NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This weekend, a court in Moscow sentenced three women from a previously obscure punk band guilty of hooliganism. They got two years in prison and made Pussy Riot an international sensation. In the Washington Post today, columnist Anne Applebaum writes that for all the attention paid to the case, Madonna's was by far the most damaging, not because she's a serious political figure, but because she isn't.
If you've been following the story, what have you learned? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum joins us now by phone from Poland. And nice to have you with us today.
ANNE APPLEBAUM: Thanks very much. Nice to be here.
CONAN: And the attention, you're saying, is once you get denounced by Madonna, you're in serious trouble because it's one thing to be attack by human rights groups, but it's another thing to be attacked in popular culture magazines.
APPLEBAUM: Well, in popular culture because it has all kinds of echoes in places that you don't expect, you know. And a totalitarian regime is aware of what Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch might say, and they're able to block particular websites. But once, you know, the Pussy Riot story has been everywhere, in newspapers in South Africa, in newspapers in the Middle East, in entertainment magazines, in gossip columns. Once you have that kind of attention to it, that it's very, very hard to control who reads it and who learns about it.
CONAN: And so you can't easily suggest to block the Amnesty International Web page if you want to, and Russia certainly blocks a lot of Web content. It's another thing to try to block Al-Jazeera.
APPLEBAUM: I mean, Al-Jazeera ran a Pussy Riot story, and all kinds of gossip columns, as I said, entertainment magazines that people are used to reading - people who aren't especially interested in politics are reading. It kind of changes the tone of the story, and it changes the places where you read about it, and it changes the kinds of people who are talking about it.
And this story, in particularly, is may be difficult for Putin because at some level, it's ridiculous that they should put three women in prison for two years for - you cannot like their form of protest or their kind of music or the way they're dress. But two years is a long prison sentence, and it begins to make the Russian state look silly, even in Al-Jazeera.
CONAN: And silly is not one anybody wants to look like. On the other hand, you point out they don't like to be compared with North Korea.
APPLEBAUM: No. Well, what the - as I wrote, the genius, if that's the correct word, of Putinism has always been that Putin had a very good understanding of what Russians really wanted. Russians might not have cared, you know, when they went abroad that people said, oh, Russia is not a very nice place or not very democratic. And they would argue that, well, we're a different kind of country and so on. But they really don't want to be a pariah state, and they really don't want to be, you know, thought - they don't want to have trouble traveling abroad. They don't want to have trouble having access to Western banks and Western hotels and Western businesses, Western companies. And they don't like the idea that Russia is not a part of the global political and economic system.
And so - and the kind of genius of Putinism has been to allow people to have that access and to move back and forth freely while keeping control on political speech in Russia without ever having any kind of mass crackdowns or doing anything that would cause, you know, real international reaction.
CONAN: So he could allow dissent in, well, things that nobody read.
APPLEBAUM: Well, it's not that nobody read it, but, for example, there are one or two newspapers in Moscow which are really opposition newspapers and which print articles which are critical of the government. They're just very low circulation, I mean, in 100,000 instead of a million. He keeps very - the Kremlin keeps very close control of television and of other real mass media, of media which may reach millions of people, but allows smaller dissent - you know, groups like Pussy Riot had been saying anti-Putin things for many years with nobody really paying any attention to them or caring about them.
And the dangerous thing about this story is that, finally, one of the little, somewhat obscure avant-garde groups got into, you know, is now a part of the mainstream media and is part of the kind of mainstream news that Russians may see. And that's what the Kremlin has been trying to avoid for many years.
CONAN: So if they have the capacity to be embarrassed, they're in trouble?
APPLEBAUM: If they have the capacity to be embarrassed, and if they, you know, if they care what kind of - how this makes them look. And I mean, there is evidence that they do care. I mean, Putin does care how he's perceived. He does care how Russia is perceived, and Russians care. The Russian elite cares that their country is perceived as somehow serious, and it's somehow playing an important role in the world.
