Supporters of feminist punk band Pussy Riot hold posters reading 'I believe in justice!' outside a court building in Moscow on August 17, 2012. (ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/GettyImages)

Will Pussy Riot Get The Last Laugh?

The prison sentence against the radical feminists chills freedom of speech but the backlash against the verdict might chill Putin as well.

BY Fred Weir

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MOSCOW—Russian summer doldrums were enlivened this year by the high-profile trial of three young women: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. Members of a radical feminist “performance art” collective named Pussy Riot, the three were ultimately sentenced to two years in a penal colony for the “hate crime” of performing in a priests-only section of Moscow's premier Orthodox cathedral an obscenity-laced “punk prayer” that called upon the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Vladimir Putin.

Pussy Riot, formed about a year ago, is a breakaway group from Voina (War), whose politically charged (and sometimes vicious) street theater since 2005 has included actions like throwing live cats over the counter in a Moscow McDonald's restaurant “to break up the drudgery of the workers' daily routine,” and painting a giant penis on the side of a St. Petersburg drawbridge. They've had constant brushes with Russian law enforcement for activities that have sometimes caused genuine property damage, including the 2011 destruction of a police vehicle with a Molotov cocktail—which the group titled “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

But the Russian government had mostly treated them as a nuisance, and it had never before risked the exposure of a big public trial. Nor did Pussy Riot's early performances, including an impromptu anti-Putin “concert” in Red Square in January, earn them more than brief detentions. Indeed, when the three women were escorted out of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior last February 21 after performing their 40-second “punk prayer” in the nearly empty church, police initially let them go.

But something in Russia is changing. Politics had been fraught and uncertain ever since Putin announced last September that he was shouldering aside his anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and returning to the Kremlin for an unprecedented third presidential term. In December, the biggest public protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union broke out in Moscow and other major cities over alleged mass fraud in elections to the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

And earlier this year an unprecedented scandal broke out over the lavish lifestyle of Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, whom bloggers claimed owned, among other things, a $30,000 Breguet watch. Kirill publicly denied that, and a photo of him wearing the timepiece on an official Orthodox website was airbrushed to remove it; a reflection of the watch, however, remained on the polished oak table Kirill's arm was resting upon, and the retouched photo went viral. Amid all this, and in the heat of the presidential election campaign, Russian media reported that Kirill had publicly embraced candidate Putin, describing him as “a miracle from God”—despite the fact that Article 14 of the country's Constitution stipulates that “the Russian Federation is a secular state,” and precludes any overt political activity by the Church.

Small wonder that Pussy Riot's brief song, whose lyrics were clearly obscene and might have been blasphemous but were also an explicit indictment of the political collusion between Putin and Kirill, appear to have hit more than one raw nerve at the summit of Russian power. A video produced with footage from the church performance got thousands of hits on YouTube in subsequent days. After Putin's election in early March the three women were re-arrested and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” a very serious charge that carries a potential sentence of up to seven years' imprisonment. The case was purportedly initiated by a complaint from the Moscow Patriarchate, but the Church subsequently denied any involvement.

No one knows exactly who ordered the women to be arrested and tried, or why. But most experts say the go-ahead had to have come from the Kremlin. The calculation may have been that Pussy Riot looked like the ideal test case for a much wider crackdown on the protest movement that was to come. The women were radical feminists, outspoken supporters of gay rights, some of whom had a history of taking part in outlandish public performance art—including a 2008 sex orgy staged in a Moscow museum—who had openly mocked the Orthodox faith in the country's premier cathedral. Public opinion, which shifted very little during the trial, showed that more than 50 percent of Russians believed their sentence was fair.

“On the part of those who favor severe punishment for the women, there is a feeling that the Pussy Riot action was just the tip of the iceberg, part of a broader conspiracy to overthrow Putin through all kinds of protests,” says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant. “Inside the system, there is a belief that these girls were not acting on their own. … This is not Putin against three girls. This is a signal being sent out to all who challenge Putin.”

But as the trial developed, and wound its way toward the inevitable tough, prison-sentence verdict, some unexpected things happened.

One was that prosecutors, despite possessing all of Pussy Riot's computers and having had five months to prepare their case—during which the three women remained in prison—failed to find any evidence of wider criminal conspiracy or intent. Hence the trial focused almost exclusively on the hurt feelings of Orthodox believers, and many of the “witnesses” who testified had only seen the Pussy Riot performance on YouTube. The judge consistently refused to hear the women's argument that their performance was a political protest, and the final verdict is couched almost entirely in religious terms.

“The Pussy Riot singers colluded under unestablished circumstances, for the purpose of offensively violating public peace in a sign of flagrant disrespect for citizens,” it reads in part. “The women were motivated by religious enmity and hatred, and acted provocatively and in an insulting manner inside a religious building in the presence of a large number of believers.”

Though public opinion remained solidly against Pussy Riot, the educated segments of society became increasingly restive as the trial progressed, and even some reliable Putin supporters turned against a verdict that imposed harsh criminal penalties for what was essentially a religious offense. One conservative TV pundit, who initially supported the prosecution, told the Ekho Moskvi radio station after the verdict that he had rethought his position and now saw nothing unusual in the existence of nonconformist punk rockers. He blasted the Russian government for “forcing upon us the idea that all Russians accept this verdict against these young women (that was based on) nothing more than their behavior inside the church. … For such a crime it would be quite enough (to satisfy offended Orthodox believers) if they were sentenced to clean out the church grounds.”

The Kremlin may also have been blindsided by the wave of international criticism, not just from the usual suspects like Amnesty International, but from dozens of musical celebrities such as Sting, Madonna and Sir Paul McCartney. During mid-trial, Putin opined to journalists that the women should not be punished “too harshly,” a possible acknowledgement that the Pussy Riot prosecution was generating more damage than expected.

But most of all it was probably the comportment of the three Pussy Riot women, who proved to be calm, well-educated, historically aware and who delivered highly articulate closing statements that were politically and philosophically sophisticated, that came as a shock to almost everybody.

“It may have been expected by prosecutors that these young girls would break down in court, and reveal themselves to be spoiled, whining creatures—and by extension discredit the whole protest movement—but that emphatically did not happen,” says Maria Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's quarterly journal Pro et Contra.

“They rose to the occasion and came off almost heroically,” Lipman says. “Against the backdrop of that degrading court procedure, with its medieval language, these girls proved themselves to be logical, sane, and composed. They were the ones speaking in rational, modern language, and with their quiet courage they demonstrated moral superiority over the court as well. Six months ago, who would have thought it?”

It remains to be seen what impact the trial will have on Russia's political landscape, as a new political season opens and the opposition returns to the streets after a summer hiatus. But the Pussy Riot affair has clearly demonstrated both the dangers facing those who protest openly against Putin, and the unexpected blowback that its attempts at repression can bring down on the Kremlin.

Fred Weir is a Moscow correspondent for In These Times and regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, the London Independent, Canadian Press and the South China Morning Post. He is the co-author of Revolution from Above: The Demise of the Soviet System.

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