Thanks to fans and foes

 

Chilling news out of Russia last

week: Three young women from Pussy

Riot

, an artistic collective, were sentenced to two years in a prison labor

camp last week for performing a brief musical number in the main Russian

Orthodox cathedral in Moscow earlier this year.

This is bad news for all who

believe in freedom of expression and especially bad news for Russia, which has

been becoming more and more of an authoritarian state over the past 15 years or

so.

Their performance, captured for

posterity and edited into a YouTube video that gathered millions of views,

shows the young women performing a mock prayer asking the Virgin Mary to drive President Vladimir Putin out of office. The

demonstration was less than a minute long and was not during a church service.

Nevertheless, the three women

were convicted of a hate crime and sentenced to serve at a brutal work camp,

where prisoners are allowed a day off only if the temperature drops to minus 22

degrees Fahrenheit. Two of the three women have young children.

The blame for the

disproportionate sentence falls squarely on Putin and his close ally, the head

of the Russian Orthodox Church. But the path that led Russia to re-enter a new

era of dictatorship was paved in part by American arrogance and flawed foreign

policy in the 1980s and 1990s.

Presidents George H.W. Bush and

Bill Clinton share responsibility for trying to rebuild post-Soviet Russia with

corrupt Reagan economics, which created a large billionaire oligarch class and

millions upon millions of poor and powerless people. Just like it did in

America, the redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the rich brought

misery to millions.

Putin took power vowing to bring

stability to Russia and to restore its self-image that the infusion of

trickle-down economics damaged so badly. He has succeeded in jailing his

enemies or driving them into exile while gradually assuming control of most of

the media. His elections are rigged. His pursuit of dissidents is relentless.

And anyone who's even casually

studied the history of Russia and the Soviet Union knows how merciless the

state can be in punishing its citizens. Under Communist rule, millions of

political prisoners were sent to brutal gulag camps to die

of starvation or be executed. The estimates range from 2 million to 20 million

dead with an exact figure never to be known.

This truth — documented in

the works of Alexsandr

Solzhenitsyn

and, more recently, in Anne Applebaum's 2004 Pulitzer Prize

winner, Gulag: A History — must

never be forgotten by Russians or Americans.

Russians are quick to brush aside

the history of the genocide committed in their country for reasons of national

pride. And Americans are quick to overlook it because our decades-long war on communism

is largely portrayed in history as a scheme by the military-industrial complex,

Joseph McCarthy and the CIA to frighten citizens and make defense contractors

rich.

We neglect the lessons of history

at our own peril. Russians again are allowing their country to slide into

dictatorship while Americans sit by, as they did when Stalin was murdering

millions, and do nothing.

What this moment should teach us

is that we need to build better ties with Russia so that we can reason with

them as friends before we must deal with them as enemies. The policies of Mitt

Romney call for a return to the tensions of the Cold War and provoking negative

responses from Putin.

And it should also teach us that

freedom of expression is something we should hold close to our hearts and

treasure. Imagine Kanye West being sent to

prison for saying George Bush was a racist or even Rush Limbaugh sent to a prison camp for

any of his anti-American, hate-filled screeds. Our system has made them both

millionaires, while in Russia such things once again earn imprisonment.

We should also not hold double

standards when it comes to freedom of expression. Our pursuit of Julian Assange

and Army Pvt. Bradley Manning for publishing documents through WikiLeaks goes against our desire to set a positive

example for freedom of expression.

Our national tendency to

blacklist people who make controversial statements — from the CEO of

Chik-fil-A to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — also betrays our principles of

freedom of expression. We set up "free speech zones" for protesters. Isn't the

entire country a free-speech zone?

And how objective, exactly, is

our mass media? Having listened to both recently, Fox News sounds a lot like

the Voice of Russia in terms of distorting the truth, presenting a one-sided

viewpoint and urging blind nationalism and intolerance. Fox News viewers

receive an Americanized version of the Russian state media's mission to

downplay certain kinds of news in favor of viewpoints that they find more

agreeable.

Yes, the women of Pussy Riot should

be freed immediately. But we run the risk of hypocrisy if we point to Russia,

or any other country, and accuse them of stifling freedom of speech. We need to

open a more constructive dialog with the Russians while trying to set a better

example here at home.

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