Lessons from Pussy Riot
Terry McDonald, special to CBC News CBC News
Posted: Mar 12, 2013 6:02 AM NT
Last Updated: Mar 18, 2013 12:59 PM NT
“Freedom of expression is the basis of your human dignity,” he says resolutely — experience thicker than accent over his cooling 50-cent coffee. The ‘he’ in question knows of which he speaks, having made a career of being an artist in Soviet-controlled Estonia from 1979-onward. His name is Hardi Vollmer, and he is a filmmaker, satirical puppeteer, and — most famously — the lead singer of iconic Estonian rockers Singer Vinger.
Such ideas are the infrastructure here in Tallinn, Estonia. The ancient walls of feudal kings give way to the cold Soviet concreted steel, which now reflect the unequal neon of Western-facing liberty. Estonia has gone from the muzzle of Soviet official doctrine to this year having the third-most free press in the world, while neighbouring behemoth Russia has backslid into official “Difficult Situation” status, 142nd in the world.
Now, on the occasion of last week's one-year anniversary of the arrest of Pussy Riot, it is time to take stock of these freedoms that we enjoy, those of us in countries on or near the top of the Reporters Without Borders Freedom Index. Estonians are extremely liberated in this sense, according to Vollmer, while two Russian professors were just arrested for donning the balaclava (the signature head-covering of Pussy Riot) in the band’s honour.
Barbara Miller, a filmmaker with a great deal of experience in documenting the repression of ideas, applauds Pussy Riot.
“When I saw them the first time, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool.” She adds, “Pussy Riot represents a strong, yet innocent form of speaking out. It’s very courageous.”
Miller has seen the effect that repression can have on the individuals living in such societies. “It makes you feel heavy,” she says, ”You feel in a way trapped.” She adds an example from her travels: “In Cuba, you see this and it’s sunny and beautiful, but they have one of the highest uses of anti-depressant because it is pretty hard to support this double life.”
So, what of us in the West? Clearly we do not have worries on the same scale. Still, since 2002, Canada has slipped from 5th in the world, to 20th. While that is still in good company, it is not the direction in which a society wants to head. As Miller said, “Sometimes I talk to Reporters Without Borders about the West, and I get really worried. Sometimes I think we take our democratic achievements for granted.”
”The change comes slowly. There comes repression, and in the beginning people think ‘Of course, there are bad elements so you have to do that’, and then in the end you are, like, trapped. There is no way out,” she explains.
She then adds, “In Iran, it started with saying that it is against porn, against child pornography, and everyone said, ‘Yeah, of course.’ Then, in the end, it ended up with scary censorship.”
This comes as no news to the jailed members of Pussy Riot. Some have managed to escape from the country, one got off on the technicality that she was arrested before getting a chance to actually participate in the ‘hooliganism’, but two (Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23) are still incarcerated, and as Vollmer adds, “Usually the circumstances in these female Russian jails are awful.”
Vollmer, though, sees a better time ahead for Russia, so long as people continue to support activists like those in Pussy Riot. “The intellectuals are getting quite tired of this censorship,” he says.
“It depends how many free-minded people stand behind them. A change is coming. In Stalin’s time is was easier to keep a whole nation under cover. Not so much so today.” Miller agrees, adding that “Through new technologies, people can now tell their stories, and there is a possibility of interchange. If you pack things into music or films or songs, you can take it further.”
Vollmer is impressed by the approach of Pussy Riot. “Pussy Riot represents a fresh way to protest against a rising dictatorship. Fascistic power in Russia is not a joke.” He implores the like-minded in the West to “Please stand. Please stand against this.”
Miller, always direct, has simple words for Pussy Riot and their supporters: “Keep fighting.” One year on, they have.
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