Every week, I get to express one of the most basic and fundamental rights guaranteed by this country's Bill of Rights. I am allowed to speak my mind and share my opinions openly and without fear of retribution. I have the freedom of speech.
Those three words, "freedom of speech," are so engrained in the American psyche that it is almost like an unofficial slogan. Its existence within the First Amendment has essentially made it the building block of what we consider "The American Way." But what if we didn't have that? What if our right to the freedoms of expression, assembly, and speech were not afforded to us? How would we see ourselves then?
For this question, recent developments in Russia offer an interesting case study. In February, four members of an all-female Russian band (whose name is genitalia-themed) entered a Russian Orthodox Cathedral, knelt, crossed themselves and then performed the first minute of a song entitled "Mother of God, Put Putin Away." The band was removed by guards and arrested. After five months of trials, three members of the band were convicted and sentenced last week to a two-year sentence on the charge of "hooliganism." The band claimed that their actions were a form of political protest, while prosecutors argued instead that the band was deliberately trying to "incite hatred against" the church.
The band's claims of protest are far from unfounded. Putin has long been criticized for not only his position on human rights but also his overly close ties to the Orthodox Church (the Patriarch of Russia went as far as calling Putin a "miracle of God"), two issues that the band members were protesting. The band claimed that the court proceedings were nothing more than a fallback to the Soviet-era show trials. The actions of the Russian government are representative of the lack of freedom in a post-USSR Russian Federation.
If these people had sung at a church in America, would anyone have cared? It probably would have been nothing more than a news story for a couple days, and the band would have probably received some form of light punishment. Eventually, the news media cycle would run on to the next controversy and all would be forgotten. Paul McCartney, Madonna, and Yoko Ono wouldn't have cared about this if it had been at a Methodist Church in Richmond. The expression of this band wouldn't take on the current of a political stand-off, because there wouldn't be one.
Fortunately, and unfortunately, for the band, Russia has violated those rights, thus dampening the image of not only their leader but also their entire judiciary system.
Russia's struggle with human rights isn't a recent development, ever since the Soviet-era police state, freedoms of expression and due process have never been fully granted, with Stalin's paranoia-fueled purges and the treatment (which some would classify as summary execution) of the Chechen terrorist in the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis standing as clear examples. Regardless of Gorbachev's Perestroika and Yeltsin's attempted democratization of Russia, there are still essences of a tyrannical police state looming both unabated and unabashedly.
When I first read about the current situation in Russia, I had to ask myself why I even cared. Obviously,, I felt that this trio of women was treated unfairly, harshly and unconstitutionally, and that their punishment in no way reflects whatever crime they committed. It is more than just that. This band's actions and the repercussions of them serve as a lesson to not only Russians, but also anyone who takes the time to listen. The freedom of speech is a basic, fundamental backbone of our own national ethos, and we don't appreciate it as much as we should. We have the right to express ourselves without fear of reprisal from the government (mind you, no right is universally guaranteed), and that's a powerful and transformative right.
For Russia, this case will probably go down in a long list of controversial decisions and actions made by the Russian Federation since its inception in the early 90s. It will merely become a footnote in a story, one that hopefully leads further down the path of true freedoms in Russia. Its influence is greater than just that. It is the physical manifestation of expression. People today wouldn't be talking about the human rights issues in Russia if it wasn't because of this band.
And without this band, today, I wouldn't fully appreciate my ability to defend them.
— Preston Peeden is a senior in history. He can be reached at email@example.com.