How Russia transformed Pussy Riot into international cause célèbre (+video)

Few people took much note of Russia's Pussy Riot punk band before it was put on trial for blasphemy. Now even Putin supporters are sympathizing with the young women.

By , Correspondent

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    Feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, from left, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alekhina, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Friday, Aug 17.
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The Pussy Riot trial may be over, but the fault lines it has exposed within Russia's educated and politicized elite appear deeper and more irreconcilable than anyone might have thought when the three women were arrested after performing a profane anti-Putin "punk prayer" in Russia's premier Orthodox cathedral last February.

Most people seem to agree that the brief, arguably blasphemous and clearly obscene song performed by the women in a priests-only section of the empty church was of little import and might have passed unnoticed under different circumstances (as had several previous Pussy Riot events). But the larger symbolism of what they did, the tough criminal penalties applied by the Russian court and the outpouring of support for the imprisoned girls in the West and among Russia's beleaguered liberals have become the subject of an intense and growing debate.

For liberals, the trial, with its almost exclusive focus on the hurt feelings of religious believers and the severe two-year sentence meted out for what looks like an intellectual crime – no property was damaged, nobody was hurt – seems to signal an authoritarian turn by the administration of President Vladimir Putin and a wider crackdown on all forms of protest and dissent.

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"Six months ago Pussy Riot, as a radical left-wing group, was scarcely known, not by me or the vast majority," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.

"If the people who framed this case had known that six months later it would be a huge scandal, that celebrities and governments all over the world would be issuing condemnations of Russia over this, they would have been astonished....  It seems clear that the decision to put them on trial was a political calculation – or, as it turns out, a miscalculation – taking into account the presidential elections, the existence of a big street protest movement. If it was a thought-out action, perhaps the idea was to associate these punk rock women in the eyes of the majority with the protesters, to show them as immoral freaks, agents of an alien culture, spoiled brats with nothing to do but provoke trouble and people whose values are contrary to the fundamentals of our culture – and, by extension, smear the whole protest movement," she says.

Some mainstream intellectuals and pundits, such as  pro-Kremlin TV personality Tina Kandelaki, have defended the prosecution of the women for allegedly defiling a church and offending the sensibilities of Russia's Orthodox majority, but also slammed the Russian state for overreacting to a minor provocation. They complain that, as has happened often in the past, the Kremlin chose to wield the sledgehammer of harsh criminal penalties to crush a flea-sized political challenge, thus generating a wave of global sympathy and roiling Russia's intelligensia over the fate of a group of radical "performance artists" who might have remained nobodies without the high-profile trial.

Another is conservative TV pundit Maxim Shevchenko, who last February wrote that "the desecration of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior by the Pussy Riot girls is an open declaration of war on all Russians and their [deepest] beliefs." But following the verdict, Mr. Shevchenko told the Ekho Moskvi radio station that he has rethought his position, sees nothing unusual in the existence of nonconformist punk rockers, and 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."

Experts have argued all along that there was little evidence of an actual crime in the "punk prayer," although the women did violate church rules by entering a priests-only area and mocking Orthodox procedure in their brief performance.

By the end of the trial, it was clear that prosecutors did not have any damning evidence of wider criminal conspiracy or intent on the part of the women, and the final verdict thus leans heavily on the damage allegedly done to the religious sensibilities of Orthodox Russians. The verdict, read out in court last Friday by Judge Marina Syrova, is larded with observations such as the women were dressed in "inappropriate clothes for a church," shouted "blasphemous and sacrilegious words hurtful to believers," and performed in a manner that "insulted the feelings of Orthodox believers."

Why even Putin supporters became outraged

That explicitly ideological judgment, in a country with a strictly secular Constitution, is one factor that has infuriated liberals and given pause even to some educated supporters of Mr. Putin.

Another development that changed minds during the course of the trial was the comportment of the three Pussy Riot women, who proved to be calm, well-educated, historically aware, and  who delivered highly articulate final statements (excerpted here) that seem likely to become part of Russia's enduring literature of dissent.

"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 Ms. Lipman. "They rose to the occasion and came off almost heroically. 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?"

For Russia's traditionalists, whose claim to speak for an offended majority is at least partially borne out by public opinion polls, the loud global reaction to the Pussy Riot verdict is proof that Russia is under attack by forces seeking to undermine its sovereignty and drag it into the Western orbit.

"This was not just a case of exposed hooliganism, but a war of symbols," says Alexander Dugin, a sociology professor at Moscow State University and leader of the conservative and intensely traditionalist International Eurasian Movement, which has been claimed to sometimes have the ear of Putin. "The war was declared against Putin, after he decided to return to power for a third term," last September, he says.

"There are two actors here: the West, and the media it controls, which wants to see a more pro-Western leadership in Russia and not the more conservative, pro-Orthodox Christian values and stronger Russia that is Putin's agenda. Inside Russia, there is a pro-Western liberal elite who are a kind of fifth column. They are the ones who chose to wage this war of symbols, to take this small and insignificant act [by Pussy Riot] and turn it into a dramatic attack on Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church," he adds.

"That one little hooligan act embodies everything liberals want, to expel Putin, implement freedom to mock everything that's sacred to Russians, to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church and bring about total secularization of the state....   Russian liberals hate Russia, they hate Putin, they hate the church, and ordinary Russians. Their only vision is to emulate the West in all things, and it's not surprising that they receive the full support of the West in waging this war.... This is just the beginning. The real battles are ahead of us," Mr. Dugin says.

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