The video of Pussy Riot’s protest at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow is actually quite hilarious. It looks, more than anything else, like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, with the brightly clad, balaclava-wearing punk girls playing air guitar on the altar and dodging giant security guards who make ineffectual grabs at them (ending up, like Tom the cat, with nothing but air in their paws).
The young women genuflect on the altar and shriek a prayer to the Virgin: “Chase Putin away!” They swear a bit in Russian, as nuns stand around, scandalized. For anyone who’s grown up in the shadow of a church (or a temple or a mosque), it’s a wildly subversive, cheeky performance. I was laughing at it with a hand clapped over my mouth while standing away from open windows, lest lightning strike me dead.
Dictators don’t like to be laughed at. Bullies don’t like to be the object of ridicule. Repressive regimes don’t want to be reminded that they’re only a couple of belly laughs away from revolution. Unfortunately, at the moment, it’s the women of Pussy Riot who are suffering the consequences of their mockery.
Three members of the feminist protest collective are on trial for “hooliganism” in Moscow for that performance at Christ the Saviour in February. If convicted, they face up to seven years in prison. Other members of the anonymous Russian group – who denounce sexism and the church’s influence, as well as Vladimir Putin’s undying grip on power – are in hiding.
The trial itself seems as absurd as one of their performances. Miriam Elder, covering the proceedings for the Guardian newspaper, reported that one journalist was kicked out of the courtroom for laughing and the rest of the media was warned against unauthorized giggling. The judge, seeing the accused women smiling at the video of their guerrilla protest, asked, “Is something funny to you?”
Well, probably not the prospect of seven years in a Russian prison. In London, for the benefit of the world’s cameras, Mr. Putin advocated leniency in the Pussy Riot trial. “There is nothing good in what they did,” he told reporters, adding that he didn’t think they should be judged “too severely.” I’m not sure whether anyone checked to see if he had his fingers crossed behind his back.
The great thing about political satire is that it’s free, open to everyone with a mouth or a pen and fun for the whole family. Unless your family is called al-Assad or Putin, that is. It’s like judo: Your opponent’s size and strength become the very things you use to bring him down. It can also be, as we’ve always known and were reminded this week, extremely dangerous.
In Mogadishu, comedian Abdi Jeylani Malaq, who liked to poke fun at Islamists on his popular radio program, was shot dead. And in Malaysia, a court upheld the government’s right to detain one of the country’s top political cartoonists, who goes by the pen name Zunar. He’s free now, just in time for the government to announce it will ban all political cartooning for two weeks around the general election. This paranoia may be funny, but I’m not sure we’re allowed to laugh.
The government knows that laughter is a dangerous and contagious thing. Last summer, I saw a group of schoolkids giggling at Ai Weiwei’s marble surveillance camera, a sculpture in the Chinese artist’s exhibit at a London gallery. They might not have understood every historical resonance of the piece, but they knew it was funny.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ai was being held in a jail in China, ostensibly for tax dodging, although everyone knew that wasn’t the real reason. In truth, he’d infuriated authorities by constantly sticking a middle finger up at them through his art. In one case, he did it quite literally: His photographic series A Study in Perspective featured Mr. Ai flipping the bird in front of famous monuments, including the Forbidden City.
As The Economist reported after his release from prison, his interrogators revealed their true motives for arresting him when they asked him about that picture. What did he mean by that gesture? Was he mocking the Communist Party? Mr. Ai managed to dodge that bullet, so to speak. He may be a provocateur, but he’s not an idiot.
He was kept in prison for 81 days, a sentence that likely would have been longer if not for intense international pressure on the artist’s behalf. With luck, Mr. Putin is feeling the same heat, and Pussy Riot will similarly benefit from the world’s scrutiny. Then, when they’re free, they might discover that Mr. Ai likes to quote his father, a famous poet who also fell afoul of the authorities: “It’s your country. Don’t be polite.”