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This summer in Russia saw growing protests against the current government, in particular criticism of Russian president Vladimir Putin. One particular case that has received a large amount of coverage in British media is the case of the feminist punk band, Pussy Riot, of which three members are currently serving sentences for “premeditated hooliganism performed by an organized group of people motivated by religious hatred or hostility”. In the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, the band performed a protest song against Putin and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, who is a strong supporter of Putin. Subsequently, three band members’ identities were revealed, and they were imprisoned, although they will soon be appearing before an appeal hearing.
This has been criticised by governments and organisations across the western world, for example Amnesty International, who claimed that the conviction was “a bitter blow for freedom of expression”. Although one can understand the reaction of many ordinary Russians, who see the protest as an attack on their beliefs, it is very difficult to see the trial as anything other than politically motivated.
This verdict comes at a time when president Putin has been seen as presiding over a clampdown on dissent. Laws have been introduced increasing fines for participating in unofficial demonstrations, defamation has become a criminal offence, and the internet is being restricted. Furthermore, the houses of opposition politicians have been searched by police, and some have been put under investigation by the police. This seems all too reminiscent of the tactics used by the USSR, in which dissidents would be arrested and sent to forced labour camps.
The jailing of Pussy Riot for this is, in my opinion, clearly a breach of freedom of speech. Pussy Riot were simply exercising one of our most important rights, to express oneself in popular protest. In jailing the band for this, Putin’s government is proving itself to be one that does not believe in freedom of expression for those who will not follow the official government line. In a way, it feels as though things remain unchanged from the days of the old Soviet Union.
Issues of Freedom of Speech can be clouded, however, when matters of religion or race get involved. It is hard to have your most firmly held beliefs attacked, and freedom of speech can seem a poor defence, one often used by those whose intention is just to offend. I understand these concerns, but this brings another issue, as if you decide to block this freedom of expression, no matter how horrible it may be, you are simply deciding that one group deserves freedom of speech and another doesn’t, and allowing freedom of religious expression while silencing critics. Freedom of speech is universal, and one cannot decide what is “good speech” or “bad speech”.
It is very probable that the jailing of Nadezha Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich will not be the end of Russia’s protests, in the same way that dissent would occur throughout the existence of the Soviet Union. No matter how much a government clamps down on dissent, it will always continue. I believe that the protest by Pussy Riot was entirely justifiable, a protest attacking a politically-minded Patriarch and an authoritarian President trying to stifle dissent in his own country. However, even if I disagreed with their cause, I would defend their right to this sort of protest – in the words of Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Authoritarian clampdowns on free speech will never stop racism or defamation of a religion. The only answer to these problematic elements of allowing free speech to all is good speech, directly addressing them rather than stifling them.