Pussy Riot & The Fight For Internet Freedom

Russian-born blogger Nadya Lev shares her thoughts on the Pussy Riot trial and Vladimir Putin's politics

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"Was it art?" the prosecutor asked. "It was witchcraft," the witness replied.

"It", of course, refers to Pussy Riot's now-infamous punk performance at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, for which three young women have been charged with "hooliganism." Battling suspiciously shoddy courtroom internet, journalists have been live-tweeting hilarious quotes from the proceedings.

But this is serious business. What are the chances of Pussy Riot being convicted? Over 99%, if you go by Russia's acquittal rate for the past decade. "Not guilty" verdicts in Russian courts are actually more rare now than they were under Stalin, according to a 2011 report.

The showdown between Pussy Riot and Russia's two-headed monster of church and state represents the beginning of Russia's fight for Internet freedom. We've heard this story many times recently. It's the story of acronymic internet censorship bills, of Wikileaks and the Arab Spring.

Like another band of 21st-century masked prankster activists, Anonymous, Pussy Riot knows how the Internet game is played. Both groups have brought much mirth and merriment to the web. Who doesn't love it when a publication like International Business Times utters the word "pussy" over and over again? It's this approach that grabbed the world's attention, and it wasn't until Pussy Riot's performance went viral that the group was arrested. Had there not been such a resounding worldwide celebration of Pussy Riot's comic audacity, it's likely that the girls would be free today.

Meanwhile, Patriarch Kirill (Russia's version of the Pope, and one of Pussy Riot's most aggressive critics) and Vladimir Putin have not yet completely grasped the threat that the Internet poses to their authority - with humiliating consequences. Take, for example, Putin's complete ignorance of Streisand Effect. In what's been described as "the worst public reception of his political career," Putin was recently heckled loudly during a speech at a martial arts event. In later broadcasts, Putin-controlled news media replaced the heckling with a soundtrack of fake cheering and applause. Predictably, YouTube users did not let him get away with this. Similarly, when the Russian Church unsuccessfully Photoshopped out Patriarch Kirill's $30,000 Breuget watch, he publicly denied that he ever owned such an object. Of course, by that time, news outlets all over the world were mocking the cover-up of his bling.

Putin and Kirill are starting to catch on. In 2012, Kirill met with Russia's Minister of Communications, Igor Shchegolev, to insistat that "Russian society must be protected from immoral content of the Internet", citing concerns about the impact of the online content on the human soul (or his reputation). Putin, for his part, recently ignored a 24-hour Russian Wikipedia Blackout in protest of an Internet censorship bill designed to create an analogue to China's Great Firewall. The bill passed on July 11th.

It is this trial and international backlash to a guilty verdict that will finally make Russian powers fully aware of the Internet's power against them. As one arrested member of Anonymous said famously in his final tweet, "you cannot arrest an idea." This trial may soon be over, but the fight for Russia's Internet freedom is just beginning. The activist war cry will go something like this: "We are Pussy Riot. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”

Russian-born writer Nadya Lev is based in San Francisco, and is the founding publisher and co-editor of the magazine/blog Coilhouse: A Love Letter to Alternative Culture. She is also an photographer and can be found on Twitter as @nadya.



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