Rupert Cornwell: Putin faces the age-old dilemma of the tyrant

Weakness might embolden his opponents. Cracking down too hard will damage the legitimacy of his rule


Oh, the tasks that confront a Russian tsar. You must guide the affairs of a country spread across nine time zones. You must set its policies on the world stage. And then, if you are Vladimir Putin, you must determine the sentence of three members of a female punk rock band who misbehaved in a church. Seemingly trivial stuff, but the decision could shake the foundations of your power.

Today, a Moscow court is due to deliver its verdict (or more exactly Vladimir Putin's verdict) in the case of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina, three members of the Pussy Riot rock group who on February 21 performed a so-called "punk prayer" before the altar of the Cathedral of Christ Saviour in Moscow. Their protests came amid the demonstrations held in the run-up to Russia's rigged presidential election on March 4 which Putin easily won. The song attacked the politically subservient Orthodox Church, decried "the ghost of freedom in heaven", and beseeched the Virgin Mary to "drive away Putin, drive away Putin", before ending with some comparatively mild expletives.

A few days later, the three were arrested, and held in prison on charges of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility". The full glory of Russian law, in all its impartiality and respect of the rights of those not yet found guilty, then unfurled: an indictment running to 2,800 pages, followed by word in early July that the defendants would have just five days to prepare their defence. By that time, however, outrage in Russia and beyond was reaching explosive levels, and a trial date was set for July 30. The girls cast themselves as dissidents in the noblest Soviet tradition. On trial, Tolokonnikova said in her closing statement, were not three musicians, but "the entire state system of the Russian Federation".

In any country, such a stunt would have caused considerable offence, and not merely among the devout. But imagine the consequences, had it occurred in the West. In the US, there would have been outrage on right wing talk radio, and much frothing on the warring cable TV news channels, while the band's PR people would have had their work cut out to prevent a cascade of engagement cancellations. Had the punk prayer been in Westminster Abbey, it would doubtless have sparked much snide commentary about how finally the C of E had become relevant to national life. In neither country, of course, would the affair have got within a mile of the courts.

Not so Russia. Perhaps there will now be a show of "mercy". When he visited London during the Olympics, Putin, the lawgiver, expressed the wish that the sentence (theoretically a maximum seven years) not be too severe. Of course, it all depends on his own definition of "severe".As it is, the three women have already been in jail for five months, ludicrously excessive punishment even were they to walk out of the courtroom today scot-free.

But then again, the girls might count themselves fortunate. The former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, initially arrested in 2003, is currently serving a sentence in a Siberian prison whose length depends on Putin's pleasure, for having shown untoward political ambitions. As for Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer who is another poster boy for Russian "justice", he was arrested after exposing massive corruption among senior Russian officials. Having been held and tortured in a squalid Moscow prison, he died almost a year later, in November 2009.

Even that, it should be said, has not ended his ordeal. Having been initially accused on trumped-up charges of embezzlement, Magnitsky faces a final macabre distinction of becoming perhaps the first person anywhere to be tried posthumously. For their supporters at home and abroad, both Khordokovsky and Magnitsky have achieved a martyr status, which Putin could bestow upon Pussy Riot today if a severe sentence is handed down. Whatever happens though, any clemency will be strictly relative.

Putin faces the dilemma of the tyrant throughout the ages, a dilemma now playing out in especially dark and bloody form in Syria. The hardest task for an authoritarian regime is to reform itself from within. The last time the trick was attempted on the Russian landmass, by Mikhail Gorbachev, the result was the collapse of Communism. Bashar al-Assad plainly concluded from day one that any accommodation with his opponents was impossible if his Alawite sect was to retain power – even if the price was the destruction of his country.

For Putin, who by no coincidence happens to be Assad's most important foreign ally, the stakes are not quite as high. But the principle is the same. Any relaxation risks being taken as a sign of weakness, that might only embolden his opponents. If the law is wielded lightly on this occasion, the regime will be perceived as trembling before public opinion, and the next round of street demonstrations may be even more imposing. Crack down too hard however, and the legitimacy of his rule (not to mention Russia's international image that the Kremlin does care about, whatever impression to the contrary it seeks to convey) will be further damaged. Truly, it's tough being a tough guy.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Manufacturing Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a rare opportunity for ...

Recruitment Genius: Conveyancing Fee Earner / Technical Support

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An experienced Fee Earner/Techn...

Recruitment Genius: Receptionist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This law firm is seeking a happy, helpful and ...

The Jenrick Group: Production Supervisor

£26000 - £29000 per annum + Holidays & Pension: The Jenrick Group: Production ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'