Peter Hitchens writes:
You can’t really make excuses for a country with a bullying, overbearing leader, a country that locks up journalists and political opponents of the government. The fact that it has elections doesn’t make it free, does it? Well, no. The country I am in fact describing here is Turkey, which at the last count had 95 journalists behind bars, and where the bizarre and sinister Ergenekon prosecution is a pretext for the arrest (and often lengthy pre-trial detention) of opponents of Mr Erdogan, the country’s bossy, thin-skinned premier. The Economist, and other respectable organs , ceaselessly call Mr Erdogan’s government ‘mildly Islamist’ . What does he have to do to stop being called ‘mild’, I wonder?
Turkey, I might remind readers, is a longstanding member of NATO, or ‘ally’ in the current struggle by the ‘West’ to turn Syria into a sectarian bloodbath in the name of ‘democracy’ . It is possible (though I think now unlikely) that it will become a fellow member of the European Union, with all the dubious blessings of the European Arrest Warrant, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Europol and Schengen.
Eh? I thought this was going to be about those sweet, demure young women who have been locked up by the wicked Mr Putin? Oh, but it is, it is. I make no excuses for Mr Putin. I have many times used very rude words about him, and his government. I shall continue to do so. His spokesman won’t talk to me. I just wanted to point out that if you were a media organisation wishing to get exercised about a serious threat to free speech in an important country, you might pay some attention to Turkey. But hardly anyone does. Rather the reverse.
But Mr Putin is the object of a great and continuing storm of piffle and exaggeration. We are told that the trial of three young women, for behaving badly in a church, is comparable to Stalin’s show trials (before which the defendants had been tortured and blackmailed and at the end of which the defendants were shot in the back of the neck) or (more modestly) with the Daniel and Synyavsky trial which marked the end of the Krushchev Thaw in 1965 , at which, if memory serves me, there was not a large Western media circus, or much in the way of demonstrations outside the courtroom. In fact, as far as I know, only scrappy smuggled accounts reached the outside world, and Moscow’s then wholly-Communist media (nowadays by contrast startlingly varied and plural), ran a bitter co-ordinated campaign against the two. Their supposed crime was entirely a matter of freedom of expression.
But here come the New Cold War merchants (they want one, and soon), trying to tell us that militarily decrepit, non-ideological, oil-dependent, rustbucket Russia is in some way comparable to the USSR, a vast militaristic imperial power allied to a global ideology which maintained its rule over many countries well beyond its true sphere of influence, language and culture.
As to Pussy Riot itself, I’m not keen on desecrating anyone’s religious buildings. There’s something specially selfish and arrogant about trampling on the deepest sensitivities of others in this way. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that you could get into quite serious trouble for doing a ‘Pussy Riot’ type of action in St Paul’s, Notre Dame de Paris, St Peter’s, Washington National Cathedral, and in major religious buildings in many other free countries. I wouldn’t recommend doing it in a mosque anywhere, free country or otherwise.
It’s not just free speech we’re talking about here. It’s attention-seeking disruption of someone else’s sacred space, quite easily classified as some sort of breach of the peace in any legal system. Now, for me, a penalty along the lines of six weeks spent publicly scrubbing the cathedral steps on their knees rather early in the morning would be rather more to the point than some penal colony. We should make much more effort, in the world in general, to make the punishment fit the crime. I don’t regard these women as specially pleasant, let alone as heroines of the struggle for free expression. Struggle to gain attention, more likely. You’ll note that there’s never been any suggestion that the authorities have the wrong people, so if Russian law is in any way comparable to the laws of counties like our on this subject, and if it unquestionably bans such behaviour in cathedrals, and prescribes certain penalties for it, then that’s not lawless. And if they’d performed their little concert in a Moscow café, I doubt if anything would never again have been heard of it. It was the location, location, location that did it. They got the publicity. Maybe they underestimated the reaction. And if Putin’s repressive hellhole was as bad as they say it is, how come they did that? Cause that sort of trouble even in Brezhnev’s Red Square, let alone Stalin’s, and it would have been a guaranteed one-way ticket to the far side of the Urals.
So, while the penalty is harsh and unjustified, this isn’t really a matter of free speech (unlike Turkey’s behaviour) , and it isn’t a matter of a trumped-up charge because they did do what they’re accused of, and it isn’t lawless, because they broke a pre-existing law. I don’t think much of Russia’s criminal justice system. But then again, in quite different ways, I don’t think much of ours either, and ours is getting worse all the time, whereas Russia’s has in recent years got a bit better than it was under Communism. Not much. Not enough. But a bit. Press allowed in the court, for a start.
It’s all really a matter of degree. You can think the penalty harsh (as I do), without necessarily endorsing the view that this is the most worrying and important breach of human liberty on the planet just now.
And in my view, as I’ve said before, Russia gets it in the neck (and loyally globalist Turkey doesn’t) because Russia still stands up for its own national sovereignty (and that of other countries) and the Globalist League, headed by the ghastly Hillary Clinton, want to teach Russia a lesson for that. Hence the ‘New Cold War’, a pointless conflict against a country that’s no threat to us, and isn’t by the (admittedly grim) standards of the modern world outstandingly repressive, and the wild excitement over ‘Pussy Riot’(You must add into this the dubious media delight in, and the public’s dubious response to, film and pictures of young women in cages or in handcuffs. Fifty shades of what, did you say?).
A couple of other points. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is a very interesting building, and the decision by the women to misbehave in it might have been informed by facts not known to most Westerners.
It was always a bit political. It was originally built as a monument to Russia’s survival of the Napoleonic invasion. It was never very beautiful. Moscow had many other older, more graceful churches (though a terrible number were lost to Communist hate and destruction in the Stalin era, and their riches plundered to decorate the Pharaonic , slave-built Moscow metro, a precious few survived the decades of neglect and state spite. The repeated anti-religious campaigns, the theft or silencing of bells and the general marginalisation of God in the Soviet Empire).
Its position, in a commanding spot visible from many part of Moscow, made it specially irritating to the Communists, who wanted Moscow to be a Godless city. They also wanted to build a hideous ‘Palace of the Soviets’ on the spot, topped by an enormous statue of Lenin, so replacing a cathedral dedicated to the saviour of mankind, with one dedicated to a mass murderer. On a winter’s day in 1931, the Bolsheviks blew the cathedral to pieces. A famous photograph of this moment can be found in many places on the Internet. (He reproduces it.)
The palace of the Soviets was never built, though the foundations were. Moscow rumour, when I lived there, stated that engineers had warned that the foundations would never support the planned structure, which was intended to be more than 1,600 feet high. Whatever the reason, the foundations languished for many years, until the whole site was turned into an enormous open-air swimming pool. This pool still occupied the spot all the time I spent in Moscow, and when, ten years later, I returned, the single most astonishing change was the rebuilt cathedral. I was glad to see it, not because it was a particularly attractive building but because it emphasised that the Communist period, the real reason for the Cold War and the real cause of most of Russia’s miseries, was definitively over. Whatever happened next, that was not going to come back. I suspect quite a few ordinary Muscovites, who have lived in a country where God was banned, feel the same way. But who cares what they think?