One of the founders of Russia’s Pussy Riot rock band, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, was interviewed at length on the BBC this past weekend. She has no time for President Vladimir Putin. When the group played inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour she was sent to jail for two years for “religious hatred”. She doesn’t seem bitter but she seems damning. She thinks that last week’s referendum on a new constitution was only held to cement Putin in power for another couple of decades. She barely discussed the other articles of the constitution.
Even other opponents of Putin find her a bit hard to take. She finds little good in the present order.
The band may not have millions of followers as she would like but rightly she drew attention to the fact that 34% of the people of Moscow voted against approval of the new constitution. In St Petersburg the vote against was 22%. (Turn out across the country was 68%, so one can assume most of those not voting- a third- are not exactly excited about their government.)
Besides the issue of term limits for Putin there were 200 other items in the constitutional package. No doubt, for example, many older people voted “yes” because of the provision that would index pensions.
Free speech. Yes, Russia does have a degree of it. The Moscow and St Petersburg votes were significant because they possess between them around one third of European Russia’s population. The two cities contain (I’m guessing as there are no statistics on this) 70% of Russia’s people who are academics, doctors, lawyers, writers, directors of theatre, ballet and opera companies and their stars, publishers, journalists, social workers and businessmen.
Putin can’t be happy that so many influential people voted against him. If Russia published an annual Who’s Who I would surmise that more than half of the people in it would have voted against approving the new constitution. But that is just a guess.
Putin’s strength lies in the working class and lower middle class of the cities, the inhabitants of small town and villages, those who live off state budget funds and those who live east of the Urals.
Russia’s freedoms are circumscribed, but less so than the Western media project. You can walk into a bookshop and find plenty of books by critics and dissidents. You can read a couple of Moscow-based newspapers that have a good degree of freedom as does the nationally broadcasted radio station, Echo, even though it is owned partly by Gazprom which in turn is partially state-owned. (However, it has been warned by a government watchdog over its reporting in Ukraine.) There are magazines and a TV station that are not influenced by owners who have close links to the Kremlin, and some smaller ones in the provinces. Russia Today, regarded in the West by people who never or rarely watch it and think of it as a propaganda broadcaster is a serious and reasonably objective station, albeit with a Russian accent.
The BBC, CNN and countless other TV and radio stations can be easily accessed. The internet is free, so if one wants to read the New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian or post critiques there is no penalty. Facebook and its Russian equivalent are very rarely censored. However, one of the beacons of the outspoken part of the newspaper world, Vedomosti, is going through a turbulent and worrying period after its purchase by a pro-Kremlin businessman. Nevertheless, if you want to know what’s going on in Russia and abroad you can find it quite easily.
Demonstrations are permitted although those that are highly political can be stopped and its leaders arrested. Jail terms range from a night to a week and very occasionally to two years as happened with the Pussy Rioters. In a Western church they’d have been arrested too but probably have got off with being sentenced to a period of community service.
Liberty is not up to Western standards, but neither is Russia a dictatorship. I would describe Putin’s regime as “soft authoritarian”. Treated with sympathy rather by hostility by the US and the EU it could evolve into a better state of being.
Western observers also overlook that the BBC and France TV are state owned. They overlook that big time capitalists such as Rupert Murdoch and Jeff Bezos have a disproportionate hold on parts of Western media. Jewish owners likewise, with their understandable pro-Israeli favouritism and anti-Islamic bias. Facebook, the most powerful of on-line fora, refuses to censor the often blatant lies told by politicians- mainly Republicans- even though much of the mainstream media would at the very least question them. An off-piste writer or broadcaster finds it extremely difficult to get articles or broadcasts into print or on the air.
President Donald Trump is outrageously and continuously bending democratic political rules and the indications are that he will do more so when November’s election comes around. He is a bigger liar than even the UK’s Boris Johnson or Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Margaret Thatcher smashed the British unions with unsavoury methods. Not that long ago German teachers found it more difficult to get a position if they had strong left-wing views.
In Northern Ireland, until relatively recently, Catholics were a downtrodden second-class citizen and for a century up to 1968 nobody on the mainland cared one bit. The British army could be brutal and public opinion in the UK let it get away with it. In France and the US in particular the police can often be more brutal than their Russian counterparts. Immigrants everywhere are discriminated against. In the US blacks are still waiting for economic and educational opportunities and the respect that white people take for granted, despite a black president being elected, Barack Obama. Martin Luther King won many political freedoms but not the educational and economic ones. The US has not paid the descendants of slaves reparations. Nor has it compensated the Indian native population for the land it stole and occupied, and the treaties it tore up.
In the US capital punishment is still used. In Russia it is not. In the US where racial divisions are still severe the corona virus has wrecked havoc in black communities in a way it hasn’t in white. There is no comparable division in Russia.
Russian military invention in Syria cannot compare in size, destructive impact and deaths of civilians with the American, British and French intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
In Eastern Europe there are worrying indications that democracy is being undermined despite its countries being members of the EU from which they have received a large amount of largesse. In Poland the judiciary’s freedom is being circumscribed. In Hungary opposition parties and press are under severe pressure from a prime minister who is pushing his country in the direction of dictatorship.
And so I could go on. Westerners, when it comes to viewing Russia, are ill-informed, prejudiced and often seized with hypocrisy. It is time overdue for the West to show the hand of friendship to Russia, just as it did immediately after the Cold War before the expansion of Nato took place. The West may be surprised how quickly Russians would reciprocate.