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Pussy Riot sentence: How did it play in Russia?

The Pussy Riot punk band's harsh sentence drew swift Western condemnation. More important for Putin will be how it influences the views of Russians, especially the elite.

By Correspondent / August 18, 2012



Moscow

One day after three young members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a penal colony for profaning a Russian Orthodox altar, the controversy over what they did and how the Russian state reacted to it shows every sign of growing.

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A judge said three women of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot were blasphemers and sentenced them to two years in prison on Friday for staging a protest against President Vladimir Putin in a Russian Orthodox church.

There seems little doubt that the trial and the harsh sentences handed down to the women will worsen the image of Russia in the West, and particularly the credibility of Vladimir Putin, who has just completed the first 100 days of his third term as president. Many governments, including the United States, have condemned the sentence as disproportionate, and celebrities from Paul McCartney to Madonna have weighed in with their support for the group.

But international opinion can often have a negative impact in Russia. How the trial and its outcome have affected Russian public opinion may play a much bigger role in coming months, as the anti-Putin protest movement returns to the streets after a summer hiatus and the political season begins anew.

Public opinion has remained rather staunchly anti-Pussy Riot since the women were arrested in March. The latest poll, released last week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, shows little change.

According to the survey, 55 percent of Russians did not have their views of the judicial system altered by the trial; 9 percent said it diminished their trust in courts while 5 percent said it increased it, and 12 percent said they have no faith in the courts to begin with. About 36 percent thought the verdict would be based on the facts of the case; 18 percent thought the verdict would be dictated "from the top." Interestingly, when asked what they thought the punk band's goal was in staging the protest, about 30 percent of respondents said it was "against the church and its role in politics"; 13 percent thought it was "against Putin" and 36 percent said they could not discern the purpose.

More worrisome, from the Kremlin's point of view, is the effect the trial has had on Russia's more educated and influential social strata. Of course the usual suspects – opposition leaders, artists, liberal intellectuals – have popped up to protest the treatment of the women, who were kept almost six months in pretrial detention and now face more than a year in the harsh conditions of a Russian penal colony.

But unease over a prosecution that carries such obvious political and religious overtones appears to be spreading far beyond Russia's small liberal and opposition circles.

Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, a longtime member of Putin's inner circle who was fired by then-President Dmitry Medvedev last year, wrote on his website that the verdict deals "yet another blow to the court system and citizens' trust in it.... The country's image and its attractiveness in the eyes of investors have suffered an enormous damage," he wrote.

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