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Killing Stray Dogs and Beating Pussy Riot: Just a Glimpse of Putin's Ugly Politics

The Winter Olympics gave Russia a chance to show its disdain for animals as well as dissent.

 |  Feb 24th 2014  |   3 Contributions


By now, you have probably seen or at least heard about the video showing Russian Cossacks attacking members of the band Pussy Riot with whips and tear gas. It's a memorable, horrible scene, and it speaks volumes about the kind of place Vladimir Putin's Russia is. If the point hadn't been made for us before, the image of security officers brutalizing unarmed young women will burn it into the public consciousness.

The 2014 Winter Olympics were supposed to attract international investment and tourism to Russia, to demonstrate the nation's ability to function as a modern power in the 21st century. Instead, the Olympic Games have turned the world's eyes on all of Russia's greatest shortcomings. The attack on Pussy Riot is a harsh confirmation of what many have been thinking: Putin's Russia is little different than previous eras of totalitarian, updated to include pepper spray and tasers. But some things never go out of style: The whips used by the Cossacks this week are a part of Russian history. Their ancestors, mounted on horseback, favored the very same weapon to beat starving peasants who might question the legitimacy of their rulers.

Already, I know that people are asking what this has to do with dogs. Even if the name "Pussy Riot" is meant to evoke a bunch of overly aggressive felines (it's not), this site is all about dogs, not cats, and certainly not feminist punk bands.

Except that I've spent the past several weeks cruising Google News for stories about the Russian extermination campaign against the stray dogs of Sochi and writing about it. I've found occasional relief through the stories of Russian nationals such as Vlada Provotorova and Igor Ayrapetyan, who have selflessly worked to rescue dogs from Sochi. There has also been some relief because of kindhearted international visitors taking dogs home. But any way you cut it, looking through such stories is a grim way to spend your days.

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Stray Dog Sleeping On the Street by Shutterstock.

Although it might not seem like it at first, the distance between dead dogs and whipping musicians is not a great one.

The American news media has loved reporting on the story about the stray dogs of Sochi not only because it tugs at the heartstrings, but because at first glance, it's a very nonpolitical story. It seems as controversial as casting a production of Old Yeller on the shores of the Black Sea, and most outlets have reported it with the heavy servings of sentiment and treacle appropriate to that.

But look even the slightest bit beyond the surface, and the story of the Sochi dogs is very political.

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The construction of the stadium in Sochi, and other venues, meant that many citizens were driven from their homes. Martynova Anna / Shutterstock.com

As I noted the first time I wrote about the extermination campaign, the fact that those dogs are on the streets in the first place is itself political. While most cities have strays, one of the reasons that Sochi has so many is because human families were displaced to make room for the Olympics. When building the huge venues to hold the events and the training grounds, families that lived in houses with yards were forced from their homes into apartments. The construction was expedited by something called Law 301, which allowed private buildings to be seized and demolished to prepare for the Winter Olympics.

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times spoke to Nina Toromonyan, a 63-year-old resident of Sochi. Riot police threw her and 12 members of her family out of their three-story house at gunpoint in preparation for a new highway. The highway, in fact, had already been built and passed two miles away from the house. Police did not seize the houses on either side of hers.

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Singulyarra / Shutterstock.com

Those who have lost their homes to Law 301 received compensation, but by all reports, it has been minimal. Most have been forced to move into smaller apartments. It's a struggle for families such as Nina Tormonyan's to find space for themselves, never mind their dogs. According to the Los Angeles Times, Tormonyan still comes to the vacant lot where her house once stood to feed her dogs and cats, who continue to hang around the area.

The single phrase that came to symbolize the extermination campaign in Sochi was the description of strays as "biological trash." That turned out to be the soundbite that spoke to everyone in a universal language.

The problem with soundbites, though, is that they often function without context. And within the context of Russian politics, that sentiment was not so surprising. After forcing old people and families onto the street at gunpoint, should we have expected the Russian authorities to value the lives of dogs as worth anything more than trash? Perhaps the real surprise was that they were so open and honest about it.

Dogster exists because the lives of dogs and humans have become so intertwined with each other over thousands of years. Sochi presents an excellent example of how close our lives can be. It is very, very easy to draw a line from Law 301 to the extermination of stray dogs to the beating of Pussy Riot. One follows logically from the other.

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Pussy Riot fights against attacking cossacks.

Despite all the hype and good press about how the Olympics are about excellence, sportsmanship, and competition, most of us know that that's nonsense. First and foremost, they have always been about money. Russia reportedly spent $50 billion on the Olympics, the most ever spent. It's starting to look like a failure of massive proportions.

Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch summarized the problem for NBC: "Putin wants the world to celebrate Russia: Russia's modernizations, Russia's wealth, Russia's achievements. They want to show off. They want the prestige associated with the games. But prestige always comes with responsibility, and it seems that responsibility is actually something that the Kremlin does not want."

If you want to describe the connection between killing stray dogs and beating musicians with whips, you could hardly do better than to read those words again.

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