OPINION: Paradoxes of freedom or lack of thereof (I)
ON PUSSY RIOT, AARON SWARTZ, EDWARD SNOWDEN, MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY, SOVIET UNION, RUSSIA AND THE UNITED STATES
In the beginning of this year we mark two unrelated but philosophically connected events: December 2013 amnesty for two members of iconoclastic Russian feminist punk/art collective Pussy Riot and one year anniversary of Aaron Swartz's suicide that occurred on January 11th of 2013 which we marked last Saturday.
It was a strange ending of the year as far as Russia is concerned with Vladimir Putin's attempts of white washing his policies towards dissidents some fifty days before Sochi Winter Olympic Games, which included not related to Russian amnesty unexpected freeing of Russia's political prisoner "number one" Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oligarch who was allegedly Putin's political rival and/or tax evader.
It was also a strange year of disappointment and pain for me a believer in American democratic and judicial system, a system that at least was always supposed to be superior to the one of my former country the Soviet Union, and of today's Russia. But sadly the year began with the death of Aaron Swartz and continued with Edward Snowden's revelations of NSA eavesdropping programs and his legal and asylum ordeal that followed his whistleblowing.
Never in my life did I imagine that I would say the things that I am about to say here, that I would be making somber conclusions of disappointment, bitterness and criticism; conclusions based upon viewing the case of Aaron Swartz's tragedy from a comparative, international point of view.
For many months since Pussy Riot's arrest in March of 2012 I was actively monitoring, organizing protests, and giving presentations about and on behalf of the unfairly arrested and imprisoned band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and later mysteriously released Yekaterina Samutsevich.
For those who are not familiar or don't remember what happened with this art collective let me briefly review the circumstances of Pussy Riot's case:
1. Outraged by Vladimir Putin's shameless usurping of constitutional powers and self-nominating for the third term Presidency of Russia, Pussy Riot staged a 46 second-long performance of a satirical protest song at the Moscow's Temple of Christ the Savior, which was followed by a now iconic viral video.
2. A few days later in early March 2012, three members of the group were arrested. They were facing charges of hooliganism and causing offense to believers which carried a maximum punishment of up to 5 years of hard labor. They were also pressured to publicly repent and admit their guilt.
3. The trial of Pussy Riot women became a mockery of justice, with the Russian constitution and basic common sense trampled by the judge and prosecutors. Members of the group refused to admit any wrongdoing, though offered their apologies to the insulted believers, in case their feelings were indeed offended.
4. The trial was surrounded by an unprecedented loud and high profile international campaign in support of the arrested artists, in which numerous A-list celebrities such as Yoko Ono, Madonna, Sting, Paul McCartney, Bjork, and philosophers Henry Bertrand-Levy and Slavoj Zizek spoke out on behalf of the arrested. Pussy Riot received an International LennonOno Grant for Peace, were nominated for the Sakharov and Kandinsky prizes, and a documentary showcased at Sundance Festival, shown on HBO and shortlisted for the Oscar nomination for best documentary, was made about them.
5. Despite the international uproar and clear lack of criminal intent , the artists were sentenced to 2 years of hard labor in punitive colonies. Perhaps the uproar helped to reduce the term of confinement to 2 years. One Pussy Riot member Yekaterina Samutsevich was later freed on a technicality, and two others: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, both mothers of small children, served almost two years in Putin's GULAG, where they were subjected to harrasement of prison authorities, witnessed medieval cruelty of Russian penitentiary system and had to resort to hunger strikes to have their human rights respected. These two were supposed to be freed in March of 2014, but instead were freed as a part of Putin's "Potemkin village" Olympic Games PR campaign.
As Pussy Riot's farcical trial was going on, my American colleagues and I: artists, musicians, journalists, activists, and academics sincerely believed that Putin's regime was the most unfair, vindictive, unjust and oppressive of non-third world countries. We believed that we-- Americans--could look at Russians from the vantage point of our democratic tradition, our trust in the rule of law and justice for all, and pity those poor Russians. We assumed that what happened to Pussy Riot in Russia could never happen in the USA...
Even though I knew who Aaron Swartz was while fighting for justice for Pussy Riot, I never heard about his persecution by the bullying U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz, on behalf of U.S. government. I was not familiar with his legal ordeal happening right here in our very own country.
When I learned about prosecution of Aaron and his resulting suicide I was filled with shock and shame. It was hard to believe that Putin's oppressive, authoritarian legal machine went easier against 21st century Russian political dissenters, than the U.S. legal system went against Aaron Swartz!
But the facts were astonishing: Pussy Riot never looked at 35 to 50 years in jail, and were only sentenced to two years, and so far all of the collective's members have survived their ordeal.
Aaron Swartz, in our democracy and under our newly-elected "good" democratic president, was subjected to prosecutorial bullying and harassment, lack of flexibility, compassion and understanding on the part of the overreaching and vengeful U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, an appointee of our "good" president, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barak Obama.
Suddenly it was apparent that in regards to brutally persecuting political activists, Russia came in second to our country...
It used to be that when Russian dissidents were persecuted by their government they historically turned to America for help. But who could American dissidents turn to? Who was there to help beleaguered Americans? For American dissidents like Aaron Swartz the world was a very hopeless and lonely place, and the cavalry led by Madonna and Sting was not coming to the rescue...
Of course the comparatively lenient treatment of Pussy Riot by the court could be explained by the traditional stupidity and slow- mindedness of the Russian judicial system, which in its retarded inefficiency was unable to unleash the full power upon the punks of Pussy Riot, but hey! That was their luck, luck that Aaron Swartz did not have...
And then in the Summer of 2013 Russia's granting of political asylum to the beleaguered dogged into the corner by the unforgiving, vengeful American legal machine NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden ironically answered these questions by turning the whole notion of who "is better and who is worse" into a surreal farce.
To our American shame there is now a bona fide American dissident who received unexpected and apparently not specifically asked for support and asylum from corrupt and unconstitutional regime of Vladimir Putin famous for throwing young mother's in jail for 40 second performance art stunt...
As to Khodorkovsky... well the man said that he is not going to be active in politics, and on the whole the jury is still out in regards to what was his case: the one of a political dissident, of Putin's personal rival, of a corrupt oligarch tax evader, of Russia's Nelson Mandela or Bernard Maidoff... One thing is clear he promises to leave Putin alone, and this is when Pussy Riot announced upon coming out of jail that their goal still is "to chase Putin away!"