And this story makes them look silly. And, you know, you're so threatened by three women punk rockers that you need to put them in jail for two years. I mean, it's true that women - the same women punk rockers doing the same thing in France or in the United States might well go to jail on it for misdemeanor or disturbing the peace for 48 hours. But a two-year jail sentence and keeping them behind bars in the courtroom? It all makes - it makes the Russian state look afraid, as if it was, you know, as if it felt seriously threatened.
CONAN: Well, Anne Applebaum's column on Putinism and Pussy Riot appeared in today's editions of the newspapers. There's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get Art on the line. Art's calling us from San Francisco.
ART: Good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call.
ART: A few things. First, I grew up in Russia, and I still have friends in parents in Russia, and I know the situation, and I follow it. And the second thing, I'm an atheist. I don't believe in God, so I tried - I'll try to be impartial. Let's put the situation in context. And the context in the Russia today is you have affluent cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg with enormous concentration of wealth and political power, and the rest of Russia, the rest of Russia who actually elected Putin. The people who are against Putin are people who live in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
And while we're talking about the rest of the context, unlike the United States, in Russia, Orthodox Church is an institution. I mean, the part of identity of being Russian is being Orthodox. For all of its 1,000-year history, Russia has been Orthodox. And what this group did, actually, they insulted really deeply. Their act was disgusting. And although I am an atheist, I can understand when many people in Russia are being insulted by this ridiculous fact, which has quite frankly nothing to do with politics. It's, quite frankly, an idiocy on the part of Russian opposition. And in my eyes, they look like buffoons. And what they do, they will never reach their political goals by insulting the rest of Russia, which is actually pro-Putin because in the eyes of the rest of Russia, these guys look like really elitists and quite far away from the rest of them.
CONAN: Anne Applebaum?
APPLEBAUM: I think you need to be careful about whether Russia does or does not support Putin. Yes, it's true they voted for Putin. It's not clear whether, A, he wins by as much as he says he wins by, or B, whether you can call the elections and the electoral process in Russia...
APPLEBAUM: ...free in any kind of normal way. Remember, there's no free mass media. There are rarely any other real candidates. There are, in effect, one-man elections. Other candidates don't have the ability to run real campaigns. So be very careful with saying that Putin wins and that people support him. It's not even clear. In Poland, when you ask people, you often get the answer that, well, you know, I guess Putin is OK. He's in Moscow. But what we really hate is our local government, our local authorities. And so there is a lot of anger in Russia about the way the country is run. And some of it's directives are Putin, some of it isn't. But it's not a country in which there are free elections, and so it's very hard to say that he's supported. That's one thing.
The second thing I would say is, of course, what they did was silly. And at some level, you know, the rest, you know, they aren't representative of the opposition in any particular way. They're representative of themselves. They're a punk rock group. They're not politicians. So, you know, so I don't think you can tar the opposition.
And then the third point, though, is that they would - their argument was that what they were doing was justified because of Putin's relationship with the Orthodox Church. That they see that he is trying to use the Orthodox Church as a part of his political scheme and as a part of making himself, you know, a true Russian or, you know, making himself more popular. And that, you know, their protest was against that.
You know, as I said before, in any country, you know, the Russian Orthodox Church plays a deep role in the history of Russia, while Christian churches also play deep roles in the history in many Western countries. Nevertheless, there is a fringe that's always been allowed for - or in recent decades, has been allowed for a kind of protest or a kind of, you know, atheist claims. You know, you don't go to prison anymore for saying you're an atheist, although you did use to. Sorry.
CONAN: I just want to - we just have a minute left, and I...
APPLEBAUM: Oh, sorry.
CONAN: ...wanted to say that, obviously, the case of Russia might apply also to countries like China. But there are places - North Korea right now and, I guess, Myanmar/Burma until earlier this year - that can't be embarrassed.
APPLEBAUM: You know, there are leaders who - and countries which are un-embarrassable(ph) because they don't want any commerce with the West, and because they don't want to go back and forth to the West and travel to the West. Russians are embarrassable, and they care about their image because of that. You know, they're not a country that wants to be a pariah state.
CONAN: Anne Applebaum, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
APPLEBAUM: Thank you.
CONAN: Anne Applebaum, a columnist for The Washington Post and Slate.com. Tomorrow, Afghanistan and what's likely to happen in that country after the US withdraws in 2014. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
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