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The [filtered word] Riot Women and the Tank Man

The three young women sit in the courtroom's glass "aquarium". They are facing two years sentence in a Russian gulag.  Maxim Shemetov, Reuters
Maxim Shemetov, Reuters
The three young women sit in the courtroom's glass "aquarium". They are facing two years sentence in a Russian gulag.

2012 August 18 Blog

The [filtered word] Riot Women and the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square

A stretch? Maybe, but when I looked at the images of the three young women musicians in the group called [filtered word] Riot seated in the glass “Aquarium” of that Moscow courtroom, I began to think of other pivotal moments when somebody totally unexpected caught the attention of the world.

Remember the Tank Man? In 1989, the Chinese Army had moved into Tiananmen Square in Beijing to crush a student uprising. One ordinary guy in a white shirt and black pants stood in front of a tank, and that image became iconic. Whether it’s a spur of the moment decision or a planned provocation, it takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there like bait on a hook in China and Russia. They don’t mess around.

Back in February, there were huge demonstrations in Moscow Square. People were angry that Vladimir Putin had returned to power as President, but it turned into a kind of mosh pit for all the pent up grievances against the Putin/Medvedev tag team form of governance.

The protesters, who braved the freezing temperatures to protest this cynical manipulation of the election process, literally put their lives and freedom at risk by saying, “Enough is enough.” Western journalists interviewed some of the leaders on camera. Euphoria is a strong elixir. Caution was thrown to the winds.

According to a August 17th New York Times article titled, “Anti-Putin Stunt Earns Punk Band Two Years in Jail”, in the midst of all that turmoil in February, three young women from a nine-member musical group called [filtered word] Riot went into the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Their heads covered with handmade balaclavas in bright colors, Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alekhina, and Katia Samutsevich, who are 23, 30, and 24, were videotaped dancing, chanting and lip-syncing to music that was produced later on a DVD. The song was a slightly profane one in which they beseeched the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Mr. Putin. They were arrested and thrown in jail. (Just Google [filtered word] Riot and Putin for links if you’ve been out on your boat for 2 days. Hint: If Google asks you if you want an “unrestricted search”, just say no.)

Their sentence came down yesterday: two years in a penal colony. These young women, two of whom are mothers, are in big trouble. As in gulag trouble.

The Russian gulags, or penal colonies, were the subject of a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called “The Gulag Archipelago”. It was published in 1973, and opened up this secret and sinister world to Western readers. The gulags were (and evidently still are) a kind of forced migration of many artists and writers to bleak prisons in Siberia, where they can’t be of any influence on the culture. Millions of Russians have spent time in gulags for various crimes or actions against the state since they were instituted in the 1930’s. GULAG is an acronym for the Soviet agency that ran these forced labor camps. It later became the common name for them. After the publication of “Gulag Archipelago”, Solzhenitsyn was forced from Russia and given asylum in the United States. He returned to his homeland and died in Moscow in 2008. (Ironically or not, Solzhenitsyn was a fan of Vladimir Putin.)

When the Russian Federation was the Soviet Union, religion was banned. Lenin famously called religion “the opium of the people”. It struck me as incredibly ironic that these women were treated so harshly on religious grounds, but the New York Times article says, “When their trial opened last month, the women apologized, saying they had never intended to offend the Orthodox church but rather sought to make a political statement against Mr. Putin and against the church patriarch, Kirill I, for supporting Mr. Putin’s campaign for a third term as president.” Voila.

The Tank Man disappeared. Sadly, I think these three women will do the same, but at least the world knows their names.

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