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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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."