The three members of the female punk group Pussy Riot set out merely to protest the return to power of President Vladimir Putin. Now, their show trial is threatening to become a turning point in Russian history.
On February 21, 2012, three women in their twenties -- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina -- entered Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, accompanied by several reporters. They crashed into the ambo area, reserved for priests, pulled on brightly colored balaclavas and performed a wild dance for about a minute. Footage of the performance was later used to make a video for the band's song, “Virgin Mary, Chase Away Putin.”
It soon became clear that Putin's government and the Russian Orthodox Church intended to make an example of the band. On March 3, police arrested Tolokonnikova and Alekhina. Samutsevich joined them in jail on March 16. They were charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” an offense carrying a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
The Pussy Riot trial is just the first of three public spectacles currently working their way through the Russian justice system, all apparently meant to warn potential protesters and critics of the regime to keep quiet or face the consequences. The second involves fourteen people arrested for allegedly taking part in a May 6 anti-Putin rally that turned violent when fighting erupted between riot police and demonstrators. The third focuses on anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, who has been charged with defrauding a lumber company in the region of Kirov, where he once served as an unpaid advisor to the governor.
The Navalny case comes amid his battle with Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee, Russia's equivalent of the FBI. Navalny unearthed some embarrassing documents relating to Bastrykin's dealings in the Czech Republic, and Bastrykin -- already famous for threatening to behead a Russian journalist -- publicly ordered his subordinates to prosecute Navalny. The blogger, who says the case is fabricated, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and has been warned not to leave Moscow. So far, he's taking his fate in stride, joking that his aborted vacation has made a new enemy for Bastrykin: Mrs. Navalny.
Government-controlled media have provided extensive and surreal coverage of the Pussy Riot trial. They never quote the song in question, which slams Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church for living in luxury and colluding with Putin. Rather, they stress the moral suffering of the true believers who witnessed the “punk service," as the group described its action. Cathedral employees have appeared at the trial as “victims,” claiming psychological damage from the “sacrilege” the three women committed.
Before the court proceedings began, Mikhail Kuznetsov, a lawyer for one the victims, security guard Vladimir Potankin, said in an interview with the daily Moskovskie Novosti that Pussy Riot's performance and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in the U.S. were both part of a satanic plot against Christianity. “Extremists are trying to break down the 1000-year-old pillars of the Russian Orthodox Church, to provoke a schism, to deceive the flock into following Satan instead of God,” he said.
Impromptu transcripts of the trial, provided by several news sites, read like a Samuel Beckett play. On the first day, the judge asked the trio if they understood the charges leveled against them. They responded by denying that religious hatred had been their motivation. Instead, they said, their performance was an act of art and political protest. “I believe the case to be a political fabrication," Samutsevich stated.
The band members have repeatedly apologized for hurting Orthodox believers' religious feelings and stressed that this had not been their intent. The “victims” mostly rejected the apologies.
“I have suffered moral damage," said altar server Vasily Tsyganyuk. “My soul hurts. This pain will always remain in my heart.”
“Where and how exactly does it hurt?” defense lawyer Violetta Volkova asked. The judge, Marina Syrova, disallowed the question. “Does it hurt you to know that young women, mothers of small children, have spent six months in jail?” Volkova pressed on. This question, too, was struck from the record.
The judge has thrown out about half the questions asked by the defense. When a provocative question was suddenly allowed to stand, a memorably absurd dialogue ensued. “Is 'feminist' a curse word?” Tolokonnikova asked one of the victims, candle seller Lubov Sokologorskaya. “In a church, yes, it is,” the woman replied.
The judge sounded impatient with the accused women and their lawyers, and declared that proceedings would continue all day and all night if necessary. The race to verdict is taking its toll on the band's members, who complain that they are allowed to sleep only two hours a night and then rudely awakened and taken to court long before it opens. Tolokonnikova suffers from migraines, and all three look exhausted as they sit in a glass cage.
The case has caused an international uproar. Amnesty International declared the three women prisoners of conscience. A veritable constellation of cultural figures -- Sting, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Peter Gabriel and about 100 Russian authors, artists and musicians -- has called for their release.
Within Russia, the Pussy Riot case has split the Orthodox church and even Putin's ruling United Russia party. The clergy do not universally share the vindictiveness of Patriarch Kirill, who has called for the women to be punished as enemies of the church. “I think this is a serious mistake by the church fathers,” said Andrei Kurayev, a well-known theologist and Orthodox proselytizer, in an interview with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "In the end, the arrested feminists, and not us, are seen as the victims.”
Kurayev and other priests have stressed the value of forgiveness. An Orthodox cleric writing anonymously in Novaya Gazeta argued that the trio's song was essentially a prayer and so should not be seen as an act of sacrilege.
Putin and other officials in his administration have said that the Pussy Riot case is for the court to decide. Yet the tone of their remarks leaves no doubt as to their preference. If the women are not convicted, said Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, they will be lucky: "They became famous but were not held responsible."
Even within the normally disciplined ruling party, there have been some dissenting voices. Valery Fedotov, head of United Russia in one of the districts of St. Petersburg, Putin's native city, addressed the three women in his LiveJournal blog: “I am fully in favor of your immediate release and return to your children. I am certain that many of my fellow party members are of the same mind... It is just that many are hesitant to say what they think until it is officially sanctioned by the leadership."
Dozens of anti-Putin rallies and hundreds of speeches could not have been more effective than the three punk rockers. With their one-minute performance, Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alekhina have made manifest a split in Russian society -- between those who believe in a freer, more open nation and those who favor a return to traditional, pre-modern Russian values. In July, pollsters from the Levada Center determined that 65 percent of Russians were in favor of the women's immediate release (most of them calling for a mild punishment, such as a fine). Another 26 percent wanted them behind bars.
The court could issue a ruling as early as August 3. Few people doubt that political expediency will weigh heavily on the judge. The harshness – or mildness – of the verdict will set a precedent for the other two possible show trials and, more broadly, for Putin's third term in power.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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