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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.