News World

Frank talk from Putin on free speech

David Akin, Parliamentary Bureau Chief
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with Prime Minister Stephen Harper during their meeting at the APEC Summit in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 8, 2012. (Grigory Dukor/Reuters)

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with Prime Minister Stephen Harper during their meeting at the APEC Summit in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 8, 2012. (Grigory Dukor/Reuters)


President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Stephen Harper had a 50-minute closed-door one-on-one meeting here Saturday during which they talked about about trade, Syria, Iran and "gang bangs" in public museums.

You probably want me to explain that last point.

Putin, you may have heard, has been under the gun in his own country and internationally for the jailing of three members of the female punk band Pussy Riot after the trio did a performance of less than a minute in one of Russia's most sacred churches in Moscow.

The song they performed, "Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away", was labelled as "blasphemous" by Kirill I, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The trio was convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" and sentenced to two years in prison though Putin's opponents here in Russia and around the world believe they were jailed not for their blasphemy but for their anti-Putin message.

The sentence brought widespread international condemnation as evidence that there is no such thing as freedom of speech in Russia.

During the one-on-one meeting here Saturday, with a half-a-dozen officials flanking each leader, Harper brought this issue up with Putin, asking him how Canadians could believe that Russians have the right to speak their mind and exercise freedom of speech.

Putin gave Harper a rather remarkable response, according to some of the officials present at the meeting, in which he informed Harper that one of those jailed for their sacrilegious church performance, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, had participated in some performance art which was filmed and posted on the Internet that consisted of Tolokonnikova and others having group sex - Putin actually used the word "gang bang" - at the Timiriazev State Biology Museum in Moscow in 2008. Not only that, Putin told Harper, but Tolokonnikova was pregnant at the time!

This, in the view of Putin and, it must be said, many conservative Russians, was an aggravating factor in Tolokonnikova's conviction for her band's performance in the church.

Putin didn't just talk dirty to Harper. He harped on this "group sex" thing during a live press conference broadcast on Russian television, saying, "They performed group sex in a public place. It was, as they say, their affair; people have the right to do what they like as long as it doesn't break the law, but [doing it] in public, then the authorities should have paid attention to that."

In Putin's view (and, again,in the view of many Russians), banning orgies at a local museum or performance in a church that foment anti-religious hatred are perfectly appropriate limits on free speech.

Other than that, Putin told Harper, everyone in Russia has the right to free speech.

In any event, for those, like me, who do not buy Putin's claim that Russians enjoy the kind of free speech protections Canadians do, there is a concern that Pussy Riot's excesses may have the reverse effect of strengthening Putin's position.

Russian journalist Masha Gessen, who is not a fan of Putin's, conceded as much in a recent interview.

"It's probably true that this group can't do much to broaden the opposition to Putin," Gessen said. "Putin, or at least some of the people around him, are obviously banking on the idea that these women are so shocking to ordinary Russians that the regime can actually benefit by making an example of them."