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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.

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Tina Kandelaki, a popular TV personality who has usually been reliably pro-Putin, penned a bitter blog arguing that Russian authorities are repeating past mistakes by using harsh criminal penalties to punish a minor and largely symbolic challenge.

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"The Russian authorities have a nearly unparalleled knack for being unable to show properly what they do well, while letting examples of what they do badly be blown completely out of proportion – to the extent that not only the whole of Russia, but the entire world starts paying attention," Ms. Kandelaki wrote.
 "Pussy Riot may have no talent whatsoever, but the Russian authorities possess the exceptional talent of making something from nothing. No one else could have managed to create Russia’s most popular band at a time when the country is terribly short of heroes. Be assured that there are Western producers falling all over themselves to help promote the group. The 'Pussy Riot behind Bars' show is broadcast all over the world now, and the world isn’t willing to miss a tiny bit of it," she added.

Putin himself, answering questions from journalists in mid-trial, suggested the women should not be punished "too harshly" – a possible acknowledgement that the Pussy Riot prosecution was generating more damage than the Kremlin had expected. And on Saturday a leading Orthodox cleric insisted that revenge on behalf of the church was not a motive behind the trial.

"The church has been sometimes accused of not forgiving them," Tikhon Shevkunov, who heads Moscow's Sretensky Monastery, and is reputedly Putin's own spiritual counselor, told journalists. "We did forgive them from the very start. But such actions should be cut short by society and authorities."

The three women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were picked up outside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior last Feb. 21, after entering a priests-only section of the church and performing a 40-second "punk prayer" that called on the Virgin Mary to expel Putin. Police initially just took down their names and let them go, probably because the church was largely empty at the time, no one was hurt, no property damaged, and the women had left voluntarily when asked to do so.

The women claim their song was a political protest targeting Orthodox Patriarch Kirill who, in the midst of an election campaign, publicly described Putin as "a miracle of God," thus allegedly violating Russia's strictly secular constitution (Article 14).

 The lyrics of their song (English translation here) might well be seen as offensive on many levels, but do appear mainly directed at the moving political targets of Putin and Kirill.

Prosecutors, and in the end the court, saw things otherwise. They chose to view it as a conspiratorial "hate crime" motivated by anti-Christian loathing and directed at Russian Orthodox believers.

The verdict against the women reads in part: "The Pussy Riot singers colluded under unestablished circumstances, for the purpose of offensively violating public peace in a sign of flagrant disrespect for citizens.... 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," it said.

According to court testimony, the church was almost empty at the time. But the Pussy Riot performance, filmed by a cameraperson, subsequently went viral on YouTube, and it was only after about two weeks – and, most experts believe, as a result of political intervention – that the women were rearrested and the stage was set for a controversy that shows every sign of enduring.

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