IN LATE 1933, a young writer in Moscow composed a 16-line poem that depicted a cruel and ghastly dictator, Joseph Stalin, with polished boots and thin-necked henchmen. “His thick fingers are bulky and fat like live-baits,” wrote Osip Mandelshtam. “He is forging his rules and decrees like horseshoes — into groins, into foreheads, in eyes, and eyebrows. Every killing for him is a delight. …” The poem led to Mandelshtam’s persecution, and he died in a Soviet prison camp five years later.
His poem, a satirical polemic, is worth recalling in the wake of a decision Friday by a Moscow judge to sentence three women who make up Pussy Riot, a punk rock band, to jail for two years as a punishment for their disrespectful performance art.
In February, the women, dressed in tights, colorful ski masks and short skirts, mounted a platform in front of the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and, with some wild dancing, mimed a short “punk prayer” critical of President Vladimir Putin and his close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. Others recorded a video of their antics. The performance took less than a minute. Later, the group added music and lyrics to a video that went viral, and they were arrested for “hooliganism” and inciting religious hatred.