s third inauguration, in 2012. A total of 27 people had been charged in connection with “inciting mass riots” in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, where tens of thousands had gathered, and clashes – incited, by most accounts, by police and special-forces units – had broken out. Among the accused: a scientist, an artist, a young father, two former marines, several students and a reportedly mentally unstable man who is now serving 12 years in a psychiatric institution. The message, as Gessen notes, was indisputable: “If you go to a protest, you risk everything.”

One of the people who risked, and lost, was 30-year-old Maria Baronova. A tall, husky-voiced blonde with a chemistry degree and a no-bullshit penchant for mouthing off to the authorities, Baronova was, for a short while, one of the most visible protesters in Moscow – The New Republic dubbed her the “It girl of the Russian opposition” – though she ultimately became disillusioned. “They were losers, completely unprofessional,” she says. “The luckiest people just quit.”

Baronova was typical of many who joined the protests in 2011 and 2012. A sales manager for a chemical distributor, she’d lived a comfortable life with her husband and young son, and until the mid-2000s, she’d been staunchly pro-Putin. “But I got tired of always seeing the same guy,” she says. “I want to have a country like America, where we know this dude might be the president for eight years, and maybe he’s f***ed up, but then there will be another president.”

Like many of her friends, Baronova threw her support behind Dmitry Medvedev when Putin stepped aside, allowing his successor to become Russia’s new president. “We really thought he was our guy,” she says. And for about a year, it looked promising. An avid tweeter, Medvedev tried to build a mini-Silicon Valley outside Moscow in the hopes of retaining Russian tech whizzes and talked repeatedly about “modernization.” He spoke of reforming Russia’s arcane justice system, which he described – accurately, many felt – as “legal nihilism,” and encouraged independent media to serve as a check on government corruption. Though his catchphrases- weren’t always elegant – “Freedom is better than unfreedom” – even the policy wonks in Washington began to talk about a “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations.

“The Obama people had this insane idea that they could bank on Medvedev,” says Gessen, who wrote a biography of Putin, The Man Without a Face. “Like, if they put the eggs in the Medvedev basket, that would make him a legitimate president.”

In truth, Medvedev was a place-holder – it was Putin who pulled the strings. Many Russians knew this, of course, “but it’s like being in the last stages of cancer – you want to hope,” says Baronova. “We hoped that Medvedev would find his balls on his bookshelf, put them on and fight.”

When he didn’t, Baronova – now divorced and working as a press secretary for a member of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament – took to the streets. “I think most of us who came out were tired. We were tired of this social system of kickbacks and bribes, where maybe you could become rich, but everything around you is going deeper into a hole.”

Rattled by the protests, Putin fired his senior adviser Vladislav Surkov, and publicly resorted to crude put-downs. In one of his most memorable statements, Putin remarked that he’d mistaken the white ribbons worn by the protesters for condoms, prompting a number of people to come dressed as giant condoms to a subsequent rally. Wary of government push-back, the protesters played by the rules, generally conducting only “sanctioned” protests, permitted by the state.

But after Putin’s election in March 2012, the hammer came down. On May 6th, the eve of his inauguration, almost 70,000 people showed up in Bolotnaya Square, some carrying signs portraying Putin as a rat, to be met by riot police. Soon tear-gas canisters were flying and police and special--forces cops began dragging protesters at random into paddy wagons.

After the rally, the crackdowns began, starting with a series of new amendments to the public-assembly law, which set fines for individuals taking part in an “unauthorized protest” as high as 300,000 rubles (about $8,380). A second and even more crucial change in the law gave the prosecutor’s office unlimited discretion on whom to prosecute. “It used to be that only the people who applied for the permit for a rally would be prosecuted,” says Gessen. “Now, though, the prosecutor’s office can choose who is responsible. That broadened the number of targets from well-known organizers who always knew they were at risk to any rank-and-file participant. And that’s what happened with the Bolotnaya case.”

One month after the protest, Baronova’s apartment was raided by agents of the Investigative Committee, the Russian equivalent of the FBI. They took her books, laptop, family photos – pretty much everything – and charged her, along with 26 others, for their connection to the “mass riots.” Over the next year and a half, Baronova lost her job, her apartment, many of her friends and her boyfriend – who “ditched” her, she later said, “because he could not stand the mess in my life.” Under what she called “city arrest” – not jailed, but unable to leave Moscow – she was watched by the authorities, who harassed her by coming into her apartment and moving the furniture around or turning the burners up on her stove, both commonplace scare tactics. Baronova tried not to care. “Just pretend like nothing happened,” she says. “That’s the only way to get used to it. Pretend that no one wrote notes on my door threatening to kill me and my son.”

In December 2013, Baronova was “amnestied,” along with a number of others, including Nadya and Masha of Pussy Riot, in what was seen as an effort to clean up Russia’s human rights image in advance of the Sochi Olympics. When I meet Baronova, she’s sipping mint tea at a French cafe. “F*** activists and all this insanity,” she says. “I need Mars – that’s the best place to live.” She takes a long drag of her cigarette and shrugs. “On the other hand, maybe because of this insanity, things will be reformed in the next 20 years, who knows. Probably this country will be torn apart in 10 years.”

This is an extract. To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East

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