Show Trials and Sympathy

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Sophie Pinkham in n+1:

Last week, a new documentary about Pussy Riot aired on HBO. Two anonymous Pussy Riot members attended the premiere in New York, bumping shoulders with Salman Rushdie and Patti Smith but skipping the “Riotinis” at the Russian-themed SoHo afterparty. One year after the trial, the world is still on a first name basis with Nadya Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina, and Katya Samutsevich, the “Pussy Riot girls,” the ones who got caught.

The Pussy Riot trial was only the first in a string of pseudo-legal proceedings meant to punish the opposition and teach the public a lesson, but it’s still the one that’s made the biggest splash abroad. The prosecutions of Aleksei Navalny, one of the Russian opposition’s strongest leaders, and of twenty-seven people arrested in connection with the political demonstrations on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square have been equally absurd, hollow, and unfair. But they haven’t become pop culture phenomena in the way the Pussy Riot trial did; they don’t have the same simple hook or punk rock appeal.

Any trial that exists only to justify punishment is a kind of “show trial,” a performance rather than a judgment. Such trials have a long history in Russia. In the 19th century, Russia’s greatest lexicographer recorded proverbs and sayings that included, “Where there’s a court, there is falsehood,” and “Go before God with the truth, but before the courts with money.” Show trials come in many flavors, though Stalin’s are the ones we remember best. The stakes in the recent trials have been far lower than those in Stalinist trials: fortunately, no one was ever at risk of being shot. Putin doesn’t have Stalin’s iron grip, and in all of the politically motivated trials of the last year there have been plenty of loud, dissenting voices, both inside and outside the courtroom. In fact, these modern show trials have more in common with the lesser-known trials of the Brezhnev era and late imperial Russia, periods that saw authoritarian governments losing control of their narrative, upstaged by another, more compelling show—the defense.