Published on February 24, 2014 | by Matthew Hook


There’s more to Russia than guns, vodka and Putin

Matthew Hook

Matthew points out that Russia is famous for many things, but the same clichés pop up over and over again. [Andy Fyles]

Matthew Hook talks all things Russia and asks why it took a Winter Olympics to get someone to step up for gay rights.

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova are two members of the radical protest punk group Pussy Riot.

After an illegal performance in a Moscow Cathedral of their song Punk Prayer, they were sentenced to a long stint in jail for ‘hooliganism’ and ‘religious hatred.’

It took 21 months for their release, and in that time they became the two most well-known and accessible enemies of Putin’s republic by a long shot.

Their stay in jail involved massive petitions for their release, and a heavily-covered hunger strike from Nadya.

They were released three months short of their two year prison sentence as part of an amnesty from Putin – an attempt to present a big, grinning face to the rest of the world during this year’s Winter Olympics at Sochi.

They’ve since been touring stateside, campaigning for prisoners’ rights in Russia and scoping out the US penal system.

They’ve been on most of the major TV networks and even performed alongside Madonna at an Amnesty International concert in Brooklyn – a move that has put their membership in Pussy Riot into question as other members declare their ties cut.

The pair have nevertheless gone down very well, as a very palatable and very marketable pair of anti-Putin activists.


Their fight is a just one – their enemy very obviously a justified target for criticism and all kinds of mockery, something the girls have proven to be incredibly adept at.

But it seems that while their cause is perfectly on point, they’ve become a new vehicle for something very obvious, but somehow overlooked time and time again.

The US media, and our own, have all of a sudden become ‘Protest Punk’ fanatics; they’ve also turned into big-time gay rights supporters, and even occasional hotel reviewers.

The big news in Sochi is it’s unfinished construction and poor execution.

It’s new name is the ‘Tinder Olympics,’ because we’ve only just discovered that Olympians like to shag quite a lot.

And there is, of course, the embarrassing missing fifth ring at the opening ceremony. You won’t find any Putin apologists here.

There are all kinds of reasons to attack his games – his total control of the world’s largest country, his homophobia, his bizarre topless publicity photos and a longer list than we have time for.

The problem, though, is with our passion for Russia-bashing.

We love a good stereotype; that’s why you’ll find entire video game franchises dedicated to shooting faceless communists with thick, unambiguous Russian accents.

Russians are famous for a lot of things – some incredible music and literature for a start – but there are a few overplayed and fairly tiring clichés that keep popping up time and time again: vodka, caviar, AK47s and, even two decades since the fall of the wall, the Cold War.

We love a good stereotype; that’s why you’ll find entire video game franchises dedicated to shooting faceless communists with thick, unambiguous Russian accents.

In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the enemy isn’t even some historical Soviet threat; it’s contemporary Russians you’re supposed to be gunning down.

But it’s all in good fun, of course.


The Sochi Olympics are no different, even if it is more subtle.

The fifth Olympic ring failed to appear, and we loved it. We loved it because it ridiculed Putin (in actual fact, in Russian coverage it miraculously appeared properly formed after a quick switch to rehearsal footage), and also because it made ‘them’ look silly.

All this attention isn’t just the media reporting events and talking to activists – it is their job to do that – this is a more populist movement.

Chevrolet is running ads during the Olympic coverage featuring gay couples – an impressive stance and a big step for the huge US car maker in showing its support for the gay community.

But it seems odd that it takes a Winter Olympics in Russia to get someone to step up.

They should have done it a long time ago, when their own country was dripping with homophobia, which it still is – marriage equality was a painfully slow victory with plenty of states still holding out.

Is Chevrolet a passionate gay rights campaigner or is their viewing public simply quite keen on poking a stick at ‘those pesky commies?’ Chevrolet, the chat show circuit and much of the public have all jumped on the bandwagon.

Many on the wagon are genuinely passionate about gay rights, free speech, protest punk songs.

But would we all be so supportive if this was happening somewhere else? Maria and Nadya, and Russian campaigners for gay rights, free speech, a functioning democracy and much more, have real things to say and are fighting for a better Russia.

We should be listening because their message is moral, and not because we like to pick fights with the world’s largest scapegoat.


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