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By John Helmer, Moscow

It happened at the same time in February, when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was rehearsing members of the Pussy Riot group, recording voice-over of a script against then presidential candidate Vladimir Putin , and fabricating a performance in Christ the Saviour Cathedral for which two members of the group are serving 2-year prison terms, and one is on probation. The BBC has acknowledged “errors” were made by their Moscow correspondent Steven Rosenberg in his compilations and broadcasts about the incident, the prequels and sequels.

This YouTube version of the February 21 incident has recorded 75,110 views. The BBC rehearsal version, posted on February 20, has so far drawn 84,336 views. An extra English-language version has recorded just 3,132 views. And this is the YouTube clip posted by Pussy Riot itself. The views total 2,364,707.

On February 26, five days after the Cathedral incident but before the arrests of three Pussy Riot members, this version of the Irving Berlin song, “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, was staged across town in Moscow. Berlin (Beilin, b. May 22, 1888, at Tyumen) wrote the song in 1929. This version was filmed on Sparrow Hills, in front of the Moscow State University tower. Here is the original and first posting of the video on the YouTube. The posting indicates that so far there have been 10,558,987 views.

If the YouTube data are correct, the views of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” have outnumbered the Pussy Riot “performance” by 4.2 times. Rebroadcast, remastered and pirated versions of both clips have been posted elsewhere on the internet, which are uncountable. It is also technically possible that with botnet and spamming techniques, the number of views of the links can be inflated. But it is also obvious – a vastly larger number of Russians have wanted to see “Puttin’ on the Ritz” than have felt the same about Pussy Riot.

That’s not the impression which continues to be fostered outside Russia, especially by the Guardian newspaper of London. Ahead of Sunday’s celebration of Russia’s Unity Day holiday, the Guardian editorialized on the continuing importance of Pussy Riot as an indicator of Putin’s state of mind, or loss of it. “Someone in Putin’s inner circle,” the newspaper reports, “sensed an opportunity to turn the tables on a protest movement fired up by rigged parliamentary elections last year. A conflict which had until then pitted the young, urban middle class against an ageing, corrupt and super-rich bureaucracy, was diverted into the challenge of a fringe group against a self-defined moral majority… The conflicts Putin has generated since his re-election – youth versus the orthodox church, liberals versus conservatives, westerners versus nationalists – all stoke the motor of anti-Americanism… Putin’s crackdown has Russia watchers scratching their heads. There are conflicting theories: he is vindictive; he is bored, disengaged and out of touch; he is more insecure than he seems. The last thesis bears scrutiny.”

The call to scrutiny is a two-way street. What apparently doesn’t bear comparable investigation on the part of the London media is how much of the Pussy Riot story is a figment of the self-same media. This is just as evident at Private Eye, the London fortnightly of investigative journalism, which is a constant critic of the Guardian’s record for truth-telling, and of the BBC too. As the Eye notes regarding the latest scandal of BBC wrongdoing, and revenge on the part of former employees, “there comes a point in every BBC scandal when the story eventually disappears up its own arse.” That’s to say, the investigative journalists turn on each other.

There’s one tender arse, though, up which no rough investigative reporter is permitted to probe. That’s Private Eye itself, and its editor Ian Hislop. Their part in the promotion of the fictive Pussy Riot story was reported here. That was back in September. Unknown to this investigator at the time was that Hislop was completing work on a BBC programme which was scheduled to be broadcast on October 2. This came in three episodes entitled “Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain.” According to the BBC’s promo, “Ian Hislop asks when and why we British have bottled up or let out our feelings and how this has affected our history.”

Could it have been bottling around his own mouth that had caused Hislop’s silence on the Pussy Riot fabrication of his own, two weeks earlier? Stiffness in another of his joints?

So through telephone and email, Hislop was asked this week to answer these fresh questions: “was Mr Hislop owed a sum of money by the BBC for his participation in that programme? In the aggregate of Mr Hislop’s annual income does the BBC quantum make a larger proportion than Mr Hislop’s salary for directing Private Eye?”

Reply — stiff upper-lip, no words emanating through which.

But there is a parallel story to be uncovered about the “Puttin’ on the Ritz”. According to a semi-anonymous blog posted by “Artyom”, a week after the filming and posting, the song and dance routines had been choreographed by professional dancers, carefully rehearsed, filmed with several takes, and with participants paid by the producers. This account also claims that those involved were told the film had a general political purpose – it was intended, Artyom says, to “persuade people to come to the polls. Not for any particular candidate, but for a [general] reason. They proposed the idea – the young should not sit at home, but go out and go to the polls.”

The source also claims that he spotted something on the film clip he didn’t hear during the performance. This is at the very end of the film, repeated twice on the soundtrack, and lip-synched by the bride. “Just now when watching the video… you can clearly hear the phrase ‘Putin molodets’ [Putin, a great guy!]. I was in on the recording, and while that was going on it was absolutely not heard. And close-up shots of the bride were filmed again separately… And she says exactly that phrase. On the day the guys couldn’t understand why there were so many takes of her.”

Artyom concludes that no lies were told, no deception. Nonetheless, he says the other participants will “be more careful next time…will be smarter.” It isn’t clear what role Artyom played in simulating the flashmob, or what he will do next time. It also isn’t clear what he thinks of the election of Putin.

One additional point about the commercialization of these two little films, with their apparently big political messages: Dmitry Kravtsov, spokesman for the Russian Patent Office, Rospatent, confirms today that an application has been lodged to register the words, “Pussy Riot” as a trademark and rent-charging asset. The application was submitted by Web Bio, a film-making company belonging to the wife of Mark Feigin, one of the lawyers of Pussy Riot. Kravtsov says the application has been rejected.

Yekaterina Samutsevich, the one of the three jailed Pussy Riot members to have been released on probation, has told Kommersant that Feigin’s interest in commercializing the brand-name was not authorized by her, nor by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina. Feigin has responded: “In April, when they were still in prison and no one was interested in the brand, they asked in writing that the brand be registered under the first immediately available firm. This firm was my wife’s film company. When this whole conflict arose between the girls, I, along with Polozov and Volkova [lawyers representing the group], absolutely and permanently refused to have anything to do with this issue.” According to Feigin, Samutsevich has a commercial interest of her own, and that she is in competition for the rights and peripherals with Tolokonnikova’s husband, Pyotr Verzilov. For the time being, the asset is reportedly valued at $1 million.

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