Cossack Militia Whip Pussy Riot in Sochi

By Richard Arnold
One of the most positive (and most surprising) features of the 2014 Winter Olympiad in Sochi has been the absence of security problems—an absence which has boosted the perception of Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a more stable, orderly, and developed country than Western observers may have thought. One incident, however, does still illustrate that beneath the calm exterior there are social tensions which could further escalate in the future.
On February 19, six members of the punk band Pussy Riot—Nadezhda Tolokinnovka, Maria Alechenna, and other activists—tried to perform a song titled “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland” (featuring lyrics that accuse Putin of being a “dictator,” as well as mock the double toilet built in Sochi. The full text of the song is available here: http://pussy-riot.info/blog/2014/2/20/putin-nauchit-tebya-lubit). The performance took place under a “Sochi 2014” banner near the city’s seaport, outside of the secure Olympic Village (http://lenta.ru/news/2014/02/19/sochi/). Videos show the singers meeting underneath the poster and more or less spontaneously breaking into song. After only a short while, however, Cossack militias descend on the band and beat them with whips, chastising those who were singing along (http://rus.delfi.ee/daily/abroad/video-v-sochi-kazaki-othlestali-uchastnic-pussy-riot-pletmi.d?id=67987939). The Cossack militia later told the prosecutor that the band had “offended our religious feelings” with their performance (http://www.nr2.ru/sochi2014/485607.html), despite the fact that the performance did not take place in a religious area and no religious symbols were displayed. The Cossacks may have believed themselves to be punishing Pussy Riot for their notorious protest in a Moscow church in 2012 (see EDM, July 2, 2012).
The arrival of Pussy Riot in Sochi was greeted with interest by observers who what the activist group would do in the city to embarrass the Russian government. Previous accusations of theft from their hotel in Sochi were dropped due to lack of evidence (http://itar-tass.com/obschestvo/979086). In the grand scale of potential actions to embarrass the government that the band could have undertaken, the simple singing of a song vaguely offensive to the president is a very minor form of protest. Indeed, the Cossack retaliatory attack was actually counter-productive in bringing more attention to the actions of Pussy Riot than perhaps they would otherwise have received. This may be part of the reason that Krasnodar’s Governor Alexander Tkachyov tried to sweep the violent response under the rug, saying simply that he “regretted” the incident and promised an investigation (http://www.nr2.ru/sochi2014/485607.html). The power of repression to invigorate the anti-Putin protest movement should not be underestimated, however, especially given dire predictions about the future of the Russian economy.

Four hundred members of the Kuban Cossack host were drafted to help provide security in Sochi during the games (see EDM, January 29), amidst concerns about their professional standards. To those familiar with the Cossack movement in Russia’s south, it is unsurprising that they used violence to force Pussy Riot to stop their protests against Vladimir Putin. Indeed, the Cossacks’ highly symbolic practice of beating people with Nagaika (short riding whips) is considered to be a public way of shaming people whom they believe have embarrassed the community—or, in this case, Russia. Generally, the Cossacks have become one of the key social movements that Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to appeal to due to their embodiment of conservative values and devotion to Russia. Indeed, in response to the recent events in Ukraine, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who had been in touch “with the Don and the Kuban” hosts, gathered in Sevastopol on Thursday to protect Crimea’s autonomy (http://russian.rt.com/article/22668). In the event of a fracturing of Ukraine, the influence of the Cossacks may well be instrumental in determining which parts of the country join Russia.