Russians fear Pussy Riot trial is just the start

The women who make up the punk group Pussy Riot are being prosecuted for "religious hatred," which many Russians see as the Kremlin's latest tactic for silencing dissent.

By , Correspondent

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    Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (r.), a member of the female punk band 'Pussy Riot,' is escorted by police before a court hearing in Moscow, August 6.
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The Moscow trial of three young punk rockers, known as the Pussy Riot women, is expected to wind up later this week. But the controversies set off by the high-profile prosecution and harsh treatment of the women – whose original crime was a 40-second "punk prayer" in an empty church that damaged no property and harmed no one – are likely to reverberate for months to come, regardless of what verdict is handed down by Moscow's Khamovnichesky District Court. 

The most important question hanging over the trial is why they are being prosecuted for the very serious crime of aiming to incite "religious hatred" – which carries a sentence of two-to-seven years in jail – when the women themselves insist they are baptized Christians who had no intention of offending believers. They insist they were protesting the Orthodox Church's explicit political endorsement of Vladimir Putin, who was still running for president on the night of their Feb. 21 performance. 

The latest person to weigh in on the case is Russia's best-known prisoner, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has now spent almost a decade in prison after being twice convicted, in the same Moscow courtroom, on charges that most observers believe were politically motivated. 

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In a statement posted on his defense lawyer's website, Mr. Khodorkovsky said the Pussy Riot trial is yet another sign that Russia under Vladimir Putin is not a rule-of-law state but a nation where courts obey political dictates, meting out punishment to those who criticize the Kremlin while ignoring the mass corruption and official abuses of those in power. 

"I am very ashamed and hurt," Khodorkovsky wrote. "Not because of these girls – the mistakes of youthful radicalism can be forgiven – but for the state, which is profaning our Russia with its complete and utter lack of conscience… We have been deprived of an honest and independent judiciary, of the opportunity to defend ourselves and to protect people from lawlessness." 

"I don’t know how the girls endure it," he added. 

The three Pussy Riot women were arrested after they voluntarily left the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow following their brief Feb. 21 performance, but police merely took down their names and quickly released them. Legal experts say that's probably how big city cops in almost any country would handle a minor disorder of that sort. 

But two weeks later, after Mr. Putin was elected, police re-arrested the three women, threw them into prison – where they have been held for five months now – and the case against them was developed to show them as "extremists" whose performance was aimed at inflaming religious passions and challenging the foundations of Russia's social order. 

"The decision-making process in Russia is non-transparent, so we can't say exactly why police changed their minds, but it's not hard to guess they were acting on orders from above," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the Moscow pro-business daily Kommersant

"On the part of those who favor severe punishment for the women, there is a feeling that the Pussy Riot action is just the tip of the iceberg. Inside the system, there is a belief that these girls were not acting on their own," Mr. Strokan says. 

"This is not Putin against three girls. This is a signal being sent out to all who challenge Putin," he adds. 

The prosecution's indictment of the women maintains that the Pussy Riot members "inflicted substantial damage to the sacred values of the Christian ministry…infringed upon the sacramental mystery of the Church… [and] humiliated in a blasphemous way the age-old foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church." 

Witnesses for the prosecution have dwelt mainly on how the Pussy Riot performance – which some of them viewed only on YouTube – deeply offended their religious sensibilities. Prosecutors have gone to great lengths to portray the women as alien types who despise Russian culture. When Judge Marina Syrova read investigative materials aloud in court, she stressed items such as the fact that defendant Nadezhda Tolokonnikova dropped out of school, and, when arrested, defendant Yekaterina Samutsevich "had on dirty jeans and dirty shoes [and] didn't have a trace of cosmetics on her face." 

Defense lawyers have complained repeatedly about the judge's summary disqualification of defense witnesses and refusal to entertain the defendants' claim that they were acting out a political protest against Putin and not aiming to incite religious passions. 

"I would like to emphasize the fact that, while at the Cathedral, we did not utter any insulting words towards the church, Christians, and God," writes Ms. Tolokonnikova in an essay posted on the Free Pussy Riot website

"The words we spoke and our entire punk performance aimed to express our disapproval of a specific political event: the patriarch’s support of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who took an authoritarian and antifeminist course. Our performance contained no aggression towards the audience, but only a desperate desire to change the political situation in Russia for the better," she wrote. 

"Our emotions and expressiveness came from that desire. If our passion appeared offensive to any spectators, we are sorry for that. We had no intentions to offend anyone. We wish that those, who cannot understand us, would forgive us. Most of all, we want people to hold no grudges against us." 

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