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.

Fred Weir

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)

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